It’s not easy being green

Kermit was fourth Chakra green before being green was hip.

In the last post, we left Tarzan beating his chest and screaming from his powerful solar plexus. Now we wander upward to the heart center and find Anahata, the bright green fourth Chakra. Anahata translates to “unstruck,” as sound made without two things striking, but is taken to mean “unhurt” or “clean.”

Located in the center of the chest, in the cardiac plexus, it’s not surprising that Anahata is all about love. Being in the middle of the seven Chakras, with an equal number above and below, Anahata is the balancer and a healthy fourth Chakra creates balanced love.

Every individual has the basic right to love and be loved. Being a lover in a one-on-one relationship is part of that right, but there’s more. Loving oneself and, therefore, deeming oneself worthy of others’ love, is essential to Anahata’s energy, as is a sense of kinship and belonging as part of a community. When you recognize your kinship to and interconnectedness with all life, you can be certain your heart center is glowing green.

The fourth Chakra inspires healthy relationships, where both parties give and receive, creating intimacy and devotion. When the scales tip too far to one side, relationships become a place of fear rather than love.

When Anahata’s green light is smothered, we stop reaching out. Those with deficient fourth Chakras tend to be antisocial and intolerant, lacking the empathy needed to fit into the web of relationships. When the fourth Chakra’s energy becomes excessive and consuming, we find codependency, clinging, and the green-eyed monster of jealousy.

Our friend Kermit sings of his journey to fourth Chakra balance. At first regretting being green, and blending in with ordinary things, he laments not being red or yellow, the colors of those lower Chakras that want to stand out and be seen. Then Kermit recognizes his kinship to the leaves, mountains and trees and decides that being green is beautiful. He points out that green is the color of spring, the lovers’ season. In the end, Kermit is green and that’s what he wants to be. He loves himself as he loves the green life around him.

Kermit is right when he says green can be “tall like a tree.” Unfortunately for tall trees, they have a long way to fall. The risk of an open fourth Chakra, an open heart, is suffering great loss. It’s not surprising that practices to balance Anahata include some for releasing grief.

On the yoga mat, we can find Anahata’s green glow in heart-opening poses like Trikonasana (triangle), Virabhadrasana II (warrior II) and Dhanurasana (bow). Even rolling our shoulders back and down makes room for fourth Chakra energy.

When we step off our mats we can discover our green glow by playing with children and pets, those wonderful beings who love us just as we are and accept our love without fear. Look for creative projects that bring joy to ourselves and others and enjoy a good laugh every now and then. Rejoice in who you are and share your love with all who accept it and you’ll be basking in green light.

And listen to Kermit, because how can you not love a singing frog?

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Me Tarzan. Me get it done.

Look out Jane, the ape-man has got a huge third Chakra…

It’s time to look at the third Chakra’s fiery energy. The Sanskrit name for this Chakra is Manipura, which means “lustrous gem”. Just like a well-cut diamond seems to sparkle with its own light, Manipura’s energy generates our internal flame.

Moving up the spine, you can find your third Chakra in your solar plexus, just above your navel. It glows bright yellow with the energy of self-esteem, self-worth, proactivity and power. Our third Chakra gives us the right to act and to be an individual. This is the energy center where all our ideas and our dreams get transformed into something real. It is our will power that gives us the strength to act on our ideas.

Think of some powerful people you know. No one doubts these people will do what they say they are going to do. They stand tall, shoulders back, chest lifted and belly forward, and they project confidence.

People with strong third Chakras make good warriors. Every society has its warriors. The soldiers are obvious, but there are also warriors in law enforcement, fire departments, child protective services and environmental protection. Sports, both amateur and professional, are full of warriors. Anyone with the desire to be the best person they can be and the confidence to achieve it has the third Chakra’s warrior power.

Even the apes had a warrior in Tarzan. Hey guys, that confidence is really sexy, too. Especially to women named Jane.

