Free your inner chaos and flow through Dancing Star

“One must still have chaos in oneself to
be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Dancing star in my art journal.

Dancing star in my art journal.

Do you pay attention to the folks who pay attention to the stars? If you do, you know that we’re in the thick of it right now. There’s a planetary alignment called a Grand Cross going on and it’s stirring up all kinds of stuff. (There’s a great post here about what to expect this week.)

I created this vinyasa yoga flow sequence, which I call Dancing Star, in 2011, but it seems appropriate to share this week.

The circular pattern of the flow fills the whole mat, and the ever-changing focal points give you a nice sense of the cosmic chaos. The movements flow through five-pointed star and dance in and out of triangle pose on the way around the mat.

Roll out your mat, free your inner chaos and be a dancing star.

stand in tadasana
reach overhead and fill your lungs with a big inhale
as you exhale, fold into uttanasana
lift halfway up, hands to shins, and extend your spine
jump (or step) back and lower yourself to chaturanga dandasana
lift to urdhva mukha shavanasana
reach back into adha mukha svanasana
lift your right leg behind you into a down dog standing split
step your right foot forward between your hands into
runners stretch
spin your left heel down, reach your left arm forward
then up, lifting you into
virabhadrasana II
straighten your right leg and bend to the right
into trikonasana
lift your torso upright
turn your right toes toward the side of your mat and feel
five-pointed star
drop your arms down
sweep your hands together in front of your heart, then
press your hands overhead
open your arms back to shoulder height
turn your left toes toward the back of your mat
and bend left into trikonasana
lift out of triangle, bend your left knee and take
virabhadrasana II
windmill your arms to the floor framing your left foot
in high lunge
step back to plank and take the vinyasa to down dog
lift your right leg behind you
step your right foot forward between your hands
and flow from lunge to virabhadrasana II to
trikonasana to five-pointed star
(you should be facing the other side of your mat this time)
bring your hands together at your heart then press them overhead
turn your left toes to the front of the mat
and flow to triangle then warrior II and back to lunge
step back to plank and vinyasa back to down dog
now you’ve circled all the way around your mat
you’re facing front again
repeat the flow, beginning with your left leg this time
you’ll circle around in the other direction
when you flow back to down dog facing the front of your mat
hop (or step) forward
lift halfway up
fold deep and let go
come up to standing, reaching your arms overhead
return to tadasana
smile
you’ll make it through
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3 post-run yoga stretches your body will thank you for

Just as the mental calm created by a regular yoga practice permeates the rest of my day, my asana practice tends to show up in my other physical activities, especially running. In addition to being aware of my breath, I also adjust my posture to Tadasana (mountain pose) as I run – lifting the front of my pelvis, engaging my core, relaxing my shoulders back and down. And Uddiyana Bandha has gotten me up more than one tough hill.

Post Run Pigeon

No surprise that when I need to stretch after a run I turn to the asanas. If you’re looking for a few good post-run stretches, here are my favorites:

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) is my go-to pose after every run. Folding forward into what I affectionately call “lazy pigeon” opens the piriformis on the front leg side (nasty little muscle that thinks nothing of pinching your sciatic nerve if it’s tight) and stretches the hamstrings and glutes. The hip flexors of the extended back leg get a nice stretch, too, and they deserve some pampering after a run, especially if you’ve been on hills. The key in pigeon is to keep the hips squared and level, rather than collapsing to one side. Keep drawing the hip of the back leg forward and breath through that juicy stretch in the other hip.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog pose) opens the backs of the legs and, with a few minor adjustments after you’ve settled in, opens the low back. As your heels sink toward the floor you’re lengthening your hamstrings, gastrocnemius and soleus (those well-defined calf muscles that let everyone know you’re a runner) and glutes. With a reach back through your tailbone you can lengthen the sides of your waist and decompress the lumbar spine a bit, which is nice after it’s been your shock absorber for a few miles. The diaphragm and intercostals also get a stretch. Know what they’ve been doing? Working really hard helping you suck in oxygen.

Janu Sirsasana (head-to-knee pose, or half forward fold) gets to all our favorite muscles down the back of the extended leg – hamstrings, gastrocnemius, soleus, piriformis and glutes. Up in the torso you’re opening lats and obliques. You’re also hitting the hip adductors in the bent leg. Since deepening in this pose requires some help from the breath, you’ll feel your heart rate come down as you focus on breathing deep.

Take five minutes in some yoga poses after your next run. Your body will thank you. And who knows? Maybe yoga will start sneaking into the rest of your life.

