Close your eyes and salute the sun within

Saluting the sun with my eyes closed during a recent trip to Florida.

Saluting the sun with my eyes closed during a recent trip to Florida.

I’ve tried to estimate the number of sun salutations I’ve done in my lifetime, but my brain gets stuck at something more than one hundred. The number must be somewhere in the thousands. Yet I never tire of practicing sun salutations. Each round is different. The practice is like walking the same path every day and seeing the subtle changes in the natural world. If you’re mindful, there is always something new to notice.

Yes, repetition can get boring, but there are ways to create variety in the practice: changing where you put your mat or taking it outside, focusing on the movement of one body part one day, another the next, or, as I did this morning, practicing with your eyes closed.

My body knows how to do a sun salutation, no question. I don’t need to think about the sequence of movements; I simply do them. Sometimes my body ends up on automatic pilot and my mind goes off pursuing its own agenda. By closing my eyes I am roping in the wayward thoughts and bringing the focus back to what my body is doing. Without being able to see where I’m going, I need to be very aware of where my body is in space. Proprioception, usually automatic, becomes a conscious process. And my mind is wrapped up in lifting my foot off the floor here and setting it down there and way too busy for silly thoughts.

This is what it means to be present.

And there is an added bonus – when your eyes are closed, the only way your mind can decide you’ve gone far enough into a pose is to feel it. During my practice today I surprised myself with a huge standing backbend. At least it felt huge, and that’s really all that matters.

The next time you are on your mat flowing through sun salutations, close your eyes and open up to a whole new practice within.

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Beam me up, Brahman

Seventh Chakra, the final frontier…

We’ve reached the end of our Chakra-as-pop-culture journey. We’ve climbed the spine  to the crown of the head and beyond, ready to boldly go where everyone has gone before, even if they don’t know it.

The Sanskrit name for the seventh Chakra is Sahasrara, which means thousand-fold. Sahasrara unfolds like the thousand petals of the lotus flower. Located in the cerebral cortex, of course the seventh Chakra governs the energy of knowing and learning. While book learning fits in there, the real knowing of Sahasrara is that of our true spiritual nature.

The ancient texts called the Upanishads teach that Brahman is the ultimate essence of everything, including the human self. Brahman cannot seen or heard. Brahman’s nature can be known only through self-knowledge. When Sahasrara blooms, everything material drops away and we know our true selves. We know that we are Brahman and, therefore, everything.

Try and wrap your cerebral cortex around that one.

When the Chakras are in balance, when we live with passion and heart, when we speak our truths and trust our insight, the energy has no place to go but up. Everything we’ve practiced to open previous six Chakras has prepared us to dive into the very depths of our beings where we may, for what may be the briefest of moments, discover our connection to the divine source of all existence. When the connection is made, we see all that is physical as an illusion which has been masking our true nature.

So we did all that work to exist on the physical plane, only to discover that we don’t really exist on the physical plane? It is, to quote Mr. Spock, “illogical.” But there is more to wisdom than logic, and those whose seventh Chakras are shining a bright white light toward heaven are the wisest of us.

Sahasrara’s wise energy gives us the ability to take all the information that comes at us every day, process it, and assimilate the knowledge we gain. Those with healthy seventh Chakras are intelligent, thoughtful, questioning and open-minded, while at the same time having an innate sense of connection to something greater. These are the gurus, the masters in any field of study. These are the people whose guidance we seek.

The energy doesn’t always balance out, though. When the energy gets stuck in a lower Chakra or comes up against a closed mind, we find those whose beliefs come not from knowing but from simply accepting what they’ve been told. No matter what additional information they are given, these people won’t change their minds. Then there are the cynics, who refuse to even acknowledge any motivation except the self-interest of the bottom Chakras.

Sometimes the scales tip the other way and the energy hangs out in the head rather than flowing through the lower Chakras as well. We see this in the overly intellectual types, analyzing everything to extremes and never really internalizing anything. These are the people we call “book smart;” they can recite the dictionary but never explain a thing in their own words.

Excess energy in Sahasrara can also lead to spiritual addition. Caught up in the search for their spiritual nature, these folks forget that our physical existence has requirements, like dinner. Perhaps they will find a good caretaker to remind them to eat, but these people sometimes fall victim to the those who would happily strip them of whatever physical stuff they managed to amass before they got lost in their heads.

