Sunday, June 5, 2011

The rhythm of life

Photo credit: Akuppa John Wigham./ Flickr Creative Commons
Yesterday I taught my final exam class for yoga teacher training. I've been working on it pretty seriously for over a month, agonizing over the sequence of poses, tinkering constantly with the playlist (trying to get Nomad's Follow the Sun to line up with my Reverse Warrior pose - it's the first song on the linked video "Turn your face to the sunshine/ and you won't see the shadows"), and practicing teaching the class to my mentor, classmates, and an empty room full of imaginary students. I've been using the room where I was scheduled to teach in order to become comfortable there and visualize my success. Little by little, I became confident and comfortable teaching my class. On Thursday, I was very happy with my teaching. I went into yesterday's workshop feeling ready to go, seeing myself as a yoga teacher.

I was the last of five students scheduled to teach yesterday. Just as the second class was winding down and we were moving into Savasana, loud music began blaring into our room from outside. After class, we looked outside and discovered that the car wash across the street had been converted into some kind of event stage for the Art Around Adams festival. Large speakers were pointed directly towards the studio window. We decided to move to the main studio, a much larger and less intimate space but better insulated for sound.

Two more classes went by without incident, and it was my turn to teach. I set up my room, playing some mood-setting music on my iPod. Everyone was tired but ready to push through with class. Then, just as I was beginning to teach, loud drumming started right outside the studio. I was completely fazed. Sound easily affects my concentration, with calming music assisting me and drum beats extremely distracting. Nevertheless, I'd been preparing for this moment and I was ready to teach. I began my class, doing my best to focus and create a calming atmosphere. I walked around, breathing a loud ujjayi breath. I tried turning my music off, but then the drums seemed at odds with what I was doing. I tried turning it up, but there was no competing. I ended up settling for my music fairly softly and the drums beating over the top of it all.

In spite of all this, the class went really well. It's always challenging doing something new, and stressful to take any exam, but I was really happy with how things went. At some point, the drums stopped, so my quiet meditative music was the only sound for Savasana and I was able to go around and do some nice adjustments and spread the lovely scent of lavender around the room.

However, there was still one last lesson to be learned. It wasn't until a couple of people suggested that I could have simply turned my music off and taught the class to the beat of the drums that I realized I had totally missed the gift I had been sent. For me, the drums were a distraction and "ruining" the mood I had chosen to set for the class, but for the students doing the class, the drums were an invigorating force at the end of a long and tiring day. I had completely missed that potential energy. All that planning and visualization was helpful, but in the end, there I was repeating an old pattern: clinging stubbornly to my plans, my version of how things were "supposed to be" - and fighting against the inexorable rhythm of life.

This class - my last class as a trainee teacher and my first class as a professional - taught me something I never expected. As I taught my first class in the role of a teacher, I also found myself in the role of a student, repeating an important lesson about life. I am not in control. Life has its own rhythms, and sometimes dancing to your own drummer is not the way to go if your inner drummer is in conflict with the rhythms around you.

Ironically, this lesson was already encapsulated in my class and it was I, the teacher, who needed to hear it. The class theme was "gratitude", and I ended with a quote from Melody Beattie:
"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend."

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.

What I had was live drumming right outside the studio, and I had forgotten to be grateful! What I had was enough and more. My gratitude in those first few moments of class could have turned "denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity."  Instead, I suffered through fear and frustration. Now, as I work to let go of the story of how things happened or how things could have happened, I am realizing that not clinging to the past does not mean we fail to grasp its lessons. I hope that I will be able to carry this lesson with me into my work as a yoga teacher.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this was exactly the lesson I needed to grow as a person, a yogi, a teacher. I am very grateful for those drummers now.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Change is constant

Photo credit: lululemon athletica/ Flickr Creative Commons
I was waiting for a bus the other day after a teacher training workshop when a woman came out of a nearby tattoo parlor. As she walked by me, I caught a glimpse of her brand new tattoo: change is constant. This isn't a new concept to me - I've written about impermanence here before, for example (follow the tag on this post) - but for whatever reason, I received the message in a new way. It was as though there were a footnote on her tattoo that said: and that means you, too.

Change is constant and that means you, too. Sometimes I have this crazy fear that I can't change, that I'll always be fighting the same battles and making the same mistakes, that I'll always be stuck in the same patterns of being. In fact, change is inevitable, and that means me, too. Everything changes. And that conviction that we're in some way an exception, that our identity is somehow permanent and unchanging? Well, what are the chances of that?

