Paying Attention

I love my practice on the mat, because it's TRAINING for paying attention. Because I spend so much time quietly exploring and investigating, it makes my interactions with the world that much more interesting. The SUBTLE aspects of life, the quiet things, the small things are fascinating and I find, totally worth my while.

I also think that this ability to PAY ATTENTION and openly investigate makes me a better friend, sister, partner, and person in life. The more I pay attention to my habitual patterns and frequent reactions on-the-mat, the more I can begin to tune in when they're happening in my off-the-mat life. And hopefully, through continued EFFORT, change my reactions as necessary. Perhaps even react with better integrity or more thoughtfulness next time.

Deborah Adele says, "When we open our eyes and see everything as an opportunity to explore and to learn, nothing becomes insignificant in its ability to teach us and to grow us."

How about that?

Transformation through Tapas

Sutra 2.43 says, SELF-DISCIPLINE in practice leads to the destruction of impurities and to the perfection of the body and senses.

Hm. Lofty goals.

The 3rd NIYAMA (practices for self-care) is TAPAS. Tapas can be translated in many ways -- regularity of practice, heat, fire, discipline, continued effort, transformation -- but the message is pretty much universal. The MORE you come to your mat with regularity, the more you will create positive change, leading to the likelihood that you'll keep coming to the mat. FUN!

In tapas practices, we build heat or INNER FIRE which is said to burn off impurities. These impurities may be due to what we eat, how we act, how much screen time we take in and/or environmental factors. And when we experience the transformational potential of our practice, it creates a positive neural groove to encourage us to come back again and again.

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.

Newness in Each and Every Moment

Every day, every hour, every minute offers us the possibility of NEWNESS. But, how often do we see that potential?
How routinized is your every day, every hour, every minute?
The composer John Cage said, "I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing." His composition style certainly reflects this sentiment -- he was an extremely innovative and provocative composer.

I myself am extremely routine oriented. I love a good schedule, and a finished to-do list and all the "good" habits that I've incorporated as I try to be a better human. But sometimes, life can feel like a series of morning meditations and brushing (and flossing!) my teeth. I don't mean to lose the spark, but the day-to-day grind can make it a challenge.

The same could be said for our ASANA practice, our time on the mat. Do you tend to always do things the same way? Can you approach each practice with an openness to NEW experience, NEW pathways, NEW information?

Yoga practice teaches us to be IN THE NOW. The more I practice, the more I'm interested in the SUBTLE nuances of my body, breath, heart and mind. The deeper I dive into meditative work, the more often I find myself IN THE NOW, taking a breath, enjoying the MOMENT.

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!

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.

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.

Practice is the Salve

Thanks to my lovely friend, teacher, and general yoga inspiration Theresa Murphy, I have a title for today's post. My phrasing was "thank goodness for practice" but she took it to the next level. Deep bow for that.

So, those of you who know me probably know that I'm currently in a transitional phase (to put it kindly). My relationship of over five years ended rather suddenly and I was left a bit grasping for how to go on in my life. Being an adventure seeker combined with a big-time family gal, I opted to move several thousand miles away from my current home to live near my sister. So within the span of just two months I have experienced some heartbreak, the challenge of relocating and a whole lot of packing.

You should even practice when you go to India!

The main thing that I have been consistently grateful for throughout this period is my daily time on the mat and the cushion. My practice never even skipped a beat. Through all this personal turmoil I had the ability to find an hour or two of sweetness and stillness every day.

A month ago I went on vacation and saw a good friend of mine. She asked what it is that I'm doing for myself to get through this difficult time. I was at a loss for words, temporarily lost in the thought that perhaps I wasn't doing anything for myself when she interrupted my thoughts to remind me of my practice. It was at that point that I realized how reliant I am on my personal mat time and how much a part of me and my life it truly is. I feel blessed to have a disciplined skill set during this time.

In the future when I look back on this time in my life, I'll be able to do so with integrity and grace because I kept it real for myself. Practice is the salve for me.

Yoga in Action: Finding Joy in the Process

We are so "finished pose" oriented in this country. Nobody wants to be the schmuck who doesn't look like B.K.S. Iyengar in their one-handed handstand, right? It's pretty common to see an intense amount of strain from a student who just isn't ready to go deeper.
I always try to give a few options of steps along the way to a peak pose--something like, "your first option is to work pigeon pose, when you're ready, you can add pigeon with the thigh stretch and for those of you who are quite open in your shoulders, you might try eka pada raja kapotasana."

Inevitably these initial suggestions go unexplored. Everyone jumps directly into what they perceive to be the "final posture." They cram their legs and arms into extreme angles, forgetting entirely to breathe, or to be present or to find any joy in this process of yoga. And this is how injuries happen and this is how people come to the conclusion that they "aren't good at yoga." 

The process of joy in this one took some work.
When I went to India to study with the Mohan's (see a post on that here) I was struggling between an orientation that was largely based in asana (posture) and one that was more interested in the movement of prana (life force/energy). I had just come off a week-long tantra intensive that was very um, intense in the pranic realm. I had ruffled my accrued lifetime of yucky stuff (karma) and wasn't really sure of how to best proceed.