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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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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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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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Do What You Think You Cannot

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
~Eleanor Roosevelt

The first time I saw AcroYoga was at the Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, Colorado, in 2008. I remember watching the performance in the video below and being blown away by the grace and power.

I also remember being pretty sure I would never be able to practice AcroYoga.

Fast forward almost five years and I now can make a good, long list of things I thought I couldn’t do that I’ve gone ahead and done anyway. The interesting thing about doing what you think you cannot is that once you do a few of those things, all the other ones seem much more possible.

(Hello, third Chakra.)

So, after watching AcroYoga videos with my yoga teacher trainees over lunch one day, I responded to their interest by saying, “I’ll try to set up an AcroYoga workshop here.” Never mind that I didn’t actually know anyone who teaches AcroYoga or if anyone would want to come to our little town. That’s what Facebook is for, right?

I connected with Catherine and Scott of Team WillCo. They made the trip. They are awesome AcroYoga teachers. And we had a great afternoon.

Remember how I thought I wouldn’t be able to practice AcroYoga? I’ve got another thing to add to my list of things I’ve gone ahead and done anyway. At the end of the workshop the word that popped into my head was “wow.”

My body is amazing. After many years of practicing yoga it still takes me to new places. Yoga gives me opportunities to be a confident beginner – to open to something new and sometimes scary knowing that whatever happens I can breathe through it. Fifteen years ago I breathed through my first Vinyasa class. Today it was inverting with my shoulders resting on someone’s knees.

This is why I begin every class I teach with pranayama. If someone is on their yoga mat and focusing on their breath, I’ve done my job. Yes, I’ll guide my class through asanas, but those are just opportunities to practice breathing. Oh, and to discover what their bodies can do, which is probably more than they think they can.

If you’ve been telling yourself that you cannot practice yoga, ask yourself this: “Can I breathe in? Can I breathe out?” (If you’re reading this, you can.) Then come see me, or a yoga teacher who serves your community, and do what you think you cannot.

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Too Tired to Say I Can’t

Bakasana (crow pose)

Bakasana (crow pose)

My long-time yoga teacher, Tracey Ulshafer of One Yoga and Wellness Center in East Windsor, New Jersey, often told us that breakthroughs in her yoga practice happened when she was too tired to tell herself she couldn’t. After having plenty of my own exhaustion-inspired breakthroughs, I’ve taken that to heart and shared it. My first lift-off into Bakasana came at the end of a long vinyasa workshop that followed a sleepless night of riding trains to New York City and back. (Don’t ask.)

Like pushing through the “wall” when running, at some point during a physically demanding yoga practice your body decides thinking is using too many precious resources, and redirects them to your muscles. Your brain still works, it’s just gone on autopilot. And you don’t have the energy to say “I can’t.”

I’ve been exhausted for months thanks to an inner ear issue, and I haven’t been asking much of my body. For weeks I’ve been relegated to supine, non-dizzy-making poses. And, since it’s still pretty cold here in the North Country, most of those supine poses have been practiced under my fluffy quilt…which is on my bed.

Anyway, today I did something my feisty life coach Annie tells me to do sometimes – I took a “f*ck it all pill” and had myself a real, physical, sweat-producing yoga practice. I practiced Surya Namaskar with no dizziness, no nausea, no ear pain. Woohoo! Then I took advantage of my recovering equilibrium to play with a home practice sequence I tore out of Yoga Journal months ago and promptly put someplace I’d be sure to never see it again, until I had some time on my hands and cleaned my desk.

I was enjoying myself, thinking of ways I could adapt the sequence for my varying levels of flow classes until I wore myself out too much to think. When the paper said Bakasana, I flew. Then I read the next step. (Yes, while balancing on my hands I was reading from the magazine page. Yoga does have its perks.) It said to draw my chest forward and float my feet back into Chaturanga Dandasana. Countless times before, when a yoga teacher said “jump back from crow,” I quietly put my feet down and stepped back into plank.

But today I taken a “f*ck it all pill” and I had made myself too tired to say “I can’t.” So it did what it said. And it worked…almost. I went a bit sideways and only one foot found my mat. But the second time it worked just fine. And the third, and the fourth. Then my brain woke up and sent me into Balasana.

When my forehead hit the floor, a big chunk of something (use your imagination) slid down the side of my throat. I swallowed before I realized what I was doing. Gross. But when I swallowed, my ear didn’t make the crunching sound I’d gotten used to hearing. So I swallowed again, just to be sure. I’m not positive it opened completely, but something definitely changed in my ear.

