Yoga in Action: inner listening

To listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by what you hear. 

This morning I listened to Tara Brach speak about active listening. Like, really listening. Listening is a real skill that requires effort.

Oftentimes we have to teach ourselves how to be listeners, how to be active participants in conversation. In the podcast, she talked about ways in which we avoid active listening: our propensity to multi-task while we are in telephone conversations, our tendency to try and shape the way that someone views us while we converse with them (rather than actually listening to them), and the need to develop skills of listening, which can eventually impact our deeper meditation practices.

This meditation application eventually becomes an act of inner listening, though it often begins with acts of outer listening. There are some meditation schools which encourage that you note the environmental sounds around you as you sit. There are some forms of meditation which encourage concentration on a sound or chant. Sometimes in the beginning stages of our meditation journey, even awareness of our thoughts can feel like outer listening as well. I have been inclined to think "who is that person thinking those thoughts?" a time or two in my own sitting work. In the yoga realm, we typically begin our practices by following the instruction of a teacher through outward listening.   

And then through time and regular effort, listening for sounds/thoughts/instructions outside of ourselves can be replaced by inner listening. Listening to our own thoughts for instinctual feelings and habit patterns of the mind, and listening to our bodies for signs of our overall health, clues about injuries/disease and effectiveness of our practices. Inner listening is how we can know us. By taking time to get quiet, go inward and tune in to us, we can better understand ourselves and what we want, what makes us happy, what our true expectations are for not only us, but others. Sometimes through listening, we hear things that are unpleasant. But then we have the opportunity to work with those challenges rather than avoiding them. 

Sometimes through this inner awareness, we begin to move toward silencing. Not necessarily silence as the goal, but pleasant quieting, softening of the typical clamor of the mind. 

In her amazing Bringing Yoga to Life, Donna Farhi notes:

Just as the impressions left by the constant stream of thoughts and sensations tend to propel more of the same, the impressions left through participation with the silent substrate of consciousness generates a flow of itself. Silence begins to flow through us as our fundamental state of being. This is as it as always been. Nothing new has been created; we simply have cleared a pathway through which this silence can flow and regenerate itself.
— Bringing Yoga to Life (p.72–73)

So, how can we move from being a so-so listener, to an active listener to inner listener? 

spending quiet time in the woods is a great way to listen

spending quiet time in the woods is a great way to listen

One of the main ways to become a more active listening with others is to be present. I regularly find myself planning my day or my dinner or just generally caught up in my own thoughts when I'm talking with someone else. I think it happens to all of us. But it doesn't feel that great to me. When several moments into my distracted thoughts I re-emerge, I always feel a little like a jerk. Like my brain was telling me that another being is less interesting to it than my own being.

This is just a point of awareness. If you can first create awareness around presence in conversations with others, you can begin to work toward greater and greater presence generally.

Through deepening awareness moment-to-moment in our daily lives, we can create ease around the same work, the same desire for presence when we're on our mats or cushion. It will be easier for us to be active listeners of ourselves, to be inner listeners, if we're willing to be present with what we hear. And if we're willing to really hear what the inner teacher is offering, then we are more likely to make positive change. Or at the very least, to be open to the possibility.

Yoga in Action: abhyasa, diligent practice

Daily practice is challenging. Especially if you aren't comfortable with a home practice, have a long commute to and from work, have a regular work-week, have children, etc. Carving out the time to get on the mat and get on the cushion may not fall high on the list of priorities. I feel really grateful to have established my yoga practice at a time when I didn't have a lot of responsibilities and I could make yoga and meditation a daily priority. It just stuck and now it's in there for keeps. 

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

The good thing about coming to practice regularly is that you end up practicing through the ups and downs of life. When you are rooted in a regular routine of morning meditation or evening asana you can't help but do it even when things are really bad, or when things are really good. When I think back over the past decade of my practice, I think of practicing through break-ups, through moves, practicing on vacation, making it to the mat in India, practicing through health issues. And a great thing about the versatility of a yoga practice is that you can always practice something, no matter your state of mind, state of body.

Some days I seriously don't feel like it. And not always, but sometimes, those are the most fruitful days of my practice. 

Now I know that some of you are probably thinking that I obviously practice every day because yoga is my job and that's what I do and so I have to. But it isn't that simple. I think about my personal practice, my personal spiritual quest as somewhat separate from my teaching. I incorporate a lot of my findings into my classes for sure and my training is usually translated right into my teaching. But, my time on my mat and my morning meditation is mine. It's work that I do for me, it's work that I do to actualize my potential, it's work that I do to fulfill my dharma. Being anchored in regular practice is the key for me to living in the middle ground.

In the Yoga Sutras the sanskrit term for diligent, continuous practice is abhyasa. (The following translations and explanations are taken or adapted from Nicolai Bachmann's The Yoga Sutras. It's a great resource with a workbook, flashcards and several cds explaining the philosophical concepts. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of yoga philosophy)

There are several sutras which explore the concept of abhyasa

The most commonly cited is sutra 1.12:

abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah
The stilling of the vrtti-s (mind-chatter) is due to diligent practice and vairagya or unattached awareness. 

Sutra 1.13 goes on to further explain abhyasa:

tatra sthitau yatno 'bhyasah
Diligent practice is the effort put forth to maintain a point of focus. 
Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Nicholai goes on to list the qualities of a yoga practice that represent abhyasa. They are effort of focusing on a point, over a long period of time, uninterrupted, with sincerity and firmly grounded. The following sutra 1.14 suggests that abhyasa becomes firmly established when pursued with eagerness, sincerity and continuity for a long time. 

Whether it's good news or bad news, there is opportunity to practice yoga all day every day, even when you're not on the mat. The work of the yamas and niyamas is never ending and can be put into action with every interaction with another person, in your daily routine and each time you find yourself aware of your thoughts. 

Mr. Iyengar (R.I.P.) translates abhyasa as practice and about the everyday work of yoga he says:

"I have said that the cure for our inherent flaws lies in sustained practice of the eight petals of yoga (here, understood as the eight limbs). Knowledge of yoga is no substitute for practice. Since the difficulties lie within ourselves, so do the solutions." —Light on Life (pg 94)

And so, we must practice. The more often we confront our difficulties, the more likely we can create solutions to them. If you find yourself struggling to commit to regularity on the mat or the meditation cushion, what can you do to encourage yourself to get there? How can you make greater lasting changes by incorporating your yoga work with regularity?