Not everyone has that internal glow. When the third Chakra is blocked, our self-esteem gets blocked as well. Some people have lots of great ideas, but they never get past thinking about them. Some don’t think they deserve success. Others are just afraid to take action.

Many of us could use more energy flowing through Manipura. We can light the fire in our bellies on the yoga mat with heat-building Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) and Kashtha Takshanasana (woodchopper). We can strengthen our core muscles and our will with poses like Navasana (upward boat). We can fuel the fire with pranayama (breathing exercises) like Kapalabhati.

We can also look for confidence-building activities off the mat. Activities that involve some risk-taking – rock climbing, white-water rafting, going to a foreign country by yourself – draw energy into the third Chakra. The martial arts, which teach us to develop and control our core power, are very third-Chakra oriented. Just getting up the nerve to talk to someone you find frightening can light Manipura’s flame.

Swinging by vines from tree to tree might fire up some third Chakra energy too.

When I was working on Manipura, what really made me think of Tarzan was his big yell. Your ape friends won’t hear you on the other side of the jungle unless your cry comes from your belly. The energy behind that yell comes from – you guessed it – the third Chakra.

Is there a fire in your belly?

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Your hips don’t lie.

Shakira knows her second Chakra…

Moving up the spine from last post’s first Chakra, we find Swadhisthana, the second Chakra, floating in the hips. The Sanskrit word Swadhisthana means sweetness and, oh, how sweet it is. The second Chakra is our emotional center and processes all the fun stuff: pleasure, desire, need, sexuality, sensation. And, like Shakira’s hips, it’s all about movement.

Thanks to the energy flowing through Swadhisthana, we have the inherent right to feel and have pleasure. The second Chakra is respresented by the color orange, the next color up on the rainbow spectrum after the first Chakra’s red, and water’s formless fluidity. Once we feel grounded and safe (first Chakra stuff), we can start to explore all the pleasures of life.

Connecting to your second Chakra is an exercise in balance. Imagine a wide bowl filled to the brim with water and that you need to move the bowl from one table to another. If, as you’re carrying it, the bowl tips even a tiny bit, one way or another, some of that water is going to spill out. It would be almost impossible to move the bowl without any water escaping. If you’re careless, you’ll dump it all and have a flood to clean up. Conversely, if you never move the bowl, the water is just going to sit there and stagnate in the bowl. So, ideally, you move the bowl carefully, wipe some water off the floor, and add some fresh water to the bowl once it’s on the new table. Then you start thinking about other tables that bowl could be moved to.

Our second Chakra energy works like that bowl full of water. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel emotion, if we deny our sexual needs or other earthly pleasures, our energy gets trapped and stagnates. This stagnation may show up in the body as low back pain, lack of flexibility or deadened senses, all things that keep us from moving freely. Of course, we don’t want to just let all the energy spill out. We can have too much of a good thing and find ourselves addicted to pleasurable experiences (sexual, drug induced, etc.). We can also get too invested in our emotions and start seeking situations that keep us on an emotional roller coaster, like some kind of crisis junkie.

If we allow ourselves to be like that moving bowl, letting our desires and emotions spill over small amounts at a time, we might have to suffer through some minor after-effects but we can easily regroup and go on to the next thing. The key is to enjoy life in moderation, having fun without drawing too much energy away from our first Chakra, sacrificing safety and security. We can let the currents of desire carry us for awhile, as long as we wash up on solid ground in the end.

Yoga can help keep Swadhisthana’s energy flowing but not overflowing. Asanas like Baddha Konasana (cobbler) and Adha Mukha Eda Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon) help to relieve tightness in the hips, improving flexiblity and your ability to move. If you’re holding in emotions, not allowing them to flow, you can help release them by journaling, writing poetry or even talking to a trusted friend. Therapy and 12-step programs offer help with addictions of all kinds if the fun gets out of hand.

Look for healthy pleasures to keep your second Chakra vibrant, enjoying the movement of your body, and maybe donning an orange skirt and shaking your hips on the dance floor every now and then.