This is pretty liberating and empowering - because change may be imperceptibly slow sometimes, but it is constant. On a cellular level, we're changing all the time as new cells die and are replaced; we don't usually notice those changes happening, but they are. Perhaps in a similar way, elements of old mental/ emotional patterns die and are replaced regularly, and although we can't see the changes taking place most of the time, we aren't stuck: we have an incredible capacity for transformation. This is our birthright. It is constant and inevitable. It's important, therefore, to work for positive change - because change will happen regardless. Look within and make those changes count! Namaste.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The wisdom I once knew

Yoga teacher training is giving me lots that I want to write about - and no time to write in. I hope these posts that are rattling around in my head will eventually make it here. Some of the things I've been learning seem new; other ideas are realizations that I've been reaching towards for some time but have only just found within my grasp. Still other ideas seem like things I knew once but thought I had forgotten.
Photo Credit: Tela Chhe/ Flickr Creative Commons
We all learned to walk once. From our positions on the floor, we were driven to grasp nearby objects and pull ourselves upright. In that position, we had to use our muscles in new ways, figuring out how to stabilize joints and stack our bones. Even then, with some measure of stability, we weren't satisfied. We had to walk, and then run - learning to keep it all together and balance in a constantly shifting world. We moved too fast, leaned too far, and fell - often, and sometimes painfully. We howled when we hit our heads on the corners of tables and scraped our hands and knees - but the next opportunity, we pulled ourselves upright and ran headlong into the next disaster, fearless, until we learned to feel our own center of balance and remain steady on our feet.
Photo Credit: Neeta Lind/ Flickr Creative Commons
Now, many years later, most of us don't remember how we learned to walk. We're blissfully unaware of the painful headlong falls, and we have no conscious memory of how we learned to balance on our feet. When it comes to balancing upside down - on your head or hands or forearms - it may seem like something completely new. As I try to understand the limits of my balance in inversions, however, I'm realizing that I have done this all before. I've already been through this process of challenging the force of gravity, of learning to stack all the bones in my body on top of each other, of finding the point of lightness and effortless balance in a seemingly impossible vertical position. Somewhere, in those deep hidden places in the body where forgotten memories go, I know how to learn this.

Back then, those hurtling falls didn't faze me for long. Now, when I reach too far with my legs and come crashing to the ground, I'm left with a lingering fear that sends me back to basics, just trying to straighten my legs into the air again. Somewhere deep inside, I need to connect with the toddler me - that little girl who wanted so badly to walk around, who had such incredible confidence to try again, who had not yet learned to dwell on past failures. In my practice, I'm seeking the simplicity of being of a child. I'm striving to bring in a little innocence to balance my wisdom, to infuse beginner's mind into these poses. I want to do them with all the knowledge I've gained from my previous attempts, but also with the openness that comes with trying something for the first time.

Surely part of the practice is to walk, run, dance, balance on your head, and love as though you've never been hurt, never fallen down, never cracked your head against the corner of a table. To be fully present through the falling and the getting back up, and then to be fully present in the next attempt - as though falling last time had nothing to do with what will happen this time - because it doesn't, in fact, as hard as that is to believe. Maybe that's all of the practice in fact, all the work there really is to do. I'm starting to think that it will be enough.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

OK, Rumi, let's dance.

Photo Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbera/ Flickr Creative Commons
We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.
~Japanese proverb

Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.
~ Rumi

Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests just made his second anniversary post. Happy blogiversary, Nathan! To celebrate, he posted his first post from the blog. It isn't my anniversary, but I thought I'd go back and look at my first post anyway. Here's a piece of it (from November 2, 2008):
If yogis discovered the secret of happiness thousands of years ago, why do we now still live in a culture of so much suffering?! And to put it more personally, since this is to be my personal journey, why do I still suffer so much? Why do I forget to practice in my daily life, when I know that it will not only make me happier and healthier, but also decrease suffering in the lives of those around me?

In June, I started a Masters in International Education at the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont. I chose the school because I believe the SIT philosophy is highly compatible with my attempts to increase the practice of yoga in my daily life. In formulating my learning plan, I stated as my second learning objective "Explore ways to bring my career into harmony with my yoga practice." In fact, this is one of the key reasons why I am doing this degree - to give myself the training and the tools to adjust my working life to facilitate my practice - and yes, cheesy cheesy, to do more good in the world.

It's interesting to look back on because I don't feel that way any more. It's not that I don't suffer, but that the quality of my suffering has changed. Back then, I was suffering in the dark. Now, I feel like I can at least suffer with the light on. I have a consistent daily practice, not only of yoga and meditation on the mat or cushion, but also taking these practices into my life and applying them to running, eating, working, and personal relationships. Through this, I've not only physically transformed but I've begun to shine the flashlight of mindfulness into all sorts of dark corners.