Awakening to spirituality

I was raised in a faith, 12 years of school in that faith, all the sacraments, all the Sundays at church. And I can see the benefit for my parents to follow this framework. It was what their parents did, it was how they were raised and it made sense to them to continue in the same way. Well, as commonly happens, around the time I was 16, I started to question the faith and why I had so many disagreements with their approach. I eventually denounced my faith, spent a lot of time pondering, experiencing agnosticism and at times even bordered on atheism. I was really turned off by organized religion and felt that I had to make it very clear, very loudly, that I was no longer a practicing member.

on a blanket in the sun? yes, please.

on a blanket in the sun? yes, please.

It took me nearly a decade to come to the realization that I can be a spiritual person without any religious affiliation. For so many years, I just couldn't separate the idea of divinity/spirituality from that of the rules and dogma present in most of the world's religions. It actually came as quite a relief to discover that I wanted to feel spiritually connected to something and to be able to recognize it as a joyous moment when it occurs. For my whole life, I've felt really deeply moved by classical music. But I didn't ever see it as a divine experience until I could create separation. The same is true of natural beauty. The joy that I experience in the quiet of nature is almost unsurpassed. I now feel a genuine, at times even physical pull toward this depth of feeling.

I was talking to my sweet little sister Laura this weekend and she asked me if yoga was a religion. I think this is a great question. And one that I'm surprised I don't hear more often. There are a lot of aspects of yoga practice that seem well, religious. Chanting at the beginning of class seems a lot like praying, mala beads seem a lot like a rosary, many studios have statues of the Buddha or Hindu deities, there is a whole body of philosophy that goes along with a physical discipline. And I can say from my own experience that it took me several years of asana practice alone before I was even remotely interested in the spirituality/philosophy piece. I think this is one of the brilliant things about a yoga practice—there is always the potential for more depth, more knowledge, more study. And not in a one-dimensional way, in so many ways—physically, mentally, emotionally and spirituality. But everyone must allow this to play out in their own time. I think we become ready to learn the deeper aspects when we're truly ready to be open to them.

A walk in the woods can deeply connect one to the divine.

A walk in the woods can deeply connect one to the divine.

So, what's the answer? Is yoga a religion?

Yoga is a science. 

The ancient yogis developed yoga practices as tools for enlightenment. Open up the energy channels in the body through asana and pranayama, create vibration and additional energy through chanting and devotional practices and then meditate in a cave in India for 15 years.

Tada! Enlightenment. 

While this level of devotion isn't super practical for most of us in the modern world, we can certainly benefit from these ancient practices in much the same way. Through our asana work, we cultivate sensitivity to our bodies and minds, we begin to tune-in, to awaken essentially. And on a spiritual level, when we are moved by beauty in the world, we can recognize it for what it is.

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't had a spiritual experience, but many people are uninterested or unwilling to view it in those terms. I think that each time we are moved by beauty, joy, contentment, even sadness; these all have potential for spiritual awareness. Of course some experiences are more intense than others and one can certainly have feelings without it being a divine encounter. But when we feel really deeply about something, when we are really open to the experience of depth, the potential for spiritual connection is present. As with anything, it takes practice to see these experiences for what they are. But with a bit of effort and self-reflection, any one of us can find ourselves on a spiritual journey. 

Yoga in Action: Loving You First

Perhaps it's self-imposed, but I commonly sense that other people think of my yoga practice, or yoga practice in general, as very selfish. And to a point, it sort of is. It's certainly self-involved; I would even argue that yoga is the study of the self, it takes up large chunks of time, and typically your practice isn't really a group thing. Sure, you go to class and see your friends and fellow practitioners, but ultimately you're there to dig into you. And then hopefully, you can take that work out into the world. (That seems to be a message in every single one of my posts, huh?)

In one of my favorite books on yoga, Awake in the World, author Michael Stone puts it this way:

Yoga reawakens ones connection with the whole body and mind and in so doing restores pathways of communication at an inner level that then begin to spread out into the interpersonal world as well. When we are safe in our own bodies, we have a ground from which to step out into the world. (p. 155)

And I wonder, how else are you going to get to know yourself? To really begin to understand the inner workings of the mind, you have to go deep. You gotta really go inward and get really quiet and listen, listen, listen, and do that again and again and again. And then you might, just maybe, possibly catch the tiniest glimpse into your true nature. Your capital S Self, if you will.

Okay, that's all well and good, but take caution. You come to know yourself through svadhyaya or self-study, but hopefully we can use that self-awareness to be part of the greater whole. We get into trouble when we think of ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity.

Again, Michael Stone:

We are not in any way separate from anything else. Ocean cliffs get hammered by the wind, falling rain is eventually pulled back into cloud, and the ego is always traumatized by the flux of life. When we are stuck in the framework of a "me" and a "world out there" or a "me" in a body in a world, we alienate our "selves" from the world. Self apart from the world is a mere abstraction because we are not inherently separate from anything. (p.23)
Makin' myself the Number One love.

Makin' myself the Number One love.

Alright, so we've got a few things going on. Through the practice of yoga, we study ourselves and become aware of our habitual patterns of thought, our reactionary tendencies, and the intense hold of our ego on our own minds. Then, (probably many years later) once you are armed with your Self-knowledge, you can start to break down the barriers of the mind which see the self as separate from the rest of humanity. Everyone has the same (to borrow a term from sanskrit scholar Nicolai Bachman) inner light of awareness and ultimately we're all just trying to be happy. Or perhaps more importantly, we're trying to have santosha (contentment). 

Which brings me to my point, the reason I'm writing this post.

Only you can make you happy. When we rely on other people (spouses, children, boyfriends, friends) to create our happiness, we run into trouble. It might work for a bit. We can certainly feel joy and love in the presence of others, but to rely on that feeling, to need the presence of another person to feel it sets us up for future pain. Because then when things change, as they inevitably will (the world and all its creatures are in a constant state of flux) suffering results. 

When we can take refuge and root into ourselves, while we will evolve and change in time, we are present for that change. If you can be comfortable with all your quirks, if you can accept your humanity, if you can love you, you'll have the foundation for a life of contentment. Which is not to say that there won't be suffering, but when it occurs, you will be both your anchor and your guiding light to joy again.

Okay great! Let's do it, right? Well, how?

