Category: Yoga & Movement Page 1 of 2

“Aren’t You A Yoga Teacher?”

Recently I was diagnosed with a degenerative disk disorder which was to large extent hastened by congenital physiology. This was preceded by a somewhat alarming loss (for a yoga teacher!) of mobility and strength. It required my yoga practice to completely change, for the 3rd time in my life. It might surprise you to learn that each time that has happened, my practice has deepened and matured… it has never been a loss. That’s because if we actually practice yoga in its truest form, it meets us as we are.

Many people, far too many, think of yoga as a workout.Aren't You A Yoga Teacher? That is to limit yoga to a fraction of its potentials to serve not just the body, but the breath, mind, and spirit. In addition, many people, again, far too many, have a perspective of yoga as requiring certain postures including those that are inaccessible to them, that must be done in particular ways.

If they know that they cannot meet some preconceived expectation, they don’t even try. Or, they go to the wrong teacher (wrong for them) whose style simple doesn’t fit their needs and then conclude that all yoga is not for them. It is unfortunate.

An Interesting Question

Yesterday, I has an encounter with an acquaintance, and when I mentioned that I probably shouldn’t be lifting things because of my back, she looked at me and asked, “Aren’t you a yoga teacher?” as if 1) yoga teachers should never be injured and 2) yoga teachers who are don’t know what they are doing.

There is unfortunately at least a grain of truth to each of those assumptions, at least in regards to a yoga practice. Of course, injury of many kinds can happen to anyone at any time that have nothing to do with one’s yoga practice. But it is assumed that a yoga teacher who knows anatomy and asana well enough shouldn’t be injured by their practice. And yoga teachers who do get injured are often injured because they don’t know their own bodies enough to listen and/or are driven more by accomplishment than by embodiment.

But…

For a long time now, since before 2000, I’ve been dealing with back problems. I only had a vague sense of my congenital condition. And though it had been pointed out to me by doctors in the past, it never presented as a problem, so I wasn’t really doing anything to prevent future problems other than just trying to remain fit and strong.

Unfortunately, I did some really stupid stuff when I was younger, felt invincible, and didn’t know how to recognize harmful activity. I also had a ridiculously strong work ethic that made it impossible for me to walk away, take a break, or give up entirely on tasks that I knew were compromising my body. They are lessons learned.

But time does take it’s toll on all of us. Change is inevitable. And no body is immune from the ravages of aging.

What I Wish I’d Said

What I wish I had said to this acquaintance was, “Thank God I am! I hate to think of what condition I’d be in if I didn’t have my yoga practice.” I truly believe that. Despite everything, I remain more flexible and mobile than a lot of people in my age category. And more importantly, I know how to rest and restore my body. I know what can relieve pain, and I know how to listen to my body when I try things that may very well be recommended for my condition but that don’t actually work for my body. Yoga has given me both an embodiment and wisdom that serves my evolution (aka aging) on this planet.

Of course, inherent in this woman’s question was also the misunderstanding of what it means to be a yoga teacher and that there’s some highly athletic aspect that assumes Olympic invincibility. I’m not a fitness teacher. I’m not a sports coach. I’m not even, in many regards, a yoga teacher. I’m a yogi who shares from her direct experience, and my wheelhouse is selfcare and restorative forms of movement. It’s yoga, but not in the Instagram sense.

Injury, fortunately, does not preclude me from either practicing nor sharing my yoga. In fact, it enriches both.

 

 

Is Your Physical Selfcare Short-Circuiting?

You may have the best of intentions when it comes to selfcare. Yet you may find that your methods aren’t improving your quality of life. If your physical selfcare is short-circuiting, I have some questions for you.

Have you ever:

–worn clothing that felt uncomfortable but instead of getting rid of it, continued to wear it?

–chose the stylish instead of sensible shoes and walked until you got blisters?

–were so busy that you forgot to eat?

–just wanted to get to your destination, so didn’t take car breaks on a long journey?

–sat in an uncomfortable position so as not to disturb others?

–got to the end of a long day only to realize you hardly drank any water?

–practiced a yoga pose even though something didn’t feel right?

–sit with your legs crossed so long they go numb?

These may seem like fairly insignificant discomforts, but each of these is a sign that somewhere along the line, you lost touch with your physical body, what I often refer to as your avatar, and failed to selfcare. Maybe it comes down to our conditioning around no pain, no gain. Maybe it is a belief that we have to try harder, do more, go bigger. Maybe we’ve learned all to well to invalidate our own experience. Or maybe it just boils down to a lifelong disconnect between mind and body (ironically the antithesis of yoga which is meant to unify mind and body).

So here’s how these kinds of habits can short-circuit any attempts at selfcare. I’ll use yoga as an example.

Someone might think, “I’ll take a weekly yoga class so that I’m doing some selfcare every week.” But here’s the thing; it isn’t enough to show up in a yoga class once or even three or four times a week. It’s more about how we show up. Are we present and aware or just going through the motions? As a yoga teacher (or yoga student!), I am sometimes astounded to see students (or teachers!) who are quite obviously uncomfortable push through some position or pose. Even when given a cue to check in, often they still don’t realize that they are doing something totally unnatural for their bodies.

For example, not everyone is comfortable sitting in easy pose with the legs crossed. I give options for comfort and yet, it is sometimes like pulling teeth to get a student to take the initiative to grab a blanket to place under the hips or to move against a wall so that they have back support and don’t have to try so hard.

Or I witness a student finally start to unwind in savasana, and so invite more time, but as class is coming to an end, I still have to get others up and ready to close. What inevitably happens more often than not is that the student will spring to attention with the others. Unfortunately, practicing bad habits reinforces them. They become so automatic we don’t even know we’re doing them and therefore can’t question them. We think we’re engaged in selfcare when we’re really, in essence, just pretending.

Mastery of awareness is the road to transformation.

So here’s my challenge for you. Over the next week or two, commit to discover all the ways you covertly deny your body whether in a yoga class or out. Are you: stifling a yawn, holding in a fart, overeating, holding your pee, indulging in an addiction that makes you feel ill, whatever it may be. Take a few notes and every time you catch yourself, no need to judge yourself. Just affirm to yourself, “I am committed to authentic selfcare.”

Ray Man Shabad in English

The Ray Man Shabad is a beautiful prayer that made it’s way into my life unexpectedly. I fell upon the following video accidentally on Youtube on the New Year. Upon giving it a shot, I was hooked and decided to do the 40 days. Without understanding why, I was so filled with smiles and joy every time I practiced (and still am). I became so enthralled, I had to study the meaning of the prayer.

I was able to find two different translations which assisted me in creating a combined translation which I expanded with more modern symoblism, in a sense, personalizing the meaning for myself. I offer it here as inspiration. Give the practice a try and see what you feel.

Oh my mind practice daily in this method…

Let Truth be your horn, sincerity your necklace, and meditation a reminder that you are “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Practice self-restraint. Cease the burning of lower desires and let the soul (self) be the alms bowl in which you collect the sweet Naam, the Name of God, the only support you ever need.

Waves upon wave of melodies, passions, and emotions arise and flow through you. Listen to the reality from this highest place of awareness. Bind with and disappear yourself in the song of God, that sweetest ecstasy infused with Divine Knowledge.

The demons and demi-gods of realms beyond will be amazed, and the sages intoxicated with delight. The sage listens without being caught in duality; the sage drinks in the nectar of the heavens and is carried to the Ultimate Heaven in a divine chariot.

Be instructed by your soul, practice with discipline, and chant the Name of the Lord, even while silent. Meditate daily unto infinity until you are meditating without meditating.

If you would like to enjoy the Kriya that inspired my contemplations of this prayer, you will find it here:

https://youtu.be/vXW-Id4jjw8

Yoga Teacher Responsibility: Cultivating Sovereignty

There was a powerful and somewhat heated discussion recently on one of the yoga forums about the responsibility of yoga teachers to their students in terms of politics, cults, media narratives and social issues. What is a yoga teacher’s ethical role when it comes to helping our students make meaning in today’s confusing world and what oversteps that role?