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There’s no place like home

A down to earth look at the first Chakra…

I’ve been trying to come up with things from pop culture that will help me explain the Chakra system, and got stuck on the first one. Finally, this morning, as I exhaled and relaxed into a downward-facing dog, I saw Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Yes, The Wizard of Oz can help me explain the first Chakra, and you don’t need to be listening to Dark Side of the Moon to see it.

The Chakra system can seem too deep and esoteric to easily understand, but really it’s just a philosophical model used to explain the way our energetic bodies interact with our physical bodies. The Chakras themselves are the centers that filter energy through your system. Each Chakra corresponds to a location in your body – the seven major Chakras line up along the spine – and each relates to certain physical functions and emotional issues.

The first Chakra, called Muldahara in Sanskrit, is the energy center at the base of the spine, although its influence extends down the legs to the feet. Muldahara means root and this Chakra is all about roots. Just like a tree’s roots hold it to the earth, making it stable, and draw nourishment from the soil, our roots anchor us in the physical world. The first Chakra processes our energetic nourishment and stability – home, family, safety, security – and is responsible for our right to be here.

The first Chakra is probably the easiest to work with on and off our yoga mats. It’s all about being grounded. When we have a sense of connection to the places where we live, when our basic needs of food and shelter have been fulfilled, when we are comfortable in our bodies and when we can move forward without fear, we are grounded. We practice grounding on our yoga mats in poses like Tadasana (Mountain), feeling our feet underneath us and visualizing our energetic roots growing down into the earth. Off the mat, we can connect to the earth and to our bodies with activities like hiking, dancing, running, gardening or getting a massage.

So where, you ask, does Dorothy and her ruby slippers fit in? Each of the Chakras has a color and Muldahara’s color is red. On the rainbow spectrum, red is the bottom with the lowest frequency and longest wavelength. Red also brings to mind the molten core of the earth. Put something red on somebody’s feet and you’ve got a very nice first Chakra symbol.

Let’s think about Dorothy’s adventure in Oz. During her travels, does she feel secure? Is she safe? Does she feel like she belongs where she is? Nope. She wants to go home and everything she goes through is about getting her there.

When Dorothy’s house is uprooted and she is forced to abandon it, she is given the ruby slippers. She wears those red shoes the rest of the movie, even managing to run from flying monkeys in those uncomfortable-looking heels. After all that, what does Glinda tell her? “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.”

We all have the power to find our roots, to be grounded. It’s built into that energetic system that exists in everyone, even if we don’t know it’s there. As adults, just as we provide for our own physical survival, we can take responsibility for our emotional security by honoring our right to exist. We can do the things that help us to feel grounded and take care of our bodies so we feel good being in them.

Or we can do it Dorothy’s way. We can stand in Tadasana, close our eyes, click our ruby heels together three times and say “there’s no place like home.”

And we can do some downward-facing Totos.

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False Summits and Forward Bends

The view from one of Noonmark's false summits.

The view from one of Noonmark‘s false summits.

Some of our favorite mountains in the Adirondacks High Peaks region, like Baxter, Rooster Comb and Noonmark, tease us with false summits. They appear when we’ve been walking for what seems like forever, drawing us hopefully on with glimpses of blue sky through thinning trees. There’s relief, satisfaction and, often, a beautiful view, all ending abruptly when one of us notices the trail marker beckoning us back into the trees to continue up the trail.

I thought of false summits while leading a yoga class through a series of forward bends. We were working on moving to the edge of the stretch, lengthening our spines when we inhaled, releasing further forward with our exhales. The edge is uncomfortable and, like a false summit, makes you think you’ve gone as far as you can. Unless you give yourself time and muster up the fortitude to continue on, you’ll never know what the view looks like from the top.