Like pretty much all the posts on this blog, it's easier said than done! If it was so easy to love ourselves, there wouldn't be nearly the heartache and pain and struggle that exists in the world. But I know it's possible! We have to practice acceptance. We have to be as kind to ourselves as we would to another being. We have to offer ourselves compassion for our failures and missteps. We have to acknowledge our shortcomings and try to be better. Put your lovin' kindness into you first. If you can be happy and content, you'll project that action out into the world.

What are some of your ideas? How do you practice self love?

Cultivating the Opposite

Last night, I had dinner with my Grams who's 91 years old. She is fortunate to still be completely sound of mind and fully capable mentally, spiritually and emotionally. She looks to many sources for her spiritual growth and guidance included the Catholic church (she's big on JC), Judge Judy and Deepak Chopra. She reads every book that she can get her hands on that centers around positive thought. She does the work for herself first. But she also wants you to do the work too. For yourself. Last night, the plan was to manifest me a husband through a writing exercise from a book called Write it Down, Make it Happen. For her, every opportunity for practicing positivity and impeccable speech (from The Four Agreements) is worthwhile for improving her life and the lives of those around her.

Gramma Jamma

Gramma Jamma

In our chat, we were discussing the inevitable "mind loop" that occurs when something bad happens. More specifically when someone does you wrong. We can't help but go over and over the same damn scenario in a million different ways to try and figure out what went wrong, what we could have done differently, what the other person should have done, what we would say to them if we saw them today, etc.

What we both recognize is that these thought processes are a waste of time. Maybe not at first while you're hashing out your feelings and gaining clarity into the full-scope of the situation. But eventually, once it becomes obsessive and we begin to grip and grasp it for all that it's got, it's time to change tactics.

The Yoga Sutras offers an absolutely precise and clear solution to the problem of the "mind loop."

2.33 vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam
When difficult thoughts restrict us, we can cultivate opposite ones.

Okay. Easy enough, yeah?

Well....maybe not the easiest. I think this is a practice that you work your way up to. The first step to retraining the mind is to be aware

I try to remind my yoga students that the initial stages of yoga are really about creating body and mind awareness in a new way. We have to first create new neural pathways to see things and then see things as they truly are so that we can approach them with clarity and insight. In yoga asana you have to recognize the body's defects and differences from one side to the next and where you are stuck and where you are too open and how your body moves. In that way you can approach physical practice safely and for your specific bodily needs.

In meditation and matters of the mind, you first become aware of the frequent thought patterns that you're prone to, the mind loops that you tend to get in, and when and how often you find yourself thinking negatively. If you kept a tally throughout a single day of all the times you had a negative thought, how many would it be? 5 or 500? If you were aware of an excessive amount of negative thoughts, would you want to change it?

Armed with your new-found self-awareness, you can (hopefully) see the areas which need attention.

just cultivating the opposite over here.

just cultivating the opposite over here.

For me, it pretty much always comes back to the mind-junk. The mind loops of 'what if' and 'why didn't I' and 'how could I have' etc. My work is to cultivate the opposite. What did I do right? In what ways did I display integrity in the face of challenges? Was I able to act with kindness and compassion, even though I probably didn't want to?

When things don't go my way, my work is to first change my perspective and hopefully through that effort begin to plant new seeds (remember that work?) for positive thoughts.

And like anything else in life, the more often you practice, the more it becomes easily accessible. If you can cultivate the opposite one difficult thought at a time, eventually it will become a part of your routine.

Holding Yourself Accountable

In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges in our day-to-day lives is holding ourselves accountable. It's pretty easy to talk a big game about ways that we are going to improve ourselves, how we are going to be better, resolutions, etc. but in truth it's really really challenging to actually follow through. I don't think that anyone wants to over-eat, watch TV all night and not be physically fit, but it can be easier to let yourself off the hook than to actually do the work.

If you have made the decision to live yogically, you pretty much have no choice but to hold yourself accountable. A big part of the day-to-day work is the discipline that it takes to get yourself to your mat and cushion on the regs. The more often you can make it there and do the work, the more you will build tapas, one of the components of kriya yoga. Through practicing again and again, we build tapas which is an internal heat. Essentially you "stoke" the fire within which hopefully keeps you coming back to practice again and again. 

If you are not a regular practitioner of yoga, it is still important to hold yourself accountable for things that you say you are going to do. How many times a day or a week do we say we are going to do something and do exactly the opposite or a half-assed job? It's hard to put forth the effort that is required to achieve our goals and aspirations. There is no question about that in my mind. But the more often you plan to do something and don't actually take the steps to follow through on it, the more challenging it will be the next time for you to keep your promise to yourself.

You know darn well that you have to come back up.

You know darn well that you have to come back up.

And then, there is the issue of holding yourself accountable for things you promise to other people. Be it your spouse, your children, someone you just started dating, or your yoga students, it is absolutely integral to honoring your own inner light of awareness to actually do the things that you say. For instance, with your yoga students, are you expecting them to attend 3 to 4 classes a week but not practicing regularly yourself? Are you telling your children or your spouse that you're going to make more time for them and then filling in that timeslot with other less important life events? When we say one thing and do another, we set a precedent for others to follow our lead. By actually remaining true to our word, we are establishing a foundation in truth. This good example will hopefully lead to continued true behavior.

If you are reading this and you think that I am talking to you specifically, I am not. But it seems that way, right? It's because we all do this. We all make greater promises and than we can keep. So, how can we do better?

For one, I think we need to lessen our expectations of ourselves. Not that we need to dream smaller or aspire less, but we need to make more realistic goals that have actually achievable outcomes. We also need to not get down on ourselves for minor deviations from the path. Shit occasionally goes awry and it's our job to recognize when we've strayed and come back to the straight and narrow.

For another, we need to just follow through.  Most especially when it's challenging and we don't want to, that's the time that we need to put on the heat and make ourselves act. This way the next time will be much less difficult.

We also need to celebrate when we do accomplish what we set out to achieve. However small, if you plan an action and make it happen, it is worth your while to recognize your work.

See if you can begin on a small scale. Follow through on several small projects/ideas and take note of how it feels. And then build from there. Happy practice!

Giving it Up to the Universe

When we were little, our dad always told us that we had to give up all of our goals to the universe. You can really really really want something, but you have to hand it off to the cosmos to take care of. In other words, you have to let the vice grip of your yearning heart and mind relax. You have to soften and settle around your goal. After you've set your intention, it's no longer in your control. It's under the control of the universe.

I go in and out of remembering the work that my dad gave us as children. He always had some project or energy-focused activity for us to increase our positive output into the world. This idea of letting go of intentions and offering them up to a higher power has just surfaced back into my consciousness.