I proposed that it isn’t a yoga teachers place to tell anybody else what to think. But it is our responsiblity to learn how to think and having learned the art, pass it on, and second, to maintain a certain level of neutrality or at least awareness of our own biases.

In any case, it definitely isn’t our responsiblity to decide what’s right or that someone else is wrong. In fact, maybe our greatest duty to one another as humans in this cancel culture is to grow aware of how we think and pass on that information to those who are open to it. Perhaps it is our responsibility to foster communications that welcome dialogue or at the very least, demonstrate respect for varying viewpoints.

I sadly don’t always encounter that. In fact, it’s rather clear that many think it is absolutely their duty to tell others what is right and wrong. I struggle to how this aligns with principles of yoga outside very obvious natural laws.

I came across this quote from Daniel Schmachtenberger, founding member of The Consilience Project, aimed at improving public sensemaking and dialogue, in defining what the word ‘sovereignty’ means to him:

“If we actually want to empower people, I don’t want them to defer their sense-making to me. But I also don’t want them to do lazy shitty sense-making, or defer it to anyone else. Which means I want them to grow the quality of their own sense making, which means to grow the depth of their care, their anti-nihilism, to grow the depth of their earnestness and their own self-reflexiveness. To pay better attention to their biases and their sloppiness in thinking, their own skills and capacity. I want them to grow their attention span and both the clarity of their logic and the clarity of their intuition, and notice when something’s coming from intuition or logic and how to relate all of those things. That’s actually what increasing sovereignty means.”

Some Basic Yoga Terms

Some Basic Yoga Terms

If you are new to yoga, you might not be familiar with some of the commonly used words that describe practice. Here are a few important concepts to help make your practice more meaningful:

Asana

When most people think of yoga, they think of the poses. Asana is the practice of yoga poses, but it isn’t even a fraction of true yoga. When one uses the word ‘yoga’ to describe a physical practice, what they are really describing is asana. Yoga actually has eight limbs, only one of which is asana or posture. Explaining each of the limbs is beyond the scope of this course, but they include things like concentration and meditaiton.

Centering (aka Going INward)

We spend lots of time during the day with our energy turned outwards, our five senses constantly processing colors, sounds, tastes, smells and external experience. Centering is about turning that attention back towards our…well…center. We feel ourselves again, in the moment, by quieting the mind, slowing the breath, and sensing our own inner experience of sensation.

Grounding

Grounding, also known as “earthing”, is becoming aware of your connection to the earth, usually through the feet though it can be accomplished in many ways. When we ground, we feel the surface beneath us rising up to meet our feet and offering us its support.

We also feel the weight of our body in relationship to that ground as well as a rebound through the length of the body. A tree is a great example to understand rebound. A tree’s roots grow deep into the earth, spreading wide. But above ground, the trees limbs reach ever upward toward the sky. When we ground and because of the ground, we feel both postural support throughout the body and space between each vertebra.

Pranayama

Prana is a Sanskrit term meaning “life force” or “breath”. Yama can be translated as “control”. Therefore, pranayama is often described as the practice of breath control. However, one can look at this from another perspective as Ayama is the opposite of control. Yoga anatomy author and educator, Leslie Kaminoff, refers to pranayama as the ‘unobstruction of the breath’.

I prefer this definition to the more traditional ‘breath control’ one because rather than thinking of the breath as something we need to control, breath is something we need to free and allow to flow (and grow) organically. Even if we are imposing some structure on the breath with retention or counting, we only do so from a relaxed, easy place. If we observe oursevles tightening or efforting around a practice, we return to a normal breath and relax before preceding. In this way, we don’t develop the bad habit of struggle. Rather, we give ourselves space and time to develop our relationship with breath.

Why I Left the Yoga Alliance

After completing my 200-hour yoga teacher training, I did what any new professional would do. I headed over to one of several organizations that sets standards for and certifies yoga teachers. For some perfectly legit — and some ridiculous reasons — this world is obsessed with little pieces of paper that often prove very little. As for me, I felt it added some credibility to my “new” profession. I put that in quotes because I have a Masters degree in teaching and have been practicing yoga since the 1990’s. Let’s face it. A doctor can have his degree from a fine institution and still be a completely close-minded bedside moron relying on stimulants to make it through his day. Likewise, someone with zero experience can obtain a piece of paper in weeks online and go out and kick ass in their chosen field (or worse, be completely incompetent…but hey, they have the paper!) Then there’s me…someone with tons of applicable experience that is ignored or discounted because it is too unique to fit an organization’s paradigm.

With my Yoga Alliance renewal pending, I had to stop and think about why I was continuing to give money to an organization that offered little in return where benchmarks failed to account for true experience and trainings seemed to be more about making money. Did they help me find employment? No. Did they help me find practice insurance for my studio? No. Did they have interactive ongoing training that I didn’t have to shell out additional money for? Not exactly. Did they have a list of certified trainers from whom I wanted to shell out additional money for to continue my education? No. Most of the additional training I wanted to take was with independent teachers r/evolutionizing yoga and not part of the Yoga Alliance.

So, I am now calling myself a Sovereign Certified Yoga Teacher. In regards to my yoga training, which excludes extensive experience in other areas including energy work and wisdom traditions. I received my 1st certification through Still Flowing Yoga, who is with the Yoga Alliance. I’ve since received other certifications for trainings that counted for little with Yoga Alliance;  I count them because they make me a more informed, wiser teacher. I keep track of all my trainings along with the number of hours I have been teaching and that information is freely available upon request to any of my prospective students.

I’d like to take a moment to define the word sovereign and how I am using it here. One who is sovereign is not under the authority of another. It is also a word that implies excellence, and I hold myself accountable to my own standard of ethics (not at all divergent from those upheld by the Yoga Alliance). Sovereign also implies self-rule, and this is a quality that I not only value for myself but that I consistently empower my students to embrace. We are, each of us, both guru (meaning teacher or wayshower) and student, all throughout our lives. We progress along our chosen path of wisdom best when we can move fluidly betwixt both without over-identification with one or the other.  Finally, the word sovereign implies responsibility. I alone am responsible for my experience of the world; yoga provides me with the practices to rule my body, mind and heart with wisdom, humility, and grace.

I do have my eye on a new movement called YogaUnify. I will have to see how things progress there to determine whether or not they can avoid all the traps that organizations lead to. My hope is that they can. It would be nice to be part of something greater that aligns with my values and vision of yoga. Time will tell…

A quick word about the logo…

The number you see represents the hours of yoga teacher training I have had to date. I exclude training from other subject areas. I haven’t included every hour but rather will update the logo to reflect 500, 800, and then 1000 hours of training. I’m currently working toward the 500 mark.

The bottom portion of the inner symbol is the Tibetan letter “A”.  A is said to be the original mother, giving birth to all.  In that respect, it is itself the uncreated. It is the symbol of Great Perfection in the nondual practices of Dzogchen in which all phenomena  arise dependent on conditions , fading away when those conditions end. Nothing that arises absolutely exists. What was before and alone remains is the unchanging and eternal.

The syllable is crowned by a lotus, a somewhat typical symbol in esoteric traditions for good reason, depicting rebirth, divinity and enlightenment. It is the very seat of the soul. A lotus rises up from the mud to bloom untouched, a thing of purity and beauty. The chakras, or energetic centers of the body, are often depicted with a lotus and statues of Buddha often set him upon a lotus cushion.

And finally, the lotus itself is crowned with a single pearl. I have always been drawn to the pearl as a symbol of purity, luminescence, and peace. In fact, my mala (prayer beads) is a string of mother-of-pearl chosen for these very qualities. There is also a reference to “pearls of wisdom”, and while an oyster hides the pearl within itself, many of our highest spiritual qualities are often hidden away beneath unprocessed trauma and the various “pressions”: depression, repression, oppression, suppression. One has to look deep within to discover our Divine Nature…and to be able to see it in others.