The man himself, Krishnamacharya
The Mohan's are like the most pragmatic yogis that you've ever met. They teach Yoga Therapy as developed by Krishnamacharya. You know that guy? The one who taught all the modern day masters?

Ganesh, the son of the Mohan's, is trained as a medical doctor and an ayurvedic doctor. So yeah, he's pretty into wellness. And he happens to be one of the best teachers I've ever had. This is why--he's incredibly thorough and every single thing that he instructs is based on breath. The reason that you would go to a yoga therapist and not a physical therapist is because yoga connects to the breath and it creates an energy (prana) in the body that you don't get from doing exercises alone.
Breathe! Be present! Find joy in the process!

That's the rub, people. The reason that yoga works isn't because people with flexible hamstrings have more fun (bumper sticker?). It's because yogis who practice regularly just automatically start to slow down and experience more of life. When you base your practice on your natural cycle of breath, and you really really pay attention, you can't help but be more aware. And when you become more aware, it's easier to realize to all of the beautiful things that exist in a day, or in a moment!
And in my experience it becomes easier to appreciate small things at first and then larger things like being alive, and having friends and family and the fascinating world.

The process of yoga is a process of tracking down joy--true inner joy that can only come from you. The next time you're in class and your teacher gives you options, maybe try the first, fully connected to your breath and fully connected to a sense of joy before moving on to step two.

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.

Yoga in Action: Compassion

I read recently that one of the marks of spiritual progress is an increasing sense of compassion toward other beings. I think it's absolutely true. As I become keenly aware of my own Self and inner light, I become increasingly sensitive to the fact that everyone has the same inner light and potential for living as their full Self.

MT bringing compassion to the table 24-7

Simply put, everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to suffer. But we do suffer, as it is the nature of life. Being alive means that inevitably we will have to experience pain. The intensity to which we experience suffering is based on our past karmas (actions) and samskaras (patterns), yet to some degree we all know what it is to suffer.

This is why it is so important to act with compassion. When I get angry with someone, or perceive some offense, I go out of my way to see things from that person's perspective. Maybe they're having a shitty day, maybe their cat died, maybe their relationship ended, etc. Maybe they are acting like an asshole because they are suffering. With this approach toward other beings, I am able to practice deep compassion, maybe even kindness when someone offends me or they act on some pain they are experiencing.

This guy is pretty solid at compassion.


How can you put this in action? Well, the next time someone offends you, take a second to step away from the situation and assess it objectively. Or the next time you notice someone else acting without compassion, notice how it makes you feel. What would you do differently?

The Ravi Ravindra translation of the Yoga Sutras offer this suggestion in chapter 1, verse 33

maitri-karuna-mudita-upeksanam sukha-duhkha-punya-apunya-visayanam bhavanatas-citta-prasadanam

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 toward wrong-doers.

So there you have it, folks. Straight from the pen of Patanjail, we should practice compassion toward those who suffer. You can practice this on your cushion too. Here's a link to a step-by-step guide to a metta meditation, which can directly enhance your sense of compassion: Metta Meditation

As you can see, the metta style of meditation begins first and foremost with you, yourself. In order to compassionately view the world, you must first be able to treat yourself with the kindness you'd offer to others. You gotta love you first.

Niyamas: Isvarapranidhana

Yoga Sutra 2.45 states:
samadhi-siddhir-isvara-pranidhanat

Perfection in samadhi arises from dedication to Ishvara (Ravi Ravindra)
or
Samadhi is experienced from surrendering the results of action to and deeply respecting the inner, universal light of knowledge (Nicolai Bachman)

Okay, it's time for me to get real. When I did my first teacher training and we (I hesitate to say studied) learned about the yamas and niyamas I pretty much had no idea what was going on. My head was so far in the asana clouds that I couldn't see much that had to do with yogic philosophy. But! I was always interested. Just more from a distance. I wanted to know about yoga philosophy, but I didn't necessarily want to live it. As time has progressed, I am pleased to say that my perspective has shifted to allow space for a life based in yoga.

When isvarapranidhana was first explained to me, it was described as "devotion to god." It's a pretty good start, but there is so much more to it. For one thing, isvarapranidhana is part of a three-step process to weaken the kleshas and work toward samadhi. The other two parts are tapas and svadhyaya or the fire created from regular practice and self inquiry; both which are up to you, the practitioner. They are very much something that you have control of, whereas isvarapranidhana is about giving it up to something higher than yourself.

Indians have no problem with this step. They are all about devotion. Where else in the world could you find businesses called "Sri Hanuman Used Tires" or a clothing boutique called "Jaya Laxshmi"? You can't walk a block in India without coming across a statue, burning incense or flowers laid down as puja. It's as though they were put on earth to devote themselves to something greater.

So, that's what Indians do. But it's not necessarily what we as westerners have to do. We are often cynical and jaded about things religious or devotional. I get it! I was raised in a tradition that I no longer practice and have certain angry feelings toward said tradition. Five years ago, I would have been the last person on earth capable of writing a blog post about "devotion to god."