I just finished How Yoga Works by Gesne Michael Roach. It's a fictional story which outlines the Tibetan tradition of yoga and how it came to India centuries ago. The technical lingo is a bit challenging at times in the book, but the takeaway is essentially simple. In the book, the work of the characters is to "plant good seeds." First they learn the physical practice of yoga to open up their energy channels and then they remove negative energy from the channels by sending out good vibes to the universe for all the people that they know. And from there, their work is to always act in a manner that will "plant good seeds" for growing future good things. They essentially learn how to be good people by never lying, keeping themselves and their surroundings clean, wanting happiness for others, thinking before they speak, etc.

And so, by planting good seeds, you set the groundwork for good things to happen for you. Which means that when bad things happen, that you planted the negative seed at some point earlier in your life. It's a little bit like the Americanized notion of karma, but what it really boils down to is that you are completely responsible for making your own future outcomes. And if you want them to be good ones, you better plant the sweetest, most fertile seeds.

gabriellehopp_plant-good-seeds.jpg

I have been thinking about this work so much lately. What can I do to plant better seeds? How can I have intentions and goals that I can just offer up to the universe? Can I plant enough good seeds in my life that I can let go of attachment to future outcomes and know that I've done the work to make my dreams come true?

I'd like to think that I manifested my biggest life goal earlier this year. I had spent years and years wanting nothing more than to be a full-time yoga teacher. I thought about it constantly. I schemed plenty of crazy ideas for how to do it. But it just wasn't happening. I was still slogging along, waiting tables to pay rent so that I could teach yoga on the side. I certainly wasn't happy with the arrangement, but I didn't know how to change it.

At some point last year, I sort of stopped worrying about it so much. I inadvertently forgot to grip so hard on being a yoga teacher. I got pretty comfortable with waiting tables so that I could teach yoga. I settled in to the reality of my situation and tried to make the best of it.

And then.....

Seemingly out of the blue, I was offered a gig. It involved moving back to my hometown. I was skeptical. I had finally settled into my life as it was, you know?

I mulled it over for a long time. I talked to everyone who I love and trust for their opinions. I weighed the pros and cons. And I accepted.

Originally, it was just another part time situation, but in an established studio. But as time unfolded prior to my moving back, the job became even better. It became full time. The thing that I wanted more than anything. It just happened. But did it just happen? Was it my previous work that allowed it to come to fruition?

And just for the record, it's the total best. It is literally my dream job. I am living out my dreams. And now, onto the next manifestation....

Yoga in Action: Always Integrity

Always integrity. Always self-respect.

One of my most challenging challenges over the past several years has been how to rectify being a spiritually minded yogi in the modern world. The modern world seems to be to be constantly throwing obstacles to practice at me. Traffic is a bitch. People are stressed out so tension is always running high. My smart phone is always around beckoning me to look at cat pictures.

Sometimes it feels like you can't catch a break. It's one asshole after another; honking their horn, cutting in line, saying hurtful things....

But damn if it doesn't supply some serious fodder for practice. Lately I have been especially challenged by personal interactions. It seems as though the universe has something to tell me, or some lesson to teach me. Dealing with people is hard. It is up to us to interpret the actions of others and respond appropriately. When we can approach this interpretation from a place of self-love, self-respect and total integrity, that's when we are practicing yoga off the mat.

Sometimes, we or the other person perceives something about our actions which we either didn't intend or they misinterpreted. This is common. Human interactions are constantly unclear or confusing and as a result, you have developed your own communication style to combat general weirdness.

It's hard not to take things that someone else says or actions that they perform personally. Yet, it's very rare that someone else is acting a certain way because of something that you did or said. Taking these things personally is a quick path to suffering. Most people are doing what they do out of personal experience and their own way that they've developed to deal with the world and other humans.

gabriellehopp_always-integrity.jpg

It would be so easy to go through life reacting instantaneously to everything that happens. Most people do this. Someone wrongs you, you wrong them back. Retribution and eye-for-an-eye are really common ways of approaching conflict.

But, what if instead, you were able to step slightly back from the situation and assess. How would responding in an unkind way aid the situation? Would you be acting yogically if you responded negatively?

The most difficult work of yoga happens off the mat. Getting on your mat and opening up your body is a joy. And even when it's hard it usually feels good. On the contrary, acting with integrity in the face of negativity is almost always hard.

To practice, here's what I propose:

When someone else wrongs you, apologize. When someone says unkind things to you, offer them compassion. Maybe you have to go home and sit on your meditation cushion and force yourself to bring that person into your heart and LOVE them. I mean it, love them! Offer them compassion. And act as the yoga sutras suggest.

Yoga Sutra 1.33 says:

maitrī karuṇā mudito ‘pekṣāṇāṁ sukha duḥkha puṇyā ‘puṇya viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaś citta prasādanaṁ
A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous and impartiality towards wrong-doers. (Translated by Ravi Ravindra in The Wisdom of Patanjalis Yoga Sutras)

One of the main reasons that I practice is to cultivate peace of mind. And I truly find that the path of integrity and self-respect is the clearest route to serenity.

Yoga as a Useful Tool

You guys know that feeling when you very first like someone and it feels like the world is moving super fast and super slow at the exact same time? It sort of makes you into a crazy person. And it definitely affects the ability of the body to function. In the extremes sleeping and eating even become impossible.

Okay, this might be me right now. My brain is a swarm of bees. My heart is running at top speed.

So, what to do with all this mind chatter and pukey feelings? Why, turn it into a yoga lesson, of course!

It is totally astounding to me to see how easily my body and brain just absolutely fall apart on something like this. My nervous system is totally haywire. After a certain point of years of yoga practice, you think that you can exert some control over your body and mind. But damn, if it isn't really really hard.

But, guess what? You probably already know what I'm going to say, right?

This yoga shit works! Seriously.

Guess when I've been able to actually calm down and relax my jack-hammering heart? Guess when I have been able to remove myself (very slightly) from the tumult that used to be a relatively calm mind? Yoga class, of course. And it's not instantaneous. It's not. It takes about half of class. And that is half of class of seriously focusing on my breath and my breath alone. And it's taken years and years of cultivation of yoga skills to even get to this point.

It takes every fiber of my being investing in a state of calm. But I can do it. And that's the important thing.