In the beginning, this blog was about bringing my career into alignment with my yoga practice. I had forgotten that. Back then, I was working a challenging administrative job and struggling to practice yoga in the workplace. I was reluctant to admit that I was struggling so much because it wasn't the right place for me to be. It was a job that worked with my strengths and which brought out all the worst in me, too. I suffered in many ways at that time: emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually. The suffering had to get really bad before I was really willing to look at the forces that were holding me there and ask myself: Why? Why fight? Why not just let go?

I was clearly looking for the light switch, even then. I'd started my Masters program because I was already seeking. I wrote those things in my learning plan and started this blog for a good reason. I've even had a Rumi quote up on my computer sidebar, probably since before I started this blog: Let the beauty you love be what you do. It took me all this time to really see it, to look Rumi in the eyes and reply, Yes. OK. I know why you are here. Let's dance.

When I started shining that flashlight around, mostly what I saw was fear. When I looked more closely, I realized that fear is always worse than the thing I fear.  I know this is not a new concept, but the more I sit on my cushion in silence with my eyes closed, the more I have to make friends with it. I began to wonder if I ever had any other motivation for action in my life besides avoiding fear. I began to wonder what would happen if I did something for love. Would the world end? Would the boogieman in the corner come out and get me? Did it matter?

There's never any map for these journeys we take, or rather, I'd say there are many maps - the experiences of others who have taken their own journeys and lived to tell the tale - but they're cryptic and incomplete, and sometimes we flat out refuse to believe that they could really be telling us to leap off that cliff into the darkness. Over the past three years, I've been evolving. I feel like the same person, but when I look back to that first post, I know I am not. I'm teaching at Community College now, and it's scary and difficult and fulfilling. I just started Yoga Teacher Training this past weekend. I'm finally ready to take the necessary risks in order to make sure all the pieces of my life really fit. I've learned to feel gratitude for the fear and suffering, because I've realized that they were the map and directions. They were the flashlight. I'm ready, finally, to really love what I do.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Making choices in practice: limbs, branches, and paths

Yoga texts and articles, ancient and modern, abound with metaphors for the choices we make in our practice. The eight components of Astanga Yoga are often referred to as the eight "limbs", while the different approaches we can take to practice are often called "branches" or "paths" of yoga. (Different sources list varying numbers of "branches" - raja, karma, bhakti, and jnana are usually included, and then many modern descriptions include hatha, tantra, kundalini, and various others). These metaphors obviously resonate with people because they have stuck around. The metaphor of the journey is one that I have always connected with personally, hence the name of this blog. My practice is not static, but evolving. It grows and changes, depending on my needs. The deeper I go, the more committed I am to practice, but also the more willing I am to take detours and walk different paths for a while.

I'm beginning a yoga teacher training program in less than two weeks, so I've been thinking a lot about my personal practice and what kind of a teacher I will be. It's definitely important to me to be flexible in my practice and to learn about different limbs/ branches/ paths/ [insert metaphor here] so that I will be aware of my choices when my needs change. It's also important to try different styles of yoga to find which you connect with most strongly. Any path can be a road in.

If yoga is a journey and there are many paths in the woods, I think these paths intersect in various places, so there's no need to pick just one. There have been times when reading and studying the philosophy of yoga has been how I've really been able to connect. Sometimes, I just want to do asana, and other times I want to meditate or chant or help others. I am grateful for all these choices because they allow me to remain engaged with my practice no matter what is going on in my life.

However, I also think it can be useful to explore the paths that seem a little darker and less inviting to you. You may decide not to stay on that path after all, or you may discover that it was something within you that was blocking your path and perhaps you were meant to walk it for a while after all. Sometimes it is exactly the practice that challenges us, the one we resist, that is the one we need the most. Sometimes, I think it's possible to use the concept of "different paths" to avoid exploring an aspect of practice that scares us or promises to be difficult.

After a long time practicing mostly off the mat, I am coming home to hatha yoga. I say coming home because, like many so-called Westerners (we really need to find a better term for that), hatha yoga is where I began. I must say it feels like home, and I'm happy to be practicing mostly hatha at the moment. That doesn't mean I'm sticking with one style of asana practice, though. Some days I do a lot of pranayama and meditation, and other days I just want to do a million vinyasas. I'm enjoying exploring different styles in my home practice and in the classes I attend. I think it makes me a better person, and I think it will make me a better teacher too.

On the other hand, I'm aware that this might just be a personal preference. Some people probably prefer to commit to a path and follow it deeper and deeper. There isn't any one "right" way to do it. Each yogi has to find - or make - his or her own road.