Alright. Here's where it's up for interpretation. Ishvara is not necessarily "god" in the traditional sense. It can also be understood as "the universal teacher" or the light within you capable of connecting to the light present in someone else. Or maybe for you it's the "inner teacher"  or personal sense of something more than you. In other words, you can be a practicing atheist and still identify in some regards with ishvara. It certainly won't be in the traditional sense intended, but likely more of a "giving it up to my inner teacher" idea.

Robot Ganesh
It can be hard to have faith. Or to give away the control to something outside (or deep inside) of ourselves. But it feels so good! So go out there and get your isvarapranidhana on!

India Part 1 or Holy Mother (of chaos)

Um. India.
Let's start by saying that I'm currently in the "Detroit" of India. So whatever images that conjures up for you are probably pretty damn similar to reality. People, buses, bicycles, motorbikes, and of course no Indian road would be complete without tons and tons of rickshaws. Which are the focus of this post...

Yesterday we took a rickshaw or "tuktuk" as they're lovingly called from Injambakkam where we are staying, to Chennai. The drive is pretty far because we're living about 30 kilometers south. Yes, I said kilometers...no, I don't totally know how that translates into miles-something like two k's per mile?
The point being that it was far and heavily trafficked and we were riding in an oversized covered trike. Next to buses. And cars. I think that our driver was the most adventuresome tuktuk master in all the land literally weaving in and out of impossibly small spaces for over an hour. I am sure this is what everyone says...in fact, I know this is what everyone says. "My driver was the craziest, etc, etc. But seriously.
This guy.


Me, I was utterly panicked for the first, oh hour or so. I was gripping the seat, I was gripping Veronika, I was gripping for dear life. But finally (after a seriously tense hour) two things occurred to me.
The first was that I probably wasn't going to die (most importantly) and the second was the utter sense of peace with which this guy managed the incredible stimulus around him. The whole situation reminded me of when you first start yoga and you're pretty sure that you might die and there are so many things going on and you're just gripping all of your muscles for dear life, but pretty soon (most likely in savasana) you recognize the incredible possibility for peace which arises out of your practice.


In the tuktuk, after I remembered that I have breath, and then remembered that I have breath awareness, I began to be able to ease up on the intensity of my gripping. And bit by bit I opened up this breath awareness to a greater awareness of what was actually happening. Better said I opened up to a different possible reality.
And then finally I allowed our driver's sense if peace to eventually become my own sense of peace, things got a lot more enjoyable. So that's my lesson from Chennai; finding serenity amid the beautiful commotion. Accepting this new flow of life to which I am being exposed and learning to find the underlying possibility of peace.

The More You Know

I am just coming off a 5 day intensive with ParaYoga teacher Rod Stryker.
See more about him here: Rod Stryker Bio

This was an in-depth study about the teachings of Tantra Yoga which is an incredibly ancient tradition based on the flow of energy in the body and how it can be manipulated to create "awakening" to the inherent beauty and bliss in the world. Another very popular system Anusara Yoga is based on Tantra as well, though there are so many schools of thought within Tantra that I wouldn't know for one iota if they're in the same school.
We spent 5 days doing asana (posture), pranayama (breathwork), kriya (cleansing techniques), mantra (chanting) and meditation with the express purpose of moving prana or life force throughout the body. Incredibly transformational stuff. I am currently overwhelmed with information and the urge to incorporate it all into my personal practice. If only there were more hours in the day....

When I look back to just a few months ago, before I started studying privately with Ben Vincent, before I did a weekend with Bhagavan Das, or when I look back to my newly teaching self 2 years ago, or my teacher trainer self in 2009 or even my "I am only doing this for fitness" yoga self from all the years prior to that, I am amazed by two things. The first is the incredibly vast amount of information available for anyone seeking a yogic path and the second is how exponentially my practice has grown in a short amount of time. And how each time I take a class, do a training or even talk to another yogi, the possibility for growth and understanding presents itself.
While I am pleased with progress, I constantly have the sense that the more I learn, the more questions open up and the more I don't know. At times this is truly disheartening, and other times, profoundly inspirational--that the path upon which I tread will never run out of potential for new techniques and new understanding.

That being said, I feel even further away from understanding my own role in this game of yoga. So many divergent paths all promising the same (or similar) outcomes, how is one to decide? Each time I learn a new method or explore a new path, I feel drawn to pick and choose the things that work for me and discard those that don't. Can I piece together the meditation and pranayama of Tantra with the sangha (community) of Anusara, the long holds of YinYoga, the brilliance of Theresa Murphy and Yinyasa, the alignment of Iyegnar, the dharma talks of Tias Little, the kirtan of Bhagavan Das and my own yearning to forge a new path all of my own?

It all remains to be seen, my friends.
I'll be in India starting next week for 5 weeks. I have every intention of sharing some while I'm away, but sankalpas (intentions) don't always align with actuality.