A decade of practice may seem like a lot, but it's a drop in the bucket. No worthwhile lasting change can come quickly. This ability to calm oneself down through yoga is usually years and years and hours and hours of practice in the making. It means getting on the mat and sitting down on the cushion even when (especially when) you don't feel like it.

So, how does it work? How can yoga be a useful tool and not just a way to exercise?

The Nervous System (does not lie)

The Nervous System (does not lie)

Take a look at the right side of this chart. I was (am) literally experiencing all of those symptoms. My sympathetic nervous system is in a tizzy. It's like a textbook example. It literally is a textbook example.

The work of yoga is to tap into the parasympathetic system—you can see it on the chart! When you practice well, the heart rate slows. The breath slows. You are less affected by external stimuli.

When you consistently come to practice, you learn to use your parasympathetic system. When the asana work is challenging, you teach yourself to slow your breath down. You teach yourself to get out of your mind and experience fully the body and breath. You respond to the bodily stimulation by encouraging it to chill out.

This is what I want yoga to be for everyone. When I teach, I try to approach it as scientifically as possible, with complete emphasis on breath. Breath as the gateway between body and mind. Breath as the tool that sets yoga apart from other disciplines. Breath as the switch for the parasympathetic nervous system. We need more calm and peace in this world.

Calm of body, soft of breath, quiet of mind.

And in this way, I like to think that yoga can be a most useful tool. So that you can inhabit the beautiful container that is your body, breathe with ease, and fill your mind with peace.

This is me on sympathetic nervous system.

This is me on sympathetic nervous system.

What is Yoga?

I currently have the privilege of teaching yoga to individuals in recovery from drugs and alcohol. They are awesome. They are also a special sort of yogi. Basically they are starting their lives over. Starting fresh. They have this amazing opportunity to begin life again with a clean slate.

Isn't it great to be alive?

Isn't it great to be alive?

And because they're in recovery and working through all the shit that got them there in the first place, they are particularly open. They are looking for something real and sustainable to help them maintain their sobriety and lead fulfilling lives. At least that's what I'm hoping...

So, I sort of see it as my job to provide that real and fulfilling activity. One of the aims of yoga is to open your eyes to what is real. To the reality of the universe, of yourself, of life. Most of us as humans lead our lives as if in a trance oblivious to the wonders of being alive. It's so easy to get bogged down in the mire of day to day crud. If you constantly keep yourself busy with to-do lists, it's easy to avoid examining the reality of being alive.

I am currently reading Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope which is a vast tome of yogic and psychology knowledge. It's packed to the brim with philosophical gems like this one:

"If you want to experience the joyous ecstasy that life offers, there is one commitment that is absolutely fundamental: the commitment to live in the moment. With that commitment as your guiding focus, whatever you do in your daily life is part of your
transformational process. Your commitment to the living in the moment becomes your vehicle for spiritual growth." (p. 113)

And another:

"The goal of the reality project is not to disengage from the phenomenal world, but to turn to embrace it more and more deeply—to discover its hidden depths. And in order to do that, paradoxically, we do not reject the vicissitudes of the embodied life. We do not reject suffering. Rather we turn and go through the doorway of suffering. We turn to embrace our neuroses, our conflicts, our difficult bodies and minds and we let them be the bridge to a fuller life. Our task is not to free ourselves from the world, but to fully embrace the world--to embrace the real." (p 115) 

So. My challenge with these new yogis who are newly sober and eager to embrace reality (maybe?) is to give them a well-rounded experience of yoga. A bit of asana, some breathe work, some meditation, some philosophy and even some yoga nidra. In an hour. Twice a week. How can I fully convey to these people the great depth of what it is I'm teaching? How can I offer them something that awakens them to reality? And the potential for the practice to create real and lasting change within them? What is yoga to these people? What is yoga?

Is this yoga?

Is this yoga?

Yesterday we were ending class with baddha konasana before savasana. One or two of them was complaining of the stretch. I told them to think about leading with their sternum as though they could lay their heart center down onto their feet. Well, they thought that was pretty hilarious. And one of them asked if that was the goal. 

Now, I probably could have just said that "yes, putting the head to the ground and the heart on the feet was the goal of the pose" and left it at that. But no. No! I owe to these people in flux to give them something more.

Here's what I offered:

Me: If the goal of yoga was to be flexible, then any gymnast could come in and automatically be good at it. 

Student: But that's not the case?

Me: No. 

Student: Really?

Me: Really. The goal of yoga is not to be flexible. What good is that going to serve you in your life? The reason that we do a practice on the mat is to learn to deal with difficulty. We purposefully put ourselves into challenging postures to see how well we can continue to breathe and be present. So that when shit comes up for you in difficult times, you have some tools for knowing how to be present and how to deal when life is challenging. If you can stay in the moment and be clear about what's going on in the mind, then you are doing yoga.

It was simple. It was a 2 minute little philosophy lesson. It made me feel so alive and present in myself that I was instantly filled with joy. I don't know what they think about it now or if they have even thought of it since. But in that moment, I was exactly the sort of teacher that I want to be.

Going In

If I were to make a guess, I would say that this post will get about 7 reads, whereas my posts about asana are read by dozens. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Namely the current craze of yoga as a workout and a purely physical activity to enhance the sculpt of your abs. We as Americans are constantly trying to better ourselves not through reflection or introspection, but rather by weighing less and looking more beautiful on the outside.

I think it stinks a little, but also it's very much cultural. With the constant distraction of smartphones, money, bigger and better "stuff" it's no wonder that we aren't particularly capable of "going in" and doing internal work. Why is that? Because it's hard.

chakra system, very much "in"

chakra system, very much "in"

It's a heck of a lot harder to sit down and watch your breath than it is to go to a yoga class with rockin music where you are constantly moving and doing. In other words, modern yoga is commonly just another distraction for our already "monkey" minds.

The process of going inward is outlined in the last 4 limbs of the 8-limbed yogic path. The first of those limbs is pratyahara which is the "turning-inward" of the senses. It's essentially the process of quieting the mind by turning off your awareness of that which is outside of you and moving toward awareness of what is happening on the inside. From here, your work moves into concentration meditation (dharana), meditation without a point of focus (dhyana), and finally samadhi which is full absorption into your current task at hand.

So, what to do?

The work of coming regularly to your meditation cushion to quiet the senses takes a mature and sophisticated student. This person has to be willing to sit still, be quiet and examine the nature of their own mind. This is scary business at times. Part of living on the surface and not delving too deeply into the depth of the mind has to do with our notions of keeping ourselves safe. If we can just cling to tangible "real" physical things and keep our mind preoccupied with those, then we don't have to go deeply inside and see the shit that makes up our minds. Sometimes what's in there is crummy and needs some tending to, which can be painful.