This logo is meant to remind me of Truth and the ultimate goal in all that is created and offered through me. I hope it communicates that energetically to others as well.

 

 

The Wounded Yogini Part III: Having Healed

This summer was a real challenge for me. I had a pinched nerve in my neck which created a constant radiating pain into my left finger. For over a month, I couldn’t even sit at my computer; I had to stand. And I couldn’t type with that finger at all. Sometimes, I would get an electro-shock down my arm as well. It was almost impossible to sleep at night. I soon learned that I have cervical arthritis and stenosis. I was told I needed surgery (though I had no intention of having any, and for awhile, I wondered if my yoga practice would ever be the same.

The good news is that is will never be the same. Why is that good news? Because what I learned about my body and myself during this “test” has taught me invaluable lessons I was unlikely to learn any other way. It’s now five months from the date of my initial injury, and while I still technically have arthritis and stenosis, I have zero pain and am able to do everything I could do before the inury. (There are, however, some things I choose not to do.)

But what I wanted to write about here is how I healed from what could have been a career-stopping injury. I’ll start by saying that I believe in the body’s capacity to heal itself. Given the right conditions, we mend. There was no way I was going to consider something as drastic as surgery when I’d only been in pain for such a tiny span of my life. Besides, I was well aware that spinal surgeries often do more harm than good. Let the doctors say what they will; I turned inside to know what was best for me, and I knew that was waiting things out.

If we drive ourselves crazy with fear, we perpetuate the problem. If we believe oursevles to be broken or even fragile, we scare oursevles into hypervigiliance. If we remain unwilling to look at what caused the problem or unwilling to change that, again, we only make the duration of the problem longer. Yes, I had to look at some things…some habits of mind and soreness of heart…unresolved pain that was simply expressing itself through my neck.

I also accredit my recovery to the Energization practices of Parmahansa Yogananda. This is a set of simple but profound exercises created by Yogananda to keep the body strong and healthy, among other benefits.  While I couldn’t do every single exercise while in pain and had to modify several of them during my healing process, I know certain exercises helped to stregthen my neck and back and realign my spine.

I also behaved and stayed away from things that would have exacerbated the problem. I had to stop eating inflammatory foods. I had to adjust how I slept. And I had to alter my work-life. This took some arresting of the ego, especially as I continued to teach classes and often couldn’t demonstrate or do myself what I was asking of my students. But in that way, I think it made me far more attentive to and curious about the process of my students.

Finally, I was patient while never doubting (yes, there were moments, but then I’d remind myself) that I would be well again. Healing takes time. It requires self-care. It takes a certain amount of faith. And it takes grace. Fortunately, yoga cultivates self-care, patience, faith, and grace. Today, I’m feeling better than ever and constantly learning to improve my relationship with my own body as well as my understanding of yoga.

Yoga Beyond the Fluff: The Power of Prayer Hands

Sometimes, the most simple things in yoga never get explained or are explained incompletely by those who poorly understand them. A familiar mudra or hand pose you’ve probably done a hundred times (especially if you grew up in a religious household) in yoga classes is “prayer pose”, or anjali mudra (prana mudra in kundalini yoga). It is traditionally known worldwide as a gesture of turning inward or of expressing goodwill and peace.

But yoga is not a religion; it’s a science. Do you know the scientific significance of prayer hands? There are several facets of this special mudra worth understanding.

First let’s consider the meanings. A mudra is a “seal” and “anjali” could be translated as “an honoring”. By forming our hands this way, we assume an attitude of reverence. It’s considered a daily greeting gesture of respect in Eastern traditions. You are most likely familiar with “Namaste” which literally means, “I salute you,” but is often translated to mean, “The light in me honors the light in you.” Used in the traditional way, it is a greeting and not a parting. However, it is often seen used as a closing in yoga classes. Perhaps the intention is the most important aspect of its meaning.

Now on to the science. The hands and fingers are filled with sensitive nerve receptors. These nerves are intelligent enough to help you know when something is hot, cold, soft, prickly, etc. and they communicate that information to the brain’s cerebral cortex.

Now, as you probably know, your brain has two halves: the right brain is our creative and intuitive hemisphere while the left is our analytic and logical side. When we bring our hands together, the right being controlled by the left brain and the left by the right, we are in essence, integrating brain function, bringing balance between left and right. Dominant brain halves are thus neutralized bringing improved concentration and focus.

But wait. There’s more. The right side of the body represents the sun and masculine energy (pingala) while the left side represents the feminine and moon (ida). When we bring the hands together in prayer pose, we are balancing these polar energies as well, creating a neutral space in the body’s electromagnetic field.

To perform Anjali Mudra:

  1. Start seated in easy pose, or if uncomfortable on the floor, sit in a chair or stand in mountain pose.
  2. Bring your palms together in front of the heart, thumbs touching the sternum.
  3. Seal the outer edges of your palms and fingertips. In some traditions, leaving a small gap between the palms is recommended while in others, the entire surface of the hands and fingers touch. Experiment to find what feels right for you. (Sometimes, I let the fingers cross slightly).
  4. Release unnecessary tension through the arms. If you like, apply a gentle pressure through the hands to feel them coming together. Notice the balance of tension from left going right, and right moving left. Now relax.
  5. Close your eyes and lift your awareness upward toward the point slightly above and between the eyes. Remain aware of any sensations or phenomenon.
  6. Breath relaxed but deep breaths. Pray if you want. Remain for a minute or more.
  7. To come out, bow the head with reverence and release.

I want to briefly mention the thumbs and the significance of pressing them into the breastbone. This activates a reflex point of the vagus nerve, which is one of the longest nerves in the body traveling from the head, ears, through the neck, linking our heart, lungs and abdomen.

The vagus nerve is associated with both our ability to rest, relax and regenerate and with our often overused habits of shutting down, running away, and disconnecting when we sense a threat. The vagus nerve helps to regulate our breathing, the body’s anti-inflammatory response, and heartrate. It also affects our memory and ability to tap into our “gut” sense. Research has shown that stimulation of the ventral vagal nerve, along the front body, activates these feelings of safety and calm, so crucial to yoga practice. So, when we press into the sternum with our thumbs, we are activating the ventral vagal nerve and its positive aspects.

So maybe why we perform Anjali Mudra is beginning to make a lot more sense to you. But in addition to the linguistic meanings and science behind Anjali, there is of course, the spiritual implication best described by Krishnamacharya, well-known yoga teacher and scholar (1880-1989), who wrote:


This gesture signifies the potential for an intention to progress to the greatest spiritual awakening. When done properly the palms are not flat against each other; the knuckles at the base of the fingers are bent a little, creating space between the palms and fingers of the two hands resembling a flower yet to open, symbolizing the opening of our hearts.

 

In summary, Anjali mudra aligns us with the right attitude to center ourselves and pray. It inspires our posture upward, and it also brings calm to the emotional body and mind, balance to the brain, and opens the heart. Furthermore, it signifies our spiritual aspiration and prepares us to receive spiritual awakening. So next time you find yourself in yoga class placing your hands together in prayer, may you have an enriched experience by recalling some of what’s behind it.

 

Some Changes Coming – INtuitive Yoga Lab

In my last two posts, I wrote about how a recent injury has made me more aware of my essential approach to yoga as well as how my own practice is having to change as a wounded yogini.

In light of my ponderings, I’m going to be slowly introducing a new class style called INtuitive Yoga Lab. This is going to incorporate the 4 essentials I wrote about in my last post:

  • Slow way way down. Then slow down some more.
  • Resistance is the opportunity.
  • Consider parts to the whole.
  • Question everything.

The goal of INutitive Yoga Lab is to make it easier for people to honor these principles by:

  1. Making yoga class accessible to various abilities at once
  2. Creating lots of space and time (and props!) within class for explorations
  3. Facilitating the discovery of a personalized movement form for each individual
  4. Helping students to further develop their inner authority and body-honoring intuition.

It may take some time for me to fully develop and refine this way of doing things, and it may take some time for students to get used to this level of self-empowerment in a yoga class, but I believe this approach is well-overdue (I mean this in general and in terms of mainstream yoga; of course, there are those who do and have been taking this or a similar approach for many years) and greatly needed.