If you practice yoga, what has your path been? Have you focused on one or more limbs and not others? Have you picked a branch and gone way out, or are you swinging from branch to branch as you go along? Do you feel like you've found "your path"?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Putting yourself first

Photo credit: spaceodissey/ Flickr Creative Commons
I think in our culture, we often believe that putting ourselves first is selfish, egotistical, wrong. This in spite of a lot of big talk about "looking out for number one." (Talk which is usually problematic in other ways, but I don't want to go there right now.) We give so little respect and value to our own needs, our own lives. We put the needs of our loved ones before our own, and we put the needs of our jobs: the needs of our superiors, our subordinates, our peers and our clients before our own. Maybe we realize that this is not working, and we try to put aside a portion of each day for self-care, or we try to assert our right to say no.

I've been thinking about this a lot because I've been on a journey, the last two years, of learning to say yes to myself. Like so many things, it's a little easier said than done. The how and when to put your own needs first is difficult. It's not that you want to ignore the needs of others. It's just that you need to be well and balanced yourself in order to truly give and support the others around you. Too few of us in this culture are well and balanced these days, in my opinion. I know this because when I meet someone who is, that person stands out.

I wanted to pass on a teaching from one of my teachers, Susan Marcus. (Susan has so much wisdom to share, and I'm excited to see her own studio, Studio Peace, coming into being. Check it out.) Last week in class, it seemed like everyone was hurting in one way or another. Susan took the opportunity to talk about how injury reminds us that we need to respect and care for our bodies. Then she said, "I often think that if everyone took care of themselves the way women do when they're pregnant, how much healthier we'd all be. Just think about what would happen if we all took as much responsibility for our own lives in our bodies as we do when we have another life within us."

I'm at the age where a large percentage of my friends are either pregnant or have just had a baby, so I've seen it happen. Women get pregnant, and they stop drinking so much coffee. They stop drinking alcohol and/or smoking. They start eating their fruits and vegetables, they take their supplements, and they start drinking enough water. They work less overtime and they're dedicated to making time for their yoga class.

Why are we willing to make profound life changes to protect the life of our child, but we are not willing to make the same changes to protect the body - the one and only body - we were given in this life? Why are we not willing to make those same changes for ourselves, when they improve our happiness and our sense of well-being? I'm saying "we" here because I'm just as guilty as the next person. Stop drinking coffee?

So I've been playing with this idea a little bit. There's this spark of divinity in this body. This body is all it has. How can I care for it? It makes it a little easier not to make excuses, a little easier to step onto my mat every day and eat my veggies and drink water and meditate. The life within me. The light within me. Ahimsa applies to me, too.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reflections of our true nature

Photo credit: Bryan Ray (black_listed/ Flickr Creative Commons)
"While we practice conscious breathing, our thinking will slow down, and we can give ourselves a real rest. Most of the time, we think too much, and mindful breathing helps us to be calm, relaxed and peaceful. It helps us stop thinking so much and stop being possessed by sorrows of the past and worries about the future. It enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment."
- "Peace is Every Step" by Thich Nhat Hanh

As I mentioned in a post last month, I've been following Tricycle Magazine's Commit to Sit challenge for the past 27 days. As it draws to a close, I've been reflecting on the experience. I did my full-day meditation challenge yesterday and am finishing the experience with two days of the regular Week 4 program. The full day of meditation was... well, challenging for me. I've never meditated for longer than an hour at a time before. The experience ranged from pain, frustration and self-hatred to bliss, gratitude and insight. Towards the end of the second two-hour block, I rose to do walking meditation and I felt like I was gliding through each step in pure awareness.

In that moment, I had a new understanding of the ethical components of yogic and Buddhist practice. During the Commit to Sit program, I committed to the Five Precepts as best I could. These practices were familiar to me as they share a lot in common with the five yamas of yoga. I've always struggled to follow the yamas, feeling some of them were almost unattainable. The yamas are often translated as "restraints" or "abstinences" or even commandments or "thou shalt nots" (ugh!). I recently encountered an alternate translation in Nischala Joy Devi's The Secret Power of Yoga book, which is subtitled A woman's guide to the heart and spirit of the Yoga Sutras. Whether or not you agree that a heart-centered perspective is a purely feminine construct, it is interesting to read this refreshing and positive take on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras text.