For the false summits of our forward bends, we can thank musculotendinous sensory receptors called Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). Through their reflexive actions, the GTOs help to regulate muscle stiffness. Low-force, long-duration static stretching, felt in the hamstrings during Paschimottanasana, brings on a temporary increase in tension as the muscles lengthen, the first “edge” we discover. Don’t give up there because, after seven to 10 seconds of holding and breathing, your GTOs activate and the muscle tension temporarily releases. Another exhale and you’ll find yourself deeper into the bend.

The muscle quickly reestablishes its stretch threshold and a new edge is reached. You may work through a few before you reach your true edge, provided you can stay patient, focused and breathing smoothly throughout the process. After practicing consistently for a period of weeks or months, the muscles will lengthen more or less permanently, so you’ll be able to go further forward before reaching the first edge. As a result, the true summit of your yoga pose keeps getting further away.

The true summits of the Adirondack mountains keep getting further away, too. The Adirondack mountains are still growing, at a rate of about one millimeter per year. Some days, when it seems like we’ve been walking forever, I’m sure the mountain has gone through a recent growth spurt. Climbing these mountains requires patience, focus and lots of breath.

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Seeking Eagles

Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo.

Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taped to the wall behind the yoga studio’s reception desk is a snapshot of a bald eagle, captured by one of our yoga teacher training graduates. Bald eagles are native to the Adirondacks, although they had to be reintroduced in the 1980s after DDT use in the 1960s all but wiped them out. Now they are spotted throughout the Adirondack Park, but, unfortunately, never by me.

I enjoy practicing and teaching Garudasana, known in English as eagle pose. In deference to the presence of America’s bird, it seems fitting to wrap arms and legs into the look of a perched eagle at our Adirondack yoga studio. Exclusive to North America, the bald eagle could not have been the intended reference in the Sanskrit name. There are Indian spotted eagles and short-toed eagles, but it is generally agreed that the name honors Vishnu’s mount Garuda, a massive half-man, half-eagle known for devouring serpents.

Eagle Pose at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

Eagle Pose at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

Here in the Adirondack mountains, surrounded by so much of the natural world including the elusive, at least to me, bald eagle, I can’t help but bring the spirit of that beautiful bird into my practice of eagle pose, despite its Indian origins. As a shamanic totem, the eagle represents access to higher planes of consciousness. Borrowing the eagle’s strong wings and courage, you are free to fly to great spiritual heights.

Being birds, the eagle is associated with air, but they have sturdy legs to walk on the earth and hunt over water, and thus are grounded while seeking spirit and also carry the cleansing energy of water. This is very balanced energy, fitting the balance of eagle pose. Whether on my mat or on a rock, I embrace Adirondack bald eagle energy in Garudasana. Perhaps, after enough practice, I’ll finally get to see one.

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Calling Ganesha: Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha

clay image of the hindu deity Ganesha

clay image of the hindu deity Ganesha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, my meditation practice morphed into a mantra practice. I didn’t sit with the intention of chanting “So Hum” the whole time I was meditating. It just happened.

Afterward, it felt like it had been the right thing to do. I repeated it the following day, and the days after that.

Last Saturday, Lisa Devi, during a visit to the Adirondacks, led our New Moon Circle. She welcomed Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god, with the chant “Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha.” Ganesha is called at the beginnings of things, perfect for the new moon, to clear obstacles from the path ahead.

Yesterday, instead of “So Hum,” my chant was “Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha.” Again, I didn’t intend it. It just came out. And, again, it felt right, so I repeated the chant today.

The Sanskrit phrase “Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha” means, basically, “Salutations to the remover of obstacles.” “Ganapatayei” is another name for the widely-worshipped Ganesha. In addition to removing obstacles, Ganesha is known as a patron of the arts and sciences, and as the deity of intellect and wisdom.