In INtuitive Yoga Lab, there will be certain foundational movements taught in conjunction with traditional yoga postures. But overarching everything, I wil encourage an individualized, intuitive, and inquisitive movement practice. Some of the elements that will be introduced and cultivated include both traditional and non-traditional yoga:

  • Pranayama
  • Mind/Body Energy Flow
  • Concentration
  • Self-healing
  • Somatic pandiculation
  • Developmental and natural movement
  • Proprio and Interoceptive Training
  • Traditional Asana
  • Meditation
  • Voicework & Sound
  • Restorative Yoga

Indeed many of these aspects are not unfamiliar to my students already, especially those who attended my Absolute Beginners workshop. However, the way I have been delivering them is in for a change. A lab is a scientific environment in which one conducts experiments. Sometimes, important discoveries are made. Other times, things flop. On ocassion, one waits and waits for something to happen. It’s all part of life in the lab. INtuitive Yoga Lab is about giving you and your body temple safety, time and space to experiment, explore and discover your body and its interconnection to mind and spirit.

 

The Wounded Yogini Part II: Yogic Essentials

In my last post, I wrote about how a recent injury and subsequent discovery of health issues has inspired me to develop a clearer picture of my approach of yoga and how I want to facilitate it for others Today, I’d like to attempt to clarify what are for me, the most important aspects of a healthy yoga practice, particularly in relation to asana (or postures).

A Bit of Background

I was originally drawn to Iyengar yoga in my late 20’s. It was a good yoga for my 20-year-old body and helped me deal with middle back pain. I later discovered kundalini yoga in my late 30’s. It was the perfect yoga for that period in my life, too, taking me right into my 50’s. I attribute the long health of my back, despite its “issues” to kundalini practices. But when I finally took teacher training, it was in a somatic, intuitive style of yoga, definitely the fringe.

That training reintroduced me to aspects of my dance life pre-20’s. I loved incorportating those more creative elements so much that I got curious about the application of other forms of movement in my yoga practice as well, like developmental movement and martial arts. I believe we can learn more from variety, maybe because we are variety. While there are certainly great gifts in focusing well on one thing, when it comes to the body, the more variety, the more integrated we become, and the more integrated we are, the better able we are to respond to life.

So, I’m certainly neither a purist nor even a traditionalist when it comes to asana, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others.

The Point of Practice

So if we don’t have to practice only yoga poses or even every yoga pose to be a yogi, what’s the point of even having a physical movement practice?  The original point of asana was preparation for meditation. It was meant to relax the body and release tension so that deeper states of meditation would be possible. I actually do find this an essential part of practice but in addition to the ultimate goal of deeper states of meditation, asana provides other benefits such as:

  • nervous system resilience
  • the undoing and freeing of restriction
  • more connected and coordinated movement
  • improved and supportive breath
  • strength and “response” ability with ease

So then, how do we access those benefits? Following are what I consider to be 4 of the most important elements to my approach to asana:

Dielle’s Yogic Essentials

Slow way way down. Then slow down some more.

We’ve got to have time to feel every tiny articulation and connection through a movement. As experienced yogis, if we’re speeding through from one pose to the next, we aren’t likely to catch any of that. Rather, we’re reproducing stale postures from muscle memory. It’s not that that’s “wrong”, but habit and conditioning needs to be broken through now and again. Change is an inevitable part of life, and just as our bodies change day to day, so should our practice. Slowing down gives that practice juice and life and the chance to experience something totally new and unexpected. Every yoga session is best approached with beginner’s mind. Absolute beginners especially need to know that the journey is far more important than some end result. If the approach doesn’t feel right, the landing won’t either! Yes, take a run-of-the-mill beginners class, and you often see students trying to go from 0 to 60, so to speak, without moving through 2 – 59. They can’t breathe, they are tense, and their likely to hurt themselves. We have to train ourselves to go slow enough to recognize the body’s signals. Furthermore, we need a window of opportunity in front of the pain that sets in only after we hurt ourselves. If we do something without thought or automatically, sure, it may come quite easily. But we can come to regret it rather quickly.

Resistance is the opportunity.

When we come up against resistance, the  body is delivering a very clear and simple message. And no, it isn’t the message that resistance is an opportunity to push through and past it. “No pain, no gain” is a sado/masochistic mantra. Rather, resistance is your cue to “be” and “breathe”. I’ve been in classes where I’ve witnessed other students gasping for or producing labored breath in more challening poses. Nothing was said about it though they were clearly uncomfortable and efforting. The breath should always be the first clue that something isn’t going well and that the body is being pushed too far. In essence, we’ve stopped doing yoga. When we hit those places when the body says, “Stop!”, when we’ve gone as far as we can go–really even before that point–this has to be the place where we obey and honor the body. Our work is right there. If that means we’re not “doing it right”, so be it. If it means we look like amoebas instead of pristine yogis, so be it. If class goes on without us, so be it. I know it can be super challenging to just close yourself off in your own little world and repeat something over and over when that isn’t what the rest of the room is doing; it can be even more awkward when the teacher draws attention to it. But it’s not dishonoring the teacher or the other students when you take care of yourself. Rather, you’re demonstrating intergrity and inner authority; that’s yoga. It takes deep humilty to be honest in yoga class.

Parts to the Whole

I recently took a class, otherwise totally enjoyable, in which I was cued to lock my front knee. I ignored the cue. The instructor informed me how helpful it would be if I could, and when I wouldn’t, he assumed I had a bad knee and was modifying for that. I could live with his assumption…because my knees aren’t bad….because I don’t lock them! Our joints aren’t meant to be locked, bone grinding against bone, straining the ligaments and other connective tissues. They are meant to have room to respond to life’s unexpected challenges. I already know all too well from my recent discoveries how overstressing the joints results in osteoarthritis. My neck is well into the domino process of degeneration. I intend to save what’s left! This relates to an important aspect of movement: the relationship of the parts to the whole. We’re not machines with easily replaceable parts. We are whole organisms connected head to foot in numerous ways. That’s why surgery doesn’t always help but often leads to even more problems. It’s also why certain alignment cues can do us more harm than good. What affects one part affects the whole. When we don’t keep this in our awareness, we’re more likely to injure ourselves.

Question everything.

Realize that every yoga teacher teaches a combination of two things: what they have been taught and what they have discovered. In so much as they teach what they have been taught, there is a lot of room for error, misinterpretation, and the perpetuation of myths. A good example is the use of “Namaste” at the end of yoga classes, which is akin to saying, “Hello” instead of “Goodbye” when you hang up the phone. None of us are free from those little inaccuracies going back through the ages. I’ve learned things that turned out to be incorrect…whether scientifically- or merely personally-speaking. In so much as teachers teach what they have discovered, while it still may or may not apply to anyone else, at least there’s a very good chance for a deeper understanding and more effective application. The danger in any class is placing too much authority with the teacher. We’re trained all our young lives into adulthood to abdicate to authority. But perhaps the most critical issue to anyone’s yoga practice is remembering that the body, so unique in build, alignment, and expression, is the only authority. Therefore, our job as yogis is to develop our body-mind intuition and obey what is tells us.

That in itself is a life-long practice and a lesson best learned early on to avoid long-term physical issues later.

Stay safe yogis!

The Wounded Yogini

You may be familiar with the term “wounded healer”. The idea is that one has to go through his or her own healing journey in order to be able to help someone else. For the last month, I’ve been a wounded yogini after a fairly innocuous warm-up left me with an odd feeling in my left upper quadrant with radiating, tingly pain down my arm into my fingers.

The warm-up was nothing that “should” have injured me. However, due to pre-existing conditions, it was enough to get my attention. And really, it’s a good thing, because if I hadn’t of been made aware of the state of my neck, which I’ll get to in a moment, I could have done even more serious damage.