Many traditional translations of this part of the sutras (II29-39) think about the yamas as restrictions to our behavior towards others (ahimsa = non-violence or non-harming; satya = truthfulness; asteya = non-stealing; brahmacharya = well, we can't agree on a translation for this one because we're afraid it might mean no sex! but commonly continence, sense-control, celibacy, or the like; aparigraha = non-hoarding, non-stealing, non-greed). Nischala Devi has a different take (p.p. 168-169):
"Often, to simplify the enormous breadth and depth of the Yamas and Niyamas, they are called the "Do's and Don'ts of Yoga" [sic] or sometimes the "Ten Commandments of Yoga." This is taking a highly refined and virtuous way of living expressed throughout the millennia and reducing it to a finger-shaking image... When observed on a subtler level, the Yamas and Niyamas seem to be more of a tribute to being, affirming our already Divine nature..."

"Knowing the importance of repeating a statement in the affirmative, I have chosen to translate (as much as I possibly could) using positive, life-affirming language... When words or phrases evoke fear, punishment, or denial of pleasure, they encroach on our spiritual practices and diminish rather than enhance the glory of our true nature."
 Her translation of the yamas (reflections of our true nature) is:
  1. Ahimsa: reverence, love, compassion for all
  2. Satya: truthfulness, integrity
  3. Astheya: generosity, honesty
  4. Brahmacharya: balance and moderation of the vital life force
  5. Aparigraha: awareness of abundance, fulfillment.
Doesn't that feel different?

Anyway, whatever translation you use, it seems clear enough that it's desirable to achieve compassion and reverence for all life, integrity, generosity, and a sense of fulfillment. But then you're going about your day and you yell at the driver in front of you, and then you gossip about someone at work, and then you decide not to share part of your lunch with a coworker who doesn't have any because you want it all for yourself.

So, how in the world do you achieve this stuff? What occurred to me yesterday in meditation is maybe you just slow down. We go through our lives so fast, we can barely see them happening to us, just like we walk so fast, we can't feel how our body is moving through the steps. Maybe you just slow down enough that you can see and feel what is happening. In that walking meditation yesterday, I felt that, at my core, I was calm and peaceful. Each step was smooth and steady and careful. From that place, I think the yamas would arise naturally and with ease. "Reflections of our true nature."

I know that this isn't a new concept, but experiencing it the way I did was new to me. Of course, slowing down that much is easier said than done. But it's a start. It's a piece of the puzzle, something concrete to move towards. It sounds easier than just love everyone and everything. I'll give it a try.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chain reaction: Continuing to focus back

Photo credit: Soham Basoham (soham_pablo/ Flickr Creative Commons)
I have a confession to make.  For the first time in my life, I've had terrible back pain since some time last month. As a yogi, I couldn't help thinking This shouldn't be happening to me. I kept hoping it would just stop, but it didn't. In fact, as you might have guessed, it got worse until it was really affecting my quality of life and severely impeding my ability to sit in meditation. I couldn't figure out what was triggering it. I'd been traveling a lot during December and the first part of January, and the pain started some time after I returned home. I feared it was my return to running after taking some time off, or maybe it was my bed? I did more yoga, hoping I could work out the kinks, but my back continued to get worse. I deepened my inquiry into the back body. And then, I wrote my last blog post.

After reading my post, Kit Spahr, who blogs at Sometimes It's Art, wrote to tell me she's been engaged in a similar exploration of the back body. She turned me on to this post by Katy Bowman. I tried the suggested exercise and discovered, of course, that I'm a rib thruster. Katy provides some useful tips for correcting this alignment problem, and I started to consider these.

Then I started catching up on my Yoga Journals that had come around the holidays when I'd been too busy to read them. In the December 2010 magazine, the Anatomy column is by Roger Cole and is called "Easy Seat" (unfortunately not available online, but if you have the magazine, it starts on pg. 75). Cole talks about contracting the lower erector spinae muscles to correct misalignment and eliminate back pain in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). When I read it, I had a sudden realization. Far from keeping my back healthy, my yoga was causing my back pain - and it had been exacerbated to its current level by poor alignment in seated meditation during my Commit to Sit program.

The next time I sat, I was able to follow the whole chain reaction in my spine. My hamstrings are tight from running, so it's hard for me to achieve the correct pelvic position in a crosslegged seated position (the top of my pelvis is tilted back). I've been adjusting for this by sitting up on blankets or a meditation cushion, which allows me me to tilt my pelvic into a neutral position, but it takes effort to hold it there so as I focus on relaxation or on the breath, I tend to slip and round the lower back again.

Very often in yoga class, an instruction is given in a crosslegged seated pose to "roll the shoulders up, back, and down." When I was less flexible in the upper body, this had the intended result of opening my chest and relaxing the shoulders down, but as my chest, back and shoulders became more flexible and my shoulder blades became more mobile, I began performing this action by thrusting my thoracic spine far forward and pushing the shoulder blades deep into the back.