Me, going in.

Me, going in.

Now, don't get me wrong. I do the physical practice of yoga on an almost daily basis. I am firmly committed to keeping my body healthy and well as I age. But, at the same time, I use my daily practice as a way to examine myself. I watch my breath. I watch the whirls of my mind. I watch the sensations happening in the body. I pay attention to me much as a scientist would. Constantly observing and at  the same time, constantly trying to stay present with what is.

If you are someone who is not ready to commit to a regular meditation practice, all is not lost. There are ways to be reflective and introspective without a daily practice (though, the work is much more satisfying if you can make it every day!). For more accessible internal work, try just noticing when you experience something truly joyous or beautiful. Observe the sensations in your body/mind that arise as a result. Observe the thoughts that come up and whether you cling to the "goodness" or whether you can let it all go.

You could also journal 5 good things and 5 difficult things that happened to you each day. Reflect upon why you consider them good/bad and how you reacted to each of the experiences. That work should take you about 5 minutes before you go to sleep.

If even that is too challenging, next time you're in the car or riding the bus, do the same sort of work but just mentally. Scan the events of your day and notice how you categorize them (good/bad) and why. Did you react as per usual, or did you experience a new type of reaction?

The more you can tune in to the inner-workings of the mind, the closer you will be to understanding your choices and decisions along this path of life.

Yoga in Action: Being True to Yourself

So, I've been teaching for 3 years now. Not too much time, admittedly, but enough time to have a decent grasp of my own style and what works well for students and what works less well. As someone who has to promote myself as a small business, as well as continue a personal practice, I am constantly looking for ways to improve myself as a teacher and student and bring in more people.

To expand my skill-set and business acumen, I tend to look to yoga studios/teachers who are successful. What do they offer that brings so many people in? What is it that yoga practitioners are looking for in a teacher, studio, class format, etc.?

And I have to say that it's impossible to collect this type of information and not allow it to inform your own personal methods. When you take someone's class, it's only natural that you learn something new and begin to transmit that information in your own way.

I have been moving around the world for the past 5 or so years. I have studied with some incredible teachers all around the world. Here are some of my biggest influences over the past years:

Theresa Murphy, Omaha, NE

Lucie Konikova in Prague, Czech Republic

Ben Vincent in MPLS

Laurel Van Matre in MPLS

Rod Stryker of Para Yoga in Boulder, CO

Ganesh Mohan of Svastha Yoga in Chennai, India

This is an eclectic bunch of individuals with many different styles and approaches. I love being open to all different types of styles and being able to incorporate them into my own teaching. Theresa Murphy, my biggest yoga influence calls herself a "cross-pollinator" implying that she gets her information from multiple sources. I can't help but be the same way. When there are so many traditions and methods out there, why would you not experience as many of them as possible?

It is very challenging for me not to get mired down in the yoga pop culture muck. And the notion that one particular way/method is the only way is very prevalent in Western yoga culture. If you want people to buy your brand, you have to promote it as the brand.

What I have recently realized is that through my knowledge-seeking, I have strayed from teaching in my own very personal way. I have lost track of teaching in a way that is completely true to me. Not that I have not been teaching well or am disappointed with myself, but I have been learning so much really new material and trying to rectify it with my own personal style. And, I came to realize that it isn't really working. Part of the challenge of being a good teacher is transmitting the knowledge you obtain in a way that is clear and meaningful for your students. And you can't really do that if you're teaching in another teacher's style/way. For me, the most important thing is to be completely true to myself.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be open to the vast expanse of knowledge that is out there. And I wouldn't trade my experience/studies for anything else.  But it became clear to me that I've been trying to share information without first making it my own.Armed with this revelatory knowledge, not to mention yogic information, I forge on.

This is me.   

This is me.

 

There is so much to learn on this path.

Yoga in Action: Your Inner Light of Awareness

Over the course of my recent study, I keep coming across a "buzz-phrase" that really pleases me. It is: your inner light of awareness. It refers to the you who you really are. At your core. Not your job or your life experience or how anyone else perceives you. It is simply and basically you. The you who you are now and have always been. Not who you strive to be, or who you have been.

It's beautiful, right? 

Your inner light of awareness.

like this, but on the inside!

like this, but on the inside!

Another way of thinking about this is as your dharma. My main sanskrit guy Nicholai Bachman defines dharma as "the underlying substance that does not fundamentally change but simply appears differently over time." (The Yoga Sutras Workbook, pg 56) In Indian culture, dharma is like the law or the fundamentals of the way things are. If you think of this in terms of yourself, your dharma is the fundamental structure of you that does not change.

I was pretty caught up in trying to understand dharma for awhile, because I was confusing it with dharmic purpose. This is a concept that my father hammered into our brains all throughout our childhoods/college/continuing today. Your dharmic purpose is the thing that you were put on this earth to do. The thing that you can provide to humankind that no one else can. Your dharma is more like your essence. It's what makes you, well, you!

For a couple of years recently, I was desperate to figure out what it was that I was put here to do. I thought it was something that if I meditated on it and thought about enough, that it would come to me in a big shocking epiphany!

I discussed it with my teachers, my friends and my partner. I thought about it in the car and on the cushion. I need answers, damnit!

I've given up the quest for a solid answer to the "what is my dharmic purpose" question. It's not that I don't want to know. I really really want to know. I still think about it a lot. It's just that I don't really think I need to know now.

 If I really needed to know now, wouldn't I know?

Over time, I have been able to loosen the hold that it has on me. Letting go of the thinking that "if I can just discover my dharmic purpose, then everything will fall into place!" My focus now is cultivating santosha (contentment) with what currently is.

Santosha with my very own inner light of awareness. To be content is something we could all strive for a little more. To be content with who we are, at our very essence.

Can you connect with your inner light of awareness? 

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.

gabriellehopp-india1.jpg

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.

Antarayas: Obstacles to Practice

I think that a good first post for the new year is one in which I explain some reasons that it can be so hard to practice. Despite all your good intentions of making it to the mat everyday, meditating 3 times a week or just trying to be more present as you go through life, there are some legitimate hurdles which can stand in your way.