I took a trip to the doctor, something I really dislike. My generalist is also a chiropractor, and while in ordinary circumstances, that would have been helpful, in my case, it probably wasn’t. He adjusted me and successfully corrected the numbness in my last two digits, but then the problem moved to my index finger, which is another nerve entirely, and has been there ever since.

The diagnosis has been somewhat unexpectedly complex. After the requisite x-rays and an MRI, it was discovered that I have several issues (and probably should not have been given an adjustment at all!): reverse curve; at least one herniated disk contributing to my current thoracic outlet syndrome, which is the pain down the arm into my finger; cervical stenosis or a narrowing of the space around the spinal cord; and osteoarthritis. OH MY!

Now, as a person who loves to move, this isn’t terribly exciting news, but as a former costume character dancing in costumes that exerted incredible weights on the head, it’s not entirely a surprise either! Nor is it the end of the world. Yes, I have to make some changes to my personal practice and teaching methods, some for the time-being and others longer term.

The good news is, that while I couldn’t even type with my left index finger two weeks ago, now I can. So there’s definitely improvement to the acute issue. I’m also fortunate enough not to need any pain medication (despite the lunch sack of prescriptions my doctor attempted to give me). Gentle stretching, herbal remedies, kineseotaping, “scientific healing affirmations” as taught by Paramhansa Yogananda, and essential oils have so far been enough, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

In regards to my yoga practice, three things come to mind:

  1. yoga is so much more than the asanas, some of which I will never be able to do again…and that’s okay
  2. this experience is helping me to redefine and clarify “my yoga” and how I want to share it
  3. I’m now better equipped to help other people with similar issues to do what they can without exacerbating a condition

In this post, I want to talk solely about the first point and leave the others for another time.

It’s interesting. In learning about my conditions, I have come across a lot of writings by other yoga teachers or people who wanted to be yoga teachers describing injuries that either shut them down or forced them to change their approach to yoga. Those that loved yoga for its purely physical aspects definitely have a harder time coping with injury. I consider myself blessed to know that yoga is not just about asanas or postures. Yoga is about right lifestyle and developing resilience. It’s about the breath, concentration, meditation, absorption, and ultimately, liberation. Fortunately, the only aspect of my yoga that will need to adapt is the asana aspect. And considering my style of yoga was already very somatically inclined, and more about the intuitive, interoception than the pose, perhaps it won’t have to change all that much.

Given my diagnosis, I know for at least the time being that I shouldn’t be jumping up and down, nor should I perform twists towards the side of the injury. Away is fine. Nor can I lie supine without neck support. For now, I also need to stay away from poses that put undo pressure into my arm or shoulder such as downdog and plank. While backbends would likely be helpful for my herniated disk, the arthritis and stenosis would preclude me from doing any, at least in the fashion that traditional yoga teaches. Certainly, I won’t want to bear any body weight on my head or neck, as in plough pose (a favorite) or headstand (which I never did anyway!), and I need to be mindful with arms overhead. Forward bends are a go, though. Woohoo!

Here also is where I am grateful that my movement practice has never been limited to yoga. Certain energization exercises (as taught by Paramhansa Yogananda) and somatic exercises are still good as are some developmental movement explorations. I can also indulge in restorative poses, nerve glides, chi gong, tensegrity, and pranayama (of course!).

Whatever I do do, I just have to practice what I always preach: work slowly, let the body lead, and honor your limitations. Going through this is making me a master of pose modifications and variations, which leads more into my third point above about being a better teacher. Though I just realized, I hate that word, ‘teacher’. I want to be more of a facilitator to movement exploration.

So there it is. That’s where things currently stand for this wounded yogini. Stay tuned for more posts about my personal yoga theory and upcoming changes to my classes this Fall.

 

The Path of Kriya Yoga

Since January of this year, I have been taking Raja Yoga courses with Ananda.org in preparation to receive the yogic practice of Kriya later this year. Kriya itself simply means “technique” and refers to the actions one takes on the path of Raja Yoga. Raja Yoga pertains to the highest goal of yoga…self-realization. It is inclusive of all forms of yoga: absorption through meditation, bhakti or devotion, right action (including asana), and wisdom attainment through reflection and contemplation.
So on July 4th, a day that marks liberty in my homeland, I will be vowing discipleship to this beautiful yogic lineage and Paramahansa Yogananda, the one who brought Kriya yoga to the West. He’s no longer in physical body but very much alive in the beauty and refinement of his teachings and in his ability to deeply penetrate hearts and souls.
 
Discipleship? Will You Be Shaving Your Head? Moving to a Convent?
Taking discipleship vows is a commitment and is my way of affirming that I desire to follow God’s will and not my personal egoic will. It means that I am willing to open my heart to God and dissolve the self in that love. It means that I am committed to freeing myself from my attachments and the delusions of this world…however long it takes. It means I am asking for help. This lineage, specifically Yogananda, will be my trusted guide for as long as it may take. It doesn’t require head-shaving, Himalayan caves, tattoos, or passing out flowers at airports (though that could be fun)!
 
So You Worship This Yogananda Now?
Yogananda is not the object of my devotion, but a reminder of it. The devotion is to the Truth. All the glory is God’s.
 
Don’t You Want to Steer Your Own Destiny?
In the way the question implies, not really. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Dielle, who hates to be told what to do and what to think and who has spent lifetimes seeking happiness outside herself is ready now to align herself with something greater. Right from the beginning of my experiences with Ananda, I knew I had finally connected to a lineage of Masters that truly had the potential to lead me home. I’m not giving up anything…anything that I won’t lose someday anyway. I am gaining the real and eternal.
 
I want to be clear because I know there is a a lot of confusion out there about what a guru is and isn’t. The mantra “be your own guru” is a popular one, one I’ve chanted myself plenty of times, and that is indeed the aspiration. But just as a surgeon should learn from someone with experience before applying what he’s studied in books, the surest way to advance on the spiritual path of self-realization is to align with someone who has achieved it. One could attempt to make this journey without a guru, but how many lifetimes would it take? I prefer to walk in the footsteps of successful others.
I also want to explain that this isn’t some kind of savior complex. I am not redeemed by Yogananda. I am redeemed through my own energy, thoughts, and actions. Neither does this mean I cannot work with or benefit from other teachers or paths. It is simply a commitment to one set of practices for my personal practice. It is an agreement of trust. Part of my dharma in this life has been exploring many paths from many lands; now I find that everything coalesces harmoniously into this lineage.
 
To Share or Not to Share
This is a really important juncture in my life and one I debated whether to announce for many reasons. Will there be way too many misunderstanding or critisicms? Will I lose clients who fear I might start trying to get them to drink the cool-aid? Will people now expect me to be some perfected representation when I am all too human with my own shadows to conquer? I have a duty to myself to be transparent. And I sincerely want to declare the deeply personal impact this yogic lineage has had on me and my life and then prove it through how I live. That will take effort, discipline, practice and time. That will take yoga! All I can say is, I’ve known nothing so sweet as the energetic transmissions of Yogananda, and I’ve been blessed with some incredibly sweet teachers and experiences in my life.
 
So Are You All Religious Now?
To be clear, Kriya Yoga is not a religion. It’s really a practice, but the teachings do make reference to words that some might find difficult. I do! I still find myself triggered from time to time when a word or phrase reminds me of Catholic mass! Yogananda, in bringing Yoga to the West, did his utmost to make it accessible to the Christian faith. Of course, it isn’t really about the words. It’s about Truth, and words will always fall short. Even that word, God, is one easily adulterated by misunderstanding and/or misinterpretation. Infinite Spirit, Cosmic Heart, Source of All, Divine Mother & Father, Universal Intelligence… it’s all the same thing. How can one name the nameless? Albeit practical, the naming only creates the illusion of division among people and the stories we tell about the word keep us from seeing who and what we truly are.
 
I haven’t “joined a cult’, nor will I be doing any door-to-door conversions or anything even remotely that silly. But it will of course influence the way that I teach and certainly the type of energy I transmit to my family, friends, and yoga students. But I haven’t forgotten that there are many paths back to our True Nature, of course, and as long as each fulfills the person taking it, making him or her happier and more loving, that is reason alone to respect it.
 