To nurture your divine spirit without losing touch with your physical existence, spend some time learning something new. Explore different religions and metaphysical systems with a questioning, but open, mind. And sit for a few minutes each day to meditate, looking for your true self.

Developing your seventh Chakra is a bit like asking someone on Star Trek’s Enterprise to beam you up. When the transporter activates, the physical body fades into particles of light and then nothingness, and you are absorbed into the cosmic stew, part of everything that is. Just make sure you have someone in a red shirt (or a strong red energy center) to bring you home.

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That Feeling Inside

Shakira’s got a sixth Chakra feeling inside…

In the series of posts about the Chakra system, we were last in the throat checking out the energy of communication. Now we find ourselves higher, in the carotid plexis, the area also known as the third eye. Here, between the eyebrows, Ajna, the sixth Chakra, shines it’s deep indigo light of wisdom, intuition and imagination. It is the birthplace of ideas and the window to the spiritual realms.

Ajna is represented by the element of light and the color of the night sky. It gives us the right to see, with our physical eyes and the mind’s eye. It is the sixth Chakra’s energy that allows us to “know” something is happening when we are not physically present or gives us that “feeling” that we were meant to meet someone.

When you know who’s calling before you look at the caller ID, that’s Ajna at work.

Your local psychic is probably a bit overloaded with sixth Chakra energy, but too little leaves us without any insight, forced to analyze every last detail of our lives and to panic in the face of uncertainty. Headaches and vision problems signal a sixth Chakra imbalance. When Ajna is balanced our imaginations inspire us, we are intuitive and artistic and we have vivid dreams. We trust our own wisdom and are confident that our lives are unfolding as they should.

To keep the sixth Chakra light shining, get on your yoga mat and find a focal point. Let your gaze rest on your drishti and balance on one leg in Vrksasana (tree), Natarajasana (dancer) or Garudasana (eagle). Then roll your eyes just like a teenager. Those eye rolls are called Tratak and the muscles around the eyes need regular exercise to keep your vision clear.

Off our mats, we can create visual art, enjoy the visual stimulation of brightly colored holiday lights or fireworks, practice guided visualizations or try past life regression. Play with tarot cards or runes to exercise your insight. Color mandalas. Meditate.

And, like Shakira, look for those feelings inside, because your intuition might be telling you that your soul mate is across the room.

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I am Yogini, Hear Me Roar!

Helen Reddy was finding her fifth Chakra in the 70s…

I have been enjoying some heart-chakra-opening pursuits of late, recharging my creative side and engaging in extreme self-love. Now I’m ready to climb the next rung of the Chakra ladder to tell you all about the fifth Chakra.

Vissudha, the fifth Chakra, glows bright blue in the throat and is all about – say it with me – communication. From Vissudha comes the desire, and the right, to speak and be heard. We’re not just babbling on here, though. This is where we speak our truth, find our own voices and, also, listen as others speak their truths.

A healthy throat Chakra inspires honest, clear and positive expression of thoughts and feelings, through spoken or written words or through the arts. When what we say resonates with others, Vissudha is spinning freely.

Vissudha provides an way to express and release all the feelings and emotions that build up in the lower Chakras. When it’s blocked, we find the quiet types who silently hold onto feelings of hurt, pain or anger. The shy ones, afraid of speaking out, clench their jaws and build tension and toxicity in their necks and shoulders as they swallow their words.

As in all the Chakras, we can have too much of a good thing. When Vissudha’s volume is cranked up, we find the gossipers, loud folks we can hear over everyone else at a party, and people who never let you finish a sentence without interrupting. Listening is as important to communication as speaking, and an over-active fifth Chakra makes a poor listener.

When Helen Reddy started telling us to hear her roar, she was sparking a bright blue flame for women who, at the time, were just starting to add their voices to the previously all-male chorus of American society. We could all use a good roar every now and then to keep Vissudha balanced. Next time you’re on your yoga mat, enjoy a “raaarrrrr” in Simhasana (lion’s pose).

Stay on your mat a bit longer and try throat-stimulating Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and Halasana (plow). A good neck roll to loosen up tension can open up the fifth Chakra as well.

Off the mat, we can chant, sing, scream or shout, tell jokes or stories – anything that gets sounds coming out of your mouth. We can also express buried emotions by drumming, dancing, or painting, or sitting quietly and letting them all pour into your journal. Keep listening skills working by listening to songs, stories or the sounds of nature.

Need inspiration? Sing along with Helen. Let’s hear you roar!

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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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