Another common instruction is to "lift the chest/ sternum" (I mentioned this in my last post), which I achieved by thrusting my ribs forward. Add this to my sometimes rounded lumbar spine, and I've been putting a huge amount of stress on my thoracic spine to curve in ways it was never meant to. (Cole's article is really excellent and has a helpful way to explore the curves of the spine and the use of the erector spinae muscles using cat/ cow which I highly recommend.)

One way I can tell when I'm doing this is that belly breathing is difficult, even painful. For years, I've been having occasional difficulty with the three-part yogic breath; I now realize it is often hard when sitting but always easy when lying on my back. I'm not sure of the anatomical explanation for this, but sitting the way I have been (slightly rounding my lumbar spine and pushing the thoracic spine forward to compensate while thrusting the lower ribs out), breathing into the belly is painful. When I contract the muscles along the lumbar spine and pull my lower ribs back while focusing on flattening my shoulder blades onto the back instead of thrusting them into the back, I can suddenly breathe into the belly with ease.

Another instruction I've misunderstood is one often given in seated forward bends: lead with your chest. The idea of this instruction is to have students bend at the hips instead of rounding the spine to get further down. However, because I don't have the mobility in my pelvis but I do have a lot of flexibility in my upper back, I realize that I've been backbending in my forward bends, thrusting the chest way out and the ribs way forward. Focusing on keeping the lower ribs in as Cole describes in his article allows me to work on bending forward from the pelvis instead of pushing the chest forward.

I guess part of the problem is that instructions that were appropriate for me as an asana beginner became harmful to me as I developed more flexibility in my upper body while remaining relatively tight in my lower body. I had a complete misunderstanding of how good spinal alignment should feel in my body and had no idea that I was having any of these problems until my back started hurting. Now that I've recognized the problem, I can begin working to correct it but my muscles need to get used to working in these new ways and I get tired easily. My back is improving - but slowly. In the meantime, seated meditation is painful - unless I sit in Virasana, elevated on a block or cushion to protect my knees, in which case I can easily achieve the appropriate alignment of my pelvis (and therefore my back) and alleviate pain.

If you're a yoga teacher, do you give these types of instructions to your students? It might be useful to find out if any of them are having midback pain or struggling with belly breathing, and to explore whether this is a cause. Perhaps meditators with midback pain could benefit from the suggestion to try (modified) Virasana for meditation, as well as working on flexibility in the hamstrings and working with the alignment of the pelvis and thoracic spine. If anyone out there is having similar problems, I hope this helps you with your own exploration.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Everything has another side

Me, as seen from the back
In truth, it matters less what we do in practice than how we do it and why we do it. The same posture, the same sequence, the same meditation with a different intention takes on an entirely new meaning and will have entirely different outcomes 
~ Donna Farhi

In October, I took a workshop at the Ojai Yoga Crib with Laura Tyree. First of all, if you can get to the Crib, go. It has changed my life and continues to do so every year that I attend. (I think it's been six years now.) For that matter, if you get a chance to practice with Laura, do. Her wisdom and compassion (not to mention her beautiful voice!) will take you somewhere deep inside yourself - and wherever that place is, it is where you need to be.

In the workshop I took last October, Laura talked about how issues with her heart led her to explore her downward facing dog and consider how achieving a backbend in that pose was putting pressure on the heart. In many of the popular hatha yoga styles here, we do a lot of downward dogs, so this is a much repeated problem for many practitioners. As we get more flexible, this causes us to sway our backs in the pose, creating this backbend. She showed us how she was exploring a lift through the back between the shoulder blades. We practiced with a partner, having the partner place her hand on our backs so we could feel where the lift was happening.

When my partner put her hand on my back, I knew that I would always be able to find the right place to lift because it was in the exact location where I've had chronic back pain for years - upper mid-back, right between the shoulder blades. In that moment, I realized I had better pay more attention to my down dogs. Over the past few months, that realization has broadened into another: I had forgotten about my back entirely!

I love bhakti yoga and huge back bends and opening my heart to the sky with absolute abandon. However, I have very tight hamstrings from years of running and I do not love forward bends quite so much. I'm not tortured by them as much as I used to be, but when I do them, I'm usually focused on what my front body is doing. (And probably trying to make the pain in my back body go away by ignoring it. In case you didn't know, this doesn't work.) Now, I am reminded that there are at least two sides to every issue - even me!