Why do I feel compelled to ask Ganesha to help me past the obstacles in my life? Perhaps this is part of the letting go I’ve been doing lately. I’m in the habit of doing too many things, taking on too much, and never asking for help because that felt like weakness. Putting those things that are holding me back into the hands of a deity with four arms and an elephant’s head is a small step towards allowing myself some weakness, towards admitting I can’t do everything myself. Giving your problems to God, to Ganesha, to the universe, or to whatever your sense of the divine, is the first step in twelve-step programs for good reason. It’s very freeing to put obstacles in the hands of a higher power.

I’ll send salutations to Ganesha until a new mantra arises or silence returns to my meditation practice. Meanwhile, thanks to Ganesha moving roadblocks from my path.

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Exploring Snake Energy: Cobra Pose

English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Fa...

English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Family, one of India’s venomous snakes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

For a good part of my life I echoed Indiana Jones whenever I encountered snakes. My less-than-friendly feelings toward snakes started in ninth grade, when a classmate presented an oral report on their care and feeding, including a demonstration involving his pet snake and a live (for a short time) white mouse. After I crawled out from under my desk, I decided I was very fond of rodents and not at all fond of snakes. I also decided I no longer had a crush on the young man who did the presentation.

Twenty years later, when my daughter held a snake at a petting zoo, I decided it was time to get over my distrust of snakes. I’ve taken time to learn about snakes and have new respect both for their place in our eco-system and their symbolism. I still jump when one startles me on the trail, but I no longer dislike snakes.

Snakes represent transformation and healing. They are re-created each time they shed their skin. By tapping into snake’s energy you can shed the past and emerge into a fresh, new life. Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, carried a caduceus, a staff with two snakes wrapped around it. The caduceus has become the symbol of modern physicians. If a snake appears in your dream, be on the lookout for new wisdom, healing and changes ahead.

In yoga, snakes represent Kundalini, a Sanskrit word for the sleeping feminine energy thought to be coiled at the base of the spine, waiting to be awakened through asana and meditation. When aroused, Kundalini rises up through the major chakras until it reaches the head, completely transforming the individual along the way.

Practicing like a snake in the grass.

Practicing like a snake in the grass.

Practice Bhujangasana, or Cobra pose, to explore the transformative energy of snakes. Lie face down and stretch your legs back, feet hip-width apart, and press the tops of your feet into the floor. Place your hands under your shoulders, fingers spread, and hug your elbows to your sides. Keeping your pelvis pressed into the floor and straightening your arms as you make space to do so, lift your heart. Relax your shoulder blades down your back, draw your lower belly slightly off the floor and lift the top of your sternum. Draw your ears away from your shoulders, lengthening your neck.

You can hold Cobra for a number of breaths or experience snake’s movement by rising with each inhale and lowering with each exhale. When the pose feels complete, rest your head on your hands for a few breaths before moving on to a twist.

For the record, although I have made peace with snakes, there are no pet snakes in my house. I’ll stick to my bug-eating lizard, and let the cat deal with the rodents.

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Yoga to Walk on the Earth

Yoga teaches me how to walk mindfully in the outdoors.

Yoga teaches me how to walk mindfully in the outdoors.

June got lost in a whirlwind of activity. Actually, I just lied to you. June got lost, but the whirlwind was in my mind so there was no visible activity to speak of. I spent four days at the beginning of June with Laura Cornell at her Overflowing Workshops retreat in northern New Jersey. It was fantastic and I enjoyed both the learning and the connections.

But it started the whirlwind.

At the retreat and at other times, I’ve been asked why someone would want to take yoga with me, and I never know the answer. People do take my classes, so there must be reasons, but I couldn’t say what those reasons are. What I can say for certain is people do not come to me to learn how to do the pretty poses of the uber-flexible. I want people to learn how to walk on the earth with awareness, to fully breathe the air, to experience the fire of transformation and to move like a river, flowing through life with ease and wellness.