Now the real work begins. Inward and Upward!

Stop the Pain Cycle

It happens. We’re active. We enjoy moving around and getting things done. We might even take pride in all the things we accomplish on a daily basis. Then one day, we get hurt or sick. Maybe we pull or strain something. Maybe we get a diagnosis. We might even break something.

The human body is a strong and resilient organism, but it’s also subject to injury and illness. Even if we take the utmost care of it, we can still have accidents or succumb to disease. That’s life.

When we experience these crises, we can also experience all kinds of associated emotions and fears. What if I don’t heal? What if I can’t play my favorite sport or continue on with work or even move around on my own again. When we go through illness or injure the body, the body tends to guard itself. It is part of the necessary healing process. But when the mind enters the picture and locks us in fear, we start to armour ourselves. We hold back. We over-protect. Or maybe we just don’t want to feel the pain of moving through the entire process of being with what is…so we shut down emotionally instead.

Unfortunately, many people get caught in the pain cycle. They get sick or injured, so they stop moving. Unfortunately, lack of movement creates its own pain. That leads to even less movement leading to even more pain.

What’s a body to do?

It’s critical to understand that movement is life. The more we can move, the better. Even if we can’t move as we once did…or as much as we once did…movement must continue in some way, shape or form in order to break the pain cycle. Too many people make the mistake of forsaking a movement practice due to fatigue, injury or pain.

Of course there are times when we simply need to rest and heal, and until we do, there will be limits. That goes without saying. And yes, there may indeed be things that we simply have to accept we can no longer do, but there is always something we can do to keep everything else well-oiled and optimally functional. It might not be running marathons or power yoga, but it can be a gentle breathing practice or restorative yoga.

Movement is essential in our emotional and mental states as well. They need freedom to flow or we again experience pain or fatigue. We get stuck, frozen in habit. That too makes it harder to recover. Physical movement, even if it’s simply a breath practice, is a great way to process our feelings and shift our mental habits.

Maybe getting past that initial inertia is the hardest part, because once the link is made between how you feel and how much you move, and you begin to recognize and experience the rewards for yourself, you won’t dream of doing yourself the disservice of wallowing in stagnation again. I know it can be scary, but learning to listen to and honor your body is a huge part of any road to true healing. Be encouraged! Get to know that mysterious and magical meatsack you inhabit. Befriend it, just as it is, and let it lead you back to wellness.

 

Yoga Intentions

When I start teaching a yoga class, I usually guide my students to consider their intent for the class. Another way to put it is, “Why are you here?” I throw out a few suggestions…

“Maybe you’re here to feel more relaxed in day to day life, or maybe you simply want to be more mindful of a sore shoulder as we work today.”

I leave my students to then consider and set their own intent. It’s very open-ended and something they keep to themselves. And at the end of class, I ask them to bring it back to mind and think about whether they feel it was met, has shifted, or if it was forgotten after the first few minutes. There’s no good or bad answer. It’s just something to consider.

Our intentions are not always apparent, though. Why are we doing what we’re doing? Are we at class because we paid for a set of classes? Are we there because we needed to get out of the house…or away from someone? Maybe we’re in class but it’s the last place we actually want to be in that moment. Maybe we’re feeling tired or like we might be coming down with something, and are actually wondering whether or not we should have even come. These motivations are actually just as valid as showing up to stay in shape or to cultivate a quiet mind. It is just as important how we’re showing up as it is why.

To get you thinking out of the box, here are some ways you might answer that question for yourself at the start of your own practice:

  • I love how I feel after a workout. I want to feel great!
  • I intend to burn some calories and lose some weight.
  • I want to be gentle with myself tonight. I’ve been pushing too hard.
  • I’m really worried about _____. I just want to forget for an hour.
  • I want to keep my word to myself. I said I’d be here tonight.
  • I really want to honor my edges tonight. I noticed last week I always push beyond them.
  • I feel some pain or weakness in my _____. I need to stay aware of it even if it means backing out of a pose.
  • I want to feel my own strength.
  • Tonight, I’m going to use props just to see how the poses feel different.
  • I’m going to remember to breathe fully throughout the practice tonight.
  • I feel like crap and I want to get through this and go home.
  • I was feeling lonely and wanted to be around people for awhile.
  • I want to run Reiki while I practice.
  • I want to enjoy myself. That’s all.

Maybe now that the pump has been primed, your own creativity is bringing even more ideas to light. The possibilities are endless with awareness and self-honesty. Your statement then becomes your guiding energy as you work.

 

 

Learning Yoga Online: Tips for a Great Class

Online yoga videos are a fabulous well-established yoga tool. They are a great way for students to learn new things, gain exposure to various styles, maintain a home practice and have the convenience of access. For teachers, videos are a fun way to share their unique approach, help reinforce learning for clients, and to reach a wider audience.

The only thing missing? Real-time interaction!

Now, with platforms like Zoom, you don’t have to settle for a sterile one-way video experience.  Real-time online connections for yoga students and teachers are a reality now. The virtual studio is helping yoga lovers everywhere to overcome distance and the isolation that home practice can bring. It will never be able to take the place of working with someone in person, but it can fill a void until you can or supplement your current in-person practice.

If you’re unfamiliar with the technology involved, it might seem a little intimidating at first, but the rewards of diving in are worth the initial effort, especially for those with obstacles to attending in-person classes for whatever reason.

Thinking of taking your first ever online yoga class? There are defintely some things to keep in mind to make the experience a great one for both you as a student and for your teacher who wants you to get the most out of each session.

Here are some tips to help ensure everything goes smoothly.

Platform

Whether you are using Skype or Zoom or some other platform to link into your virtual classroom, don’t wait until class time to create your account or sign in. Try it out a day or so before class. Get to know what buttons do what. Run a test with a friend to make sure you can be both seen and heard. Then, on the day of class, sign in a few minutes before class starts. If anything goes wrong, you’ll have a cushion of time in which to troubleshoot the problem or contact the teacher.

Camera

Some cameras are better than others. Integrated webcams are notorious for a lousy picture.  You don’t necessarily need to go out and buy a new one (mine isn’t perfect either!), but do understand that if your teacher sees a blurry or fuzzy image, it will be harder for them to give you appropriate feedback. Camera views are also crucial and discussed further in “Space”.

Lighting

This is probably one of the most important things to put in place. Natural sunlight, if it is available, will give the brightest, clearest view. When that isn’t possible, try to use a light source that is directly in front  of you rather than behind you. Light coming from behind might make you a shadow or even disappear in the shadows. This makes it impossible for your teacher to see what you are doing.

Space

You will need to set up a space that is clear for you to move in but also far enough away from the camera that the teacher will be able to see as much of your body on the mat as possible. If the camera is too close, your teacher may only see a portion of any particular pose (or nothing at all!), and while she will still be able to guide you generally, she may be unable to guide you in a more personalized way. If too far, you may be too tiny on your teacher’s screen, especially if there are several others present in any given class.

This is a snapshot from one of my online classes. Most of my body is within camera view.

 

The other important thing about your space is to make it free of distraction, as much as possible. Put pets in another room. Ask your children or roommates not to disturb you. Turn off TV’s and radios.

Props

Not every yoga teacher uses props, but it is a good idea to have a few things on hand for your own modifications and comfort. If you have yoga blocks and/or a strap, have them close by. But one can always make do with a stack of books, blanket, towel, and a couple of pillows.

The Initial Awkward

If you’ve never used technology in this way before, the first time you find yourself connected to a group of strangers can be disconcerting. Even if it is a private session, it can take a bit of time to settle in. Once you get used to how things look and run and discover the adjustments that you need to make, it gets easier…even exciting and fun.

The other thing to bear in mind is that as amazing and wonderful as technology can be to broaden our world, it is also still subject to all those little things that can go wrong. Connections get dropped, computers crash, power gets cut, sound cards die, batteries drain, and emails get lost or sent to spam. A little patience goes a long way in overcoming these obstacles. Make sure your yoga teacher and/or her provider has policies in place to deal with these snafus.