I've started focusing on my back body all the time, not just in downward facing dog. I've been doing chakra meditation on the back body instead of the front. (So often teachers neglect to describe the chakra locations in terms of the back body, so I suspect I'm not the only one who has this problem.) I've discovered that pain relief often comes from directing my breath there. I've discovered that I can breathe into my kidneys as well as my belly, and into the space between my shoulder blades as well as my chest. I've discovered that this adds support, both in seated meditation and asana, and sometimes results in shifts in postures that feel really good and even relieve pain. I'm starting to feel how my lumbar spine (lower back) is overextending to compensate for the way I'm drawing my thoracic spine inward to get that exalted open-hearted feeling. Opening my heart center forward is killing my back - who knew?

Yesterday, I was looking for something entirely different in Judith Lasater's Yoga Body book, and I came across the following passage:
"One of the unfortunate actions that sometimes happens in asana practice is an over-flattening of the natural kyphosis [normal curvature of the spine]. Students are sometimes taught to lift the sternum with the intention of opening the chest, and they do so by bringing their thoracic spine into the body, thus flattening the curve. After years of practice, the spine loses some of its natural curve."
Bingo - that's me. The book suggests standing on a yoga mat near a doorway and holding onto the doorway with your arms at chest level and hands crossed at the wrist. Then you walk backward slowly and round the thoracic spine upward while moving the shoulder blades apart and dropping your head between your arms, allowing some of the muscle tension in this area to be stretched and loosened. I will certainly be trying this in the future, and paying a lot more attention to how I support backbends with the breath from the back side of the body - not to mention focusing on how I may be collapsing here in forward bends and all sorts of other issues I've never considered before.

If I wanted to get philosophical here, I could explore the idea that the back represents my past, or talk about the side of anything that lies in shadow... but for once, I want to stay on the mat with this one. When I'm on the mat, I'm on the mat - both the front and the back sides of me. The more I practice asana, the more I realize there's always something I've forgotten to be present with in the pose; there's always a part of the body I've given preference to and another that's been lost from my conscious awareness. But the body has its own intelligence and if we know how to listen, it will let us know what has been forgotten. One thing is for sure: in the future, I'll be thinking a lot more about what those chronic achy bits are trying to tell me.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The best time to practice is right now

Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are. ~ Jason Crandell

For those wounded by civilization, yoga is the most healing salve. ~ Terri Guillemets

The deeper I go into practice, the more I become aware of how complicated I make life sometimes. There are all these layers of the mind that peel away. It reminds me of the way the experience of the asanas changes on a physical level. For the first few dozen or even hundred downward facing dogs, the experience is pretty much holding your breath and looking forward to coming down. And then suddenly, one day you actually feel what it means to inwardly rotate the thighs and spread the hip bones and all this space opens up in the pose. And it will change your world, that feeling. See if it doesn't.

Like this, too, in the mind. At first, learning to breathe through and experience difficult emotions without acting, I thought I was learning to deal with the present. (Side note: when I say that it sounds as if I have already learned to breathe through and experience difficult emotions without acting. I can assure you, I haven't. That's why they call it "practice.") Anyhow, I'm starting to realize that a strong emotional reaction is almost never about the present. It's a sure sign that I'm holding a past wound up as evidence in a present situation - probably holding it against someone who had nothing to do with the original pain in the first place. Take a close look and see if this isn't true. And it will change your world, that understanding.

I started this post out thinking that I was going to write about breathing through reactions in the present and then boom! Insight. Look out - you never know when it's coming. Originally, I was going to explore my reaction to a harassing comment left here, but now I see I don't have to. That comment, in the present, means nothing. Who knows why people do these things? His problem is not my problem. The pain and uncertainty and anger it triggered - that's old stuff, really old stuff. And the illusion of ego. Right now, in the present, there's just clarity and a sense of compassion.

The content of this post may have evolved, but I can keep the title because the time is now. Peel away all those layers of history, and inside is the jewel. It is all these illusions that are complicated. The present is incredibly simple. I wonder what is behind the next layer?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Protect the state of no-intent

Photo credit: mollyollyoxenfree/Flickr Creative Commons

Yesterday I came across an article called "What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking and Sacred Space". The author, Scott Belsky, writes about how we are losing our moments of isolation and distraction-free thought. We are forgetting how to unplug and connect in with something else: ourselves, our thoughts, our intuition, and our dreams. It's an excellent article and I'll let it speak for itself. What's interesting to me is that Patanjali saw this coming.