In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali (the codifier of the sutras) outlines nine antaraya(s) (obstacles) to regular practice (sutra 1.30). These are basically ideas your mind comes up with to avoid practice. The mind likes its current state—as it can direct you and your actions with its incessant thoughts. Why would the mind want you to practice regularly and thus gain some control over its behavior? It wouldn't. So here's what it comes up with:

The 9 Antaraya(s)

  1. Vyadhi (disease or illness) 
    In most cases, this is a legitimate reason not to practice. Practice can be physically painful or mentally difficult if you have some illness or incessant pain. If this is your current barrier to practice, go back to bed and vow to return to regularity when your health has improved. 
     
  2. Styana (apathy, dullness)
    This obstacle may arise if you begin to have doubts about your progress, don't see immediate benefits from practicing or momentarily don't care about the positivity which practice can provide. Styana is a mental state, but can also be present physically if you are feeling heavy and dull. In order to overcome this obstacle, you can do a small scan of the benefit of practicing, to remind yourself of why you do it, or you can get up and practice asana to increase your tapas. Tapas (fire) will increase with each practice and encourage you to continue to do so.
     
  3. Samsaya (self-doubt, lack of confidence)
    This state of being can happen to the best of us, though some are better at overcoming it than others. A state of doubt about your ability, being, or place in the world can cause this antaraya to flare up. One way to overcome it could be to make a list of the things you are good at or the ways in which you personally improve the world. Another possibility could be to do a metta meditation in which you offer deep compassion to yourself. Here is a metta meditation which I recommend: Metta  
     
  4. Pramada (unclear thinking, intoxication)
    This type of mind-state can occur literally from being intoxicated, or possibly by being intoxicated with a very strong emotion, such as fear or anger. When you are in this frame of mind, it can be incredibly difficult to step back and assess the situation to act appropriately. One possible way to overcome it is to make sure that each time a state of unclear thinking pops up for you, you step back and take 5 deep breaths before reacting. Simple and possibly very effective. 
     
  5. Alasya (fatigue, feeling tired)
    Happens to the best of us. If it's a persistent feeling, you may consider your sleeping and eating habits and whether or not they are conducive to healthy living. I for one used to be consistently tired until I cut meat out of my diet. Not that it's the answer for everyone, but happened to work well for me. If you want to practice, but can't seem to muster up the energy, you may consider a yoga nidra (yogic sleep) which is a practice of deep deep relaxation. If this appeals to you, find a recorded copy so that you can be completely focused on your practice. 
     
  6. Avirati (sensory preoccupations) 
    This whirls of the mind are often sensory or sexually focused. These thoughts can be difficult to overcome once they arise. The best you can do is to try and bring your mind back to your task at hand. Reward yourself for any progress made.
     
  7. Bhranti-darsana (erroneous seeing) 
    This type of obstacle is present when you think that there is only one way of viewing the world, which just so happens to be your way. Or thinking that you are always right or the way that you do things is the penultimate way to do them. It's difficult to accept that other approaches can be equally effective. This type of thinking is present in fundamentalist religions, certain school systems and in political thought. One way to overcome this obstacle could be to practice seeing another point of view. Each time a situation occurs in which you feel uncomfortable or offended by someone else's actions, take a moment to try and view it from their perspective. Assess the possibilities for why they acted the way that they did. This isn't fool-proof and may sometimes be mysterious to you, but by and large this is a very powerful practice to accepting the inter-connectedness of humanity. 
     
  8. Alabdhabhumikatva (not being grounded) 
    In order to progress healthily and sensibly, you must establish a solid foundation of understanding at each level before moving on. In this obstacle, you are attempting to understand or practice something for which you are not ready. It can be very tempting to try advanced level practices of asana, pranayama or meditation, but in some cases can be dangerous. It might be at too high of a level for you to grasp or incomprehensible due to a lack of pertinent knowledge. To overcome this antaraya, make sure that your practices are appropriate and grounded before moving on. 
     
  9. Anavasthitatva (instability)
    This state is related to the previous one. This barrier to practice occurs when you do progress to the next level, but are unable to maintain it as a practice and fall back to the previous level. To overcome this obstacle, you must practice patience and perseverance. It is also helpful to think that this happens to everyone practicing and that all of those individuals picked up the pieces and continued on.

So, I hope this post was somewhat enlightening on how difficult it can be to maintain a regular practice and also offered some common sense practices for continuing. I must say that this post was largely inspired by the work of Nicholai Bachman and his translation of the Yoga Sutras. Without this, I never would have been so insightful on the antarayas.

Ganesha

Ganesha

Lastly, I want to say that Ganesh the Hindu god is the "remover of obstacles". One general way to overcome any troubles in life is to chant a mantra to Ganesh. My favorite is om gam ganapataye namaha.

Om on! Happy practice in 2013.

Yoga in Action: Giving Thanks

Here comes the trite holiday post.

Actually, I quite like holidays. You get to eat as much as you want. Drink as much as you want. Hang out with your family (luckily, mine happens to be awesome, though I know that's not always the case), play cards, have awkward conversations and probably go see a really good movie.

What I don't like about holidays is that they try to force you to feel something. Now, I can easily border on the cynical side of things when it comes to "crap that is mass-marketed to the American people." I don't like that we have a day to tell someone how much we love them, or a day to be really nice to our mom, or even a day to celebrate our freedom. Shouldn't we be doing those things every day?

I think it's easy to get caught up in middle-class white kid problems. At least for me, as a middle-class white kid. We are easily led to feel that the world is crashing down around us if we have to wait in line for 10 minutes, get into a minor car accident, don't have a boyfriend/girlfriend, our computer crashes, etc. With little regard for the way a lot of people live (in poverty, in slums, hungry, oppressed) we can get completely caught up in our overly dramatic tales of woe.

Through a regular practice of yoga, we can begin to develop an appreciation for life and the things that we take for granted. I talked about this a lot in my last post. You can read it here:

Everyday Yoga

In my opinion, we should be thankful for our blessings every single day of the year. One way to put this into action is to list 5 things that you're grateful for as you are falling asleep. It's pretty easy. They don't have to be profound. They don't even have to be big things.

Here's 5 off the top of my head: running water, organic vegetables, family, 3-legged cats, Austin, TX.

3-legged cat!

3-legged cat!

And as I think of the things on my list for which I am grateful, I try to feel, just for a moment, how I connect with those things in my day-to-day life. And maybe how my life would be different without them. A teeny tiny practice which can bring you back to the bounty of life.

Everyday Yoga

You know when you go to class and your teacher says things like, "yoga is a way of life" or "your practice does not end after class" etc.? Here are some of my ideas about that.