Seeing and being seen by someone online, in fact, inviting a yoga teacher into your home or office via technology, may seem scary to some of you, but I encourage you to at least give it a try. Once you get used to the newness of it, you’ll come to enjoy all it has to offer… convenience, comfort, and boundless new connections.

Dielle teaches online with OmPractice.com and teaches privately via Zoom. Contact her for more information.

Would you like to sample one of Dielle’s online classes? Here’s a free taster of an hour-long gentle exploratory yoga class:

That Which Frees the Mind: The Power of Mantra

Mantra is a word that means “that which frees the mind”, and Japa (or mantra) yoga is the practice of projecting the mind into a repeated word or phrase imbued with spiritual significance. One of the most universally known is the OM, but there are thousands of mantras ranging from one syllable to complete spiritual text recitation, each with very specific uses and purposes.

Japa yoga may not be as popular in the West as asana (or postural yoga), but is in fact, much older and steeped in tradition that many would say is an intergral part of a complete yogic practice. Those who feel meditation is too difficult may find mantra recitation to be their doorway into quiet mind. They work on multiple levels of being, making them incredibly powerful.

Mantras help to focus the mind, aiding memory and concentration. Because they are vibratory, they can elevate our physical being and surroundings as well, reducing stress and even lowering blood pressure. Scientifically speaking, mantras can activate and stimluate the glands in the upper chest, throat and brain, improving the body’s chemical state. Furthermore, mantras create a palpable spiritual force around the practitioner to dissolve negative traits and increase self-empowerment. Besides the practice feels good and it’s fun!

Practices vary from one tradition to the next, so if one style isn’t suitable, another may feel just right. Some mantras are recited silently to one’s self and others are chanted aloud, either with or without accompanying melody or instrumentation. Some are quite easy to learn and others take some time to integrate and may even integrate mudra (or hand gestures).

If you ever feel at wits’ end with stress, 3 to 11 minutes of a well-chosen mantra can alter your state like nothing else and it’s completely safe. Try it and see for yourself. One of my favorite mantras comes from the Kundalini yoga tradition and contains the syllables RA, MA, DA, SA, SAY, SO and HUNG. Known as the Siri Gaitri Mantra, it is simple to learn and considered a sacred healing meditation that calls upon the energies of the sun, moon, earth, and the Infinite Spirit. You can listen to this impeccably beautiful version here by Mirabai Ceiba and see for yourself.

Starting September 28th, I am offering  an hour long chants and mantras practice at my studio here in Brossac. We’ll be learning technique and mantras from Hindu, Tibetan, and Sikh traditions to raise our vibratory frequency and bring healing to body, mind and spirit. No experience necessary. It’ll be “by donation” and open to speakers of all languages and all qualities of voices, from the tone-deaf to the trained. You’ll love the way you feel. Contact me for more information.

Movement for Life

All of life is movement. The moment we’re born we’re wriggling, pandiculating, breathing, and finding our way through space. We explore and thereby learn to master our movements. Or we struggle, and the body, miraculous organism that it is, finds a way to overcome our limitations. It’s those patterns that we then habituate.

And then one day, our bodies start to change and we wonder why it is suddnely too hard to do the things we’ve always done. Maybe we’re just exhausted, or maybe we lift something or sleep funny or fall and suddenly, something hurts, be it our back or a shoulder or knee. We do our usual workout and suddenly discover our bones ache. We think “arthritis” or worse. The panic sets in and we wonder how badly we might have hurt ourselves and what we need to do to about it: ignore it and hope it goes away, see a doctor, self-treat?

Aside from the decision about what to do about our injured part and assuming we haven’t broken anything, we have two basic choices thereafter. We can either stop moving to ensure that we don’t risk further pain or injury, or we can continue to move in safe ways so our body stays limber and fluid.

Sadly, many of us choose to stop moving. We fear the discomfort, pain or effort, so we hold back. We rest, thinking we’re doing ourselves a favor. Trouble is, when we stop moving, it gets harder to move. When it gets harder to move, we move even less. When we stop moving, we rather suddenly age. We lose the freedom that movement brings. We stop doing the things we enjoy.

The better choice, the important choice, is to keep moving. Maybe we have to make changes. Maybe that mile run needs to turn into laps in the pool. Maybe the Ashtanga yoga practice needs to become more restorative. The important thing is to keep the body moving to keep it young and to fully enjoy life.

We used to look at the body as a set of individual parts…the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, etc. The latest science of movement has revealed that the body isn’t just a bunch of isolated parts. It’s a unified whole tied together by tension lines called fascia.

Fascia needs movement to stay healthy. When we injure a “part”, the fascia is what knits together to protect the injury. This tissue then becomes less flexible. The problem is, the fascia is connected from head to toe. It’s all one. So if one part of the fascia is tight, it impacts the entire body.

It’s the resistance that makes us say, “It’s too hard!” But if we stop moving, that body-wide tension becomes habit and ages us before our time.  We see it in bodies that are bent over, hunched, and  crooked — signs of a body doing its utmost to guard the still-tender wounds of life.  We need movement to break this rigidity that can settle both deep in the body and eventually the mind.

When people who don’t practice yoga look at yoga, they think, “Oh, I can’t do that!” But what’s important is not some twisted up, contortionist posture. What IS important is movement. Just keep moving — as much or as little as your body allows and preferably in ways that free you from habits. Practicing sports can be great for well-being, but they can also be great at reinforcing imbalance. Certain muscle groups are built up (as necessary to engage in the sport) and others are forsaken. That’s why exploratory yoga and improvisational forms of dance are so wonderful. Practiced with a sense of curiosity and adventure, you’re more likely to discover new ways to move and bring enjoyment and liberation to your body.

 

 

 

Whooz Yer Guru? Getting Over “Guru” Baggage

The word “guru” gets a really bad rap these days, and for good reason. There are those who make claim to “my guru” like having one is some kind of spiritual goalpost. They quote their guru, usually in an attempt to convince themselves of the teaching, pretending as if they already embody it. It’s a real turn-off.

Plus there are a growing number of news stories about unethical gurus taking advantage of their followers, the recent Wild Wild Country series on Netflix being one such example of the possible and/or perceived danger of gurus. And there is a danger…the danger of putting your responsibility for your life in the hands of another or actually thinking that gurus aren’t people too, with the same weaknesses of character we all face.

There also seem to be a lot more self-proclaimed gurus out there these days. So many think they are enlightened and that what they have to say is worth the hundreds or even thousands of dollars they charge to share it. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.

But what is a guru anyway? Guru simply means teacher or guide. It means “dispeller of darkness”, more specifically. The word is quite simple, though its connotation has been made so complex.

It unfortunate that people will discount a message because it comes from someone considered a guru, as if that word alone would render the message meaningless. Life-altering messages are often discounted because the person offering it is of a certain age, race, or religion…or because they dress funny or wear too many rings. It’s sad that valuable messages can be so obscured by our own judgments.

It is also unfortunate that there are those who will bow down to another, as if everything they are searching for is to be found outside their own knowing. It is a sad, hellish trap when we can blame others for our inadequacies or misunderstandings. It is a denial that ensures a lifetime of suffering.

Neither approach really works. We’re either defending ourselves against new perspectives or we’re relinquishing our inner power to some image. The thing that matters is the message, not the person sharing it. How long will it take us to break out of our “shoot (or bow to) the messenger” mentality?

It’s time to get over our “guru” baggage. We are all just human beings. Some of are better at accessing humanity-wide relevant wisdom than others. Some have gone so deeply inward that they now see so much more clearly than the rest. But none of us are capable of knowing what is true for another. It could also be said that every single one of us is a teacher to someone. Why do so many feel the need to judge another’s teacher if they feel they are getting from that teacher something that gives them insight or peace?