There's no arguing with the fact that the phenomenon Belsky addresses in his article is visible all around us. It's interesting that the very word connected has come to refer to being online - a state I would argue is actually in many cases disconnection from what is, from the self and the Self. I, too, am concerned - even frightened - about the changes that are happening in our culture as we become more and more accustomed to being constantly plugged in, available, and awash in "information". 'm certainly not suggesting that we should all unplug everything and go live in an isolated mountain cave for the next ten years. I have already written here about some of the benefits I think can be found on the internet. The trick (as is so often true) is finding the balance.

In his article, Belsky astutely notes that the instincts that lead us to seek "constant connection" have been part of human nature since the beginning. I can see how, in the dark jungle nights, the drive to find and connect with others was a matter of life and death. But now, does our attachment to constant positive feedback on our Facebook posts or having large numbers of blog followers really serve us? Does it serve our community? Does it make us happy? I think the answer to these questions is clearly no.

The Apple i-Tunes site boasts "everything you need to be entertained", and yet like the cravings we had in the old days, this hunger for amusement and distraction never stops. Patanjali certainly did not have any Apple devices beginning with "i", but he did talk about the causes of suffering (the kleshas, sometimes translated as afflictions or obstacles) in the Yoga Sutras. In Chip Hartranft's translation (which I found in Stephen Cope's The Wisdom of Yoga), they are "not seeing things as they are, the sense of 'I,' attachment, aversion, and clinging to life." I plead guilty.

Really, it is a long chain reaction of the kleshas that leads us to give up what Belsky calls "our sacred space." On the surface, this behavior looks most like attachment, raga in Sanskrit, but I think if I had to pick just one klesha that drives me towards a state of constant connection, it would be the flip side of the coin: dvesha, aversion. Belsky saw this too: "Space is scary," he says. What myriad of fears are we fleeing from online? With this constant flow of information, what evils do we plan to avert? What demons do we seek domination over? In our online communities, are we still seeking to drive out our fear of what waits in the dark jungle?

Bless Patanjali (or whoever wrote the Yoga Sutras). With great compassion, he did not just leave us with the knowledge of our afflictions, but with concrete tools to overcome them: the practice of yoga. "Suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented," he tells us. "The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness and what it regards... When the components of yoga are practiced, impurities dwindle; then the light of understanding can shine forth, illuminating the way to discriminative awareness."

Although it's hard to find a definitive statistic, I think it's safe to say that millions of Americans are now taking up yoga. I don't think this is a coincidence. We instinctively know something is missing from our lives, even if we don't know what it is. Whether we know it or not, yoga is providing many of us with avenues to many of Belsky's suggestions for preserving sacred space. Even if you never chant "om" or read the sutras, even if you just go to class to sweat, the truth is that yoga classes everywhere are providing people with sacred space to unplug and perhaps turn off some of those persistent, nagging thoughts and worries, maybe even to become more self-aware... and if we're lucky, to fall into that increasingly elusive "state of no-intent". And perhaps this is one of the things that draws us, almost inexplicably sometimes, back to our mats again and again and again.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


"Each moment is a chance for us to make peace with the world, to make peace possible for the world, to make happiness possible for the world."
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Wedding rings
Photo credit: Lisa Stout (kspsycho83 - Flickr Creative Commons)

I've decided to greet 2011 by making a commitment I've been considering for a long time. (No, I'm not getting married! But I am making a promise that may just change my life.) I'm undertaking Tricycle Magazine's 28-day meditation challenge known as "Commit to Sit." Starting January 17th, for 28 days I'm commiting to the Five Precepts and following Tricycle's meditation program.

There are a lot of paths on the journey of yoga. There are the four paths (or six paths, or even more, depending on how you look at it), and there's the eight-fold path of Patanjali (or the eight limbs of yoga, as they are sometimes called). There are many ways to practice, and different practices appeal to different people - but the more yoga I do, the more convinced I become that the meditation piece is key. At least, for my journey.

So I'm making a commitment. Given, it's kind of a baby commitment - just 28 days - but my commitment to practice is much deeper than that. I practice for life - and because one should never commit to anything without careful thought, I've been considering what it means to "commit to sit". Princeton University's WordNet links these ideas (among others) with the word commit:

  • give, dedicate, consecrate, devote (give entirely to a specific person, activity, or cause)
  • entrust, trust, confide (confer a trust upon)
  • invest (make an investment)
  • practice (engage in or perform)
When I commit to sit, I do all these things. I consistently and fully engage in the practice I've chosen. I make an investment - of my time, of my energy, of my Self. In doing so, I'm putting my trust in the practice - not only that I will benefit but that we will all benefit, that this practice can help bring peace and happiness to our world. I dedicate myself to it completely. I like the word devote here because of its double meaning. Not only devote yourself to practice but practice with devotion.

Devotion. Because in the end, it's all about love.