The practice of yoga asana is totally like a gateway drug. You get hooked on the performance of physical postures, the deep expansion/contraction of the breath you feel in class, and the incredible sense of clarity and serenity that you feel when you're done. Right?

So you keep going back. And you get stronger and more flexible and your body feels better, which frees up some space for your mind to feel better. And pretty soon all you can think about is yoga poses and how to "improve your yoga game" and maybe even entertain the idea of doing a teacher training, cause it feels so good.

This is a beautiful process—one that I myself went through many years ago, and continue to go through each time I go to class.

But here is the best part.

Yoga does start to extend past class. It starts to work it's way into your daily life. Maybe you begin to feel compelled to spend more time quietly. Or to go outside and romp around more often.

Wild rosemary in the sun. Looking good

Wild rosemary in the sun. Looking good

You might start to notice life more intensely. Small surprises like a flower blooming or the sight of a colorful bird may bring you joy. Laughing and talking with loved ones suddenly feels precious in a way that it never had before. You may even take less things for granted; you may even begin to appreciate all of your opportunities and gifts in a new way.

Maybe over time you become a little less interested in yoga asana. Perhaps time you once devoted to handstand and lotus becomes time you devote to sitting quietly and following the breath. Maybe a walk in the woods or along the beach is your new yoga practice. Possibly you practice by mindfully preparing a meal, listening to your favorite music, or riding your bicycle.

Or maybe you aren't there yet and the joy of working through postures and going to class is still one of progress for you. And so you continue.

gabriellehopp-zen.jpg

And perhaps over time you begin to notice a different kind of practice emerging and unfolding. And if it does, your new challenge is to embrace the present moment of your life.

***It somehow didn't occur to me until several hours later, but I must have subconsciously taken this title from Charlotte Joko Beck's book "Everyday Zen." Just want to give props where props are due. 

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.

Yoga in Action: Love in Your Heart

I am living with someone who has a very different life perspective than me. He's a super sweet guy—generous, friendly and interested. He also happened to end a very serious relationship recently. I thought he and I could commiserate in a similar way. Turns out it's not so easy.

Through my steady practice and work on the meditation cushion, I am able to see my breakup as something that happened. Not something that happened to me but as something that occurs when two people are no longer together. We had an amazing relationship. And I still love him because I loved him for 5 years, so why would that suddenly change?

Contrarily, this person is deeply full of hate. He feels extremely angry, bitter, resentful toward his ex-girlfriend and eager to move on. He goes on dates. He tries to make his ex jealous.

Now, I am aware enough to recognize that his actions are a result of suffering. A pretty typical human response to your own suffering is to try and make others suffer so that you'll feel better. The sanskrit word for suffering is dukkha. The pain and anguish of dukkha are the result of the first of the 5 kleshas (hindrances), avidya (ignorance). Suffering is caused by not having all of the information. By thinking that what you perceive as your reality is the reality.

There are many ways to combat the suffering that is the human experience. Practicing yoga allows you to understand your true nature. It brings to light that everything and everyone is interconnected. That suffering does not begin and end with you, and that when you feel deep painful emotions that there is a way out.

Through practicing yoga, we can begin to bring love into our hearts. Even if bad things have happened to us, even if we feel nothing but pain and sorrow, yoga offers us the possibility to lift dukkha and replace it gradually with sukkha (ease). That yoga offers us the possibility that we may move through the world on a foundation of love and ease is enough for me to get on my mat day after day.

Breaking the Karmic Cycle

The ancient yogis believe that through our lifetime(s) we play out a continuous cycle of action and the deep impressions that come from that action. In this way we relive similar scenarios of our lives over and over again. These actions (karmas) and impressions (samskaras) are so deeply rooted in our heart/mind center of consciousness (citta) that they come with us even as we reincarnate. The only way to break the cycle from continuing in the same way in thousands of different scenarios is to recognize that the patterns exist. And then to do a bunch of work by meditating and changing the flow of your energy (prana) so that you may form a healthier approach to the pattern.

This is heady stuff. And know that the above paragraph is very much "pop" yogic philosophy. But it's just a tiny introduction to get you familiar with the idea of:

We act (karma)→ an impression is formed (samskara)→we act again (karma)

gabriellehopp-karma.jpg

With the second round of our action, we have the choice to act even more from a point of a deeply rooted pattern or to recognize our tendencies and change the course of our action.

Here is a real life example:

I am someone who moves quite frequently. Every couple of years, I pack up all my stuff and forge a new life. Each time I move, I become more independent of my old self, develop new ideas from meeting new people and having new experiences, and discover more and more that I am the only person who can make myself happy. Okay, all well and good.

So, every couple of years, before I move, I come back to my hometown and re-assess. Or, the point would be to re-assess, but what plays out instead is a classic karma/samskara loop. It doesn't matter one bit how much work I've done on myself in my last city, how clear it was becoming to me that I am the center of my own happiness, how healthy I have been eating, none of it matters.

I get home and I start the loop. Go out too often, drink too much, butt-heads with my mom, put off visiting my grandmas, have the impression that someone else is going to be the thing that makes me happy. Over and over. It's like an embarrassing broken record.

And why?

These patterns are down in there deep. The first step to breaking from the norm of your karmic cycle is to recognize that it exists. You have to begin to notice yourself playing out the same situations in a variety of settings.

Examples could be

  1. Your emotional reactions to certain stimuli (are they always the same rise to anger or instant sadness or extreme joy?)
  2. Avoidance of, or head on confrontation to conflict (do you react the same way every time you have a head-to-head?)
  3. Your habits whether they be bad or good (why do you continuously bite your nails or insist on an orderly household or take the same route to work every day?)

It's all about discovering why it is that we do the things we do.

And then maybe you can sit back and watch as, like clockwork, you get back on the same old horse and do it all over again. And perhaps, after you do that fifty or a hundred times, it may become clear that a change is necessary. Changing a habit pattern or a pattern of action is step two. A pretty simple way to approach this step is to try giving up a habit pattern that you know is not in your best interest. And when you find yourself doing it, take a moment of contemplation and try to understand why your habit pattern is getting the best of you. And then maybe you can decide whether or not the habit pattern should continue.

The point is that we have the capability to make changes. But we have to recognize that the process of uncovering our patterns and changing them effectively takes a fair amount of work. And I personally believe that it's worth it.

Next time I go back to my hometown, I can assess all over again.