I’d been warned in the past by well-meaning friends not to put my faith in some guru. I wonder why they felt the need to tell me that? I’ve never put a teacher on that much of a pedestal. Respect, yes. Trust, yes. Devotion, maybe. But I have never been at risk of losing myself in that. I know who I am, and I know that the teachers who come and go from my life are only representatives of something far more mysterious and far greater than the human form they may take.

Don’t let the word “guru” stop you from discovering what is inside of you. I am my own guru. And so are you. We are each the dispeller of darkness in our own lives. We are each the experts on our own experiences. No one can ever play that role for another, not entirely. We can learn much from each other, no question. We can inspire each other with our wise words and perspectives. We will be attracted to those whose message resonates and not to others. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make one message superior to another just because at this point in time it resonates with you. That spiritual materialism needs to go too.

I gotta laugh when people make fun with comments like, “Everyone thinks he’s a guru” because the truth is, we all are…just not to anyone but ourselves.

Seated Posture: Prop Yourself Up!

Yoga is often believed to be about some ideal end point. Many students will strive to assume a posture they have seen another body do without taking into consideration everything it may have taken to get there. But when we aren’t initiating movement from the proper starting point, we risk injuring ourselves.

I always give my students options for sitting. I even offer the couch when I know we’ll be seated for some time. I’m always amazed that so few will take the options available, preferring instead to fit the picture they have in their heads of yogic sitting (I’ve been guilty of that too!). But there’s absolutely no shame in using props to achieve a more comfortable seat. In fact, it’s a sign of intelligence and body awareness. I hope this helps  you understand why when it comes to sitting criss-cross-applesauce, also known as Indian style or easy pose.

Note in the picture below that the back is straight and the shoulders relaxed. That’s good and may be comfortable. However, the knees are just slightly higher than the hips, and that might cause problems:

In the next photo, the back is clearly strained, the knees are much higher than the hips, and the shoulders are at the ears. It’s actually not that uncommon to see people sitting like this in a yoga class. There’s an easy fix.

Simply place a block, rolled blanket, or cushion (or any combination until it feels “just right”) beneath your hips to raise them up:

Voila! The knees drop below the hips and everything else can relax upright:

Now let’s take a look at a seated forward fold (paschimottanasana). If the hamstrings permit, it is possible to sit upright, legs straight, both sit bones on the ground, shoulders relaxed:

From there, one folds forward at the hips and is able to extend toward the toes:

But if your starting seated posture is hunched or rounded, head dropping forward of the shoulders like this…

…the seated forward fold might look more like this photo below. The hamstrings aren’t getting the stretch. There’s no deep flexion at the hips and all the work is coming from the upper back, which can lead to injury. Plus, with the chest collapsed, what’s happening with the breath?

The fix is again quite simple. Just place that block (blanket or cushion) under your seat.

Now your spine is able to remain upright and your pelvis is not pouring out behind you in a posterior tilt:

From there, the forward fold is once again happening where it should, saving the body from excessive pressure, strain and injury. Though not pictured, it is also perfectly acceptable to bend your knees (or use a strap around the feet). In fact, it would have allowed me to lengthen my spine rather than collapse over my chest as I did:

 

Of course, once we move into a pose, we also need to move out of it safely. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but it can also be misleading. What one body can do with comfort and without strain doesn’t necessarily translate to another body.  So use these photos as guides, not superlatives.

Even with these modifications to a posture, it is still essential to listen to your body, taking your time to journey into the fold, easing off when the body tells you to. Forward folds may be contraindicated for people with lower back issues, osteoporosis, or women in the late stages of pregnancy.

Sometimes, students tend to think of props as a last resort or get the idea that using them is somehow cheating. That’s a mindset that helps no one. Would you begrudge a person his glasses in order to read? Yoga isn’t about some ideal posture that every body should attain. It is about the ideal posture for your body. Make sure you give your body every advantage in your practice.

Listening to the Body: The Language of Sensation

An ever-increasing awareness of your body can be one of the many benefits of yoga. It helps us to bring balance to the body by working neglected muscle groups. It improves our overall strength and flexibility. It helps us develop a better lung capacity and focus of mind, among other things. It can.

Yet, we live in a world where performance seems to be everything. Competition infiltrates what is meant to be fun. Striving, self-improvement, and “doing it right” can all lead us down a path toward injury, away from a deeper body awareness, away from the true meaning of yoga, “union”.

One of the most critical aspects of body awareness is recognizing when something we are doing is causing (or will eventually cause) us trouble. Sometimes, pushing through discomfort makes us stronger, as when we add a few extra squats after the thigh burn sets in. Sometimes, that pushing injures us, as when we ignore the knee about to snap from one too many squats! Body awareness is about learning to distinguish the difference. Here are some important things to keep in mind.

No Pain No Gain is a Load of *%&$!

First of all, pain is NEVER a good thing. Who ever started the rumor “no pain, no gain” had ultior motives, perhaps to prove something to his own ego or perhaps to get others to bow to his (or her) biddings. Think about it, how deeply that meme has rooted itself into our consciousness! Consider how many times you’re heard it on TV or in movies, read it in books, heard it in gyms or even said it yourself to justify self-abuse. “Pain? Abstain!” is far more helpful a mantra. So the first and foremost rule of movement is that pain means you must modify or stop. Period. There’s no such thing as “good pain”.

When is Discomfort Okay?

When is discomfort okay in our workouts or routines? It might be helpful to distinguish whether we lean towards under or over-achievement in our lives. If we’re big strivers, then discomfort may be a little too close to pain. If we are underachievers, enduring some discomfort can help us break out of our limitations.

One way to think about it is whether or not the signals coming from your body are shrouded in thought or not. When we are pushing against the mind more than the body, the mind will grumble loudly about how difficult something is and that it doesn’t want to continue. As long as you don’t have pain sensations telling you otherwise, it is usually safe to push past a resistant mind’s discomfort. This is how we build endurance and resilience. Problem is, for many of us, we’ve lost the ability to distinguish mind from body. In fact, the mind is just as likely to tell us we can push a little bit harder. It can’t be trusted! Well, maybe mind over matter comes in handy in crisis situations when walking on a broken ankle is the difference between life or death, but that’s exceptional.

Pain, actual pain, tends to send a very clear signal that the mind doesn’t need to interpret. Discomfort, absent of actual pain on the other hand, is trickier to decipher, so don’t leave it to logic. The body just knows, intuitively. Trust what it communicates.

Other Danger Signals

Are there other sensations, apart from what one would label as “pain”, that are pretty good signals that we’ve entered dangerous territory? Yes!  If we experience intensifying pressure, feel dizziness, start buckling under the strain, notice we’re holding our breath when we’re supposed to be breathing, or are gripping in such a way that there is more tension than ease in the body, we’ve already pushed ourselves too far and need to let up! Stop. Release. Reassess.

The Language of Sensation

When we develop a vocabulary that helps us identify what we actually feel, it can help us determine a course of action. When you get feedback from your body, can you describe it? Does it burn or sear, tingle or pulse? Is it shaky, prickly or clenched? Numb? Radiating? Disconnected? Are you feeling nauseous, is your muscle tender, or is your heart racing or fluttery?

I’ll often ask students, “Is it the good kind or a bad kind?” when they express discomfort with a movement or pose. This helps them clarify whether what they are experiencing is benign or harmful.

Chest pain doesn’t necessarily mean a heart attack nor does a throbbing ache mean you’ve pulled something. Usually, it just means we need to relax and let go for awhile. Rest, recover. Developing a sensory vocabulary can help us more deeply feel and understand what’s going on inside of us, help us regulate ourselves back to ease and comfort, and if necessary, help us describe the sensation to someone else, be it a teacher or health practitioner, making it easier for them to help.

We can’t fix what we don’t notice! Body Awareness is a multidimensional skill that takes time and consistent willingness to awaken and hone. The more we do it, the more we notice what is and isn’t working, what does and doesn’t feel pleasurable. It is crucial for our well-being as well as an impetus for creativity and change. What we discover on the mat we eventually take with us into our daily lives as we learn to live with more ease and pleasure, too.

 

 

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