Yoga to walk on the earth. If you hike, at some point you are going to meet a snake. We’re lucky here in the Adirondacks because we only have one kind of venomous snake, the shy eastern timber rattler. I’ve never encountered a rattlesnake, but I’ve come across a number of his benign cousins sunning themselves on the trail. Every time it goes like this: I don’t see them until I startle them into movement, and then the movement startles me and I jump out of my hiking boots. I used to blame the snakes for laying in wait for me, but I’ve realized that each time it happens I have failed to walk mindfully, failed to be fully present to the act of hiking. When I’m on my yoga mat I practice being aware of where my feet are, and where they are going, and I share that practice with my yoga students, so they can walk mindfully on the earth, whether on a hiking trail or a city sidewalk.

Yoga to breathe the air. After practicing yoga for eighteen years, I automatically check in with my breath many times a day. As soon as that last sentence formed in my mind I deepened my breath. Breathing fully into my lungs has become so natural that I often have to remind myself that this is not the case for everyone. Pranayama, the practice of breathing exercises, is as important as the asanas as far as I’m concerned. Deep breathing exercises the diaphragm, moderates the stress response and improves focus. Deep breathing also makes me aware of the air itself, and how important it is that we have clean air to breathe. Did you know planting trees was a yoga practice?

Yoga to experience the fire of transformation. Yoga has created profound change in my life. If you practice yoga, sooner or later you will experience a transformation. You may give up all your possessions and take up residence in an ashram, or, more likely, one day you will notice that you are standing a bit straighter or that the old ache in your hip is gone. I’d like each of my students to experience their own transformation, no matter how subtle, so I make sure each class fuels that fire.

Yoga to move like a river. For a society that seems to be all about getting somewhere, we don’t move much. When we go places we go sitting in cars or on airplanes. We send emails to the coworker in the next office and see a good deal of the world on a television screen. When my clients complain that it gets harder to move as they get older, I point out that they are moving much better than many of their peers, because they make a deliberate effort to keep moving. An aspect of the yoga practice I find fascinating is how, by relieving stiffness in the body, other parts of life that were stagnating start moving too.

In some of my yoga classes we work on challenging asanas. Most focus on minutely refining the basic poses until you are aware that your feet are firmly rooted to the floor, you can direct your breath, you notice a small change and, when it’s time to move on, whether to the next pose or back into your life, you can flow with ease.

If you really think about it, why do you practice yoga? Please, share in the comments.

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Connect with Fire: Candle Gazing Meditation

English: A candle flame.

A candle flame. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In honor of the summer solstice, we rebuilt and improved our backyard fire pit, then lit a big bonfire to honor the sun at its peak. Gazing into the fire, watching the flames dance and jump, reminded me of this simple candle-gazing meditation, which can be done anywhere you can safely stand a candle holder.

Find a place where you can sit undisturbed for a few minutes, either on a cushion or blanket on the floor or in a sturdy chair with your feet on the floor. Using a table or other props (yoga blocks or a stack of hardcover books work nicely) position a lit taper or pillar candle in a holder so the flame will be at eye level. You’ll want to use a holder which will support the base of the candle and catch any dripping wax, but which won’t block your view of the flame.

Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes for a few moments. Bring your awareness to your breath. Breathe through your nose and lengthen your breath. Notice your thoughts, then let them float away. Notice when you feel centered and present to the flow of your breath.

Gently open your eyes and gaze at the candle flame. Focus your awareness fully on the flame, letting other thoughts drop away. If your attention wavers, bring it back without judgment. Begin to notice all the qualities of the candle flame. Notice the colors. Notice the movement. Become fully absorbed in watching the flame. Blink whenever it is necessary.

With your awareness steady on the flame, notice the thoughts flickering in your mind. Acknowledge any thoughts or feelings that arise, then let them go as you bring your attention back to the flame. Sit with the flame for five minutes, or as long as you are comfortable. Enjoy your connection to the flame.

When your meditation is complete, blink a couple of times, then close your eyes and notice your breath. Take four or five slow, deep breaths, then allow your awareness to return to the room. Open your eyes and return to your day. Be sure to blow out your candle!

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