At the Colorado Yoga Journal Conference a few years ago, David Swenson told us that we would, at times, be visited by the yoga fairies who would sprinkle us with fairy dust and we would suddenly be able to do whatever asana had been eluding us. He also pointed out that the yoga fairies had a sick sense of humor, so after achieving that challenging asana, we’d probably not be able to do it again the next day. So I won’t be surprised when I wake up tomorrow and my ear is cracking and I can’t jump back from crow to low plank.

But today, when I was too tired to say “I can’t,” I had it.

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Put Me in Down Dog

Downward-facing Dog on the rocks at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

Downward-facing Dog on the rocks at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

A day without Adho Mukha Svanasana is like a day without sunshine. I’m a down dog addict. I could hang out in downward-facing dog all day, or for five minutes, whichever comes first.

While teaching yoga I’ve noticed some people would happily hang out in down dog with me, but others look like they’re counting the breaths until I tell them to move on. Some bodies look natural and relaxed, with their backs extended, shoulders neutral, heels dropping and necks loose. But some bodies don’t get it. Their backs round, their shoulder blades end up somewhere near their ears and their legs will never be straight. Some others never stop moving, unable to find a comfortable stillness even for one breath.

Adho Mukha Svanasana is a tricky pose to practice and to teach, requiring strength from the arms, legs and shoulders as well as flexibility throughout the back body. Ray Long wrote an excellent article on the mechanics of downward-facing dog for My Yoga Online, well worth a read if you hope to hang out in down dog all day or even if you’d just like a relaxed moment in the pose.

Every time I get on my mat (or anywhere I can practice), barring injury or a nasty sinus infection, I find myself in down dog. I often end up there even if I intended to keep my practice gentle. It feels good to be there. Besides, they say if you can hold downward-facing dog for five minutes, you can do a handstand. It hasn’t worked yet, so I have to keep trying.

What’s your “I could hang out here all day” asana?

Note: Ray Long’s The Key Muscles of Yoga is the anatomy book I chose for the True North Yoga teacher training program. I recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about anatomy and yoga.

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Meditation Cat and Yoga Dog

Meditation Cat, doing what she does best

Meditation Cat, doing what she does best

My favorite meditation position is sitting in Ardha Padmasana (half lotus) with my hands in Dhyana Mudra. Dhyana Mudra represents an empty bowl, symbolic of a pure, free, empty mind, which the universe will fill with whatever is needed. I must need a cat, because, more often then not, as soon as I close my eyes my hands and lap are filled with a purring ball of fur. She might sleep and allow me to quiet my mind, or she may demand that I pet her 108 times. It’s okay with her if I add an appropriate mantra, such as “this is me petting the cat” or “the cat is in charge.”

My yoga mat is attractive to the other quadrupeds in my house, too. One dog in particular, a border collie named Morgan, can’t resist the call of the yoga practice. She waits for me to settle into Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog) then flops on my mat between my hands and my feet, insuring I’ll be holding down dog for a long time. Oh, and while I’m stuck there she’ll lick my face, because there’s nothing like Ujjayi breath through dog spit.

Later Morgan will snuggle into my side during a supine twist and probably stay through Savasana. Sometimes dog number two grabs the other side. I’ll admit it’s nice to have dog snuggles on cold mornings.

I wonder why my four-legged family members make themselves part of my practice. Do they sense my calm energy? Does the peace I radiate draw them to me? That’s what I tell myself. But, honestly, I suspect they’re making sure I don’t practice through breakfast.

Do your pets join you on your mat?

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The one thing you need to do to have a really fabulous holiday season

Sometimes you have to give yourself a subtle reminder to get on your mat.

Sometimes you have to give yourself a subtle reminder to get on your mat.

It’s that time of the year. There’s shopping and decorating and holiday parties. There’s family gatherings and festive meals. There’s spiritual rituals and secular traditions. And it’s all fabulous…on paper.

The upcoming holiday season looks wonderful on glossy magazine covers and in thousands of new pins. All the recipes look yummy and gift-buying guides are full of inspiration.

All we have to do is make time for the holiday hoopla. And pay for it.

Got your holiday stress on yet?

I’ve had some pretty miserable holiday seasons. And I’ve learned one very important thing from them. It’s the thing that has kept me from driving head-on into a house trimmed with perfectly straight icicle lights, right through Santa and his eight light-up reindeer.

Before you deck the halls, trim the tree, wrap the gifts or stuff the turkey, take this little piece of advice.

Get on your mat.

Unroll your yoga mat every day and practice, even if that means twenty minutes in Viparita Karani (Leg Up the Wall Pose) while tears run down your face because you are going to have to choose between the toy your kid really wants and paying the rent. (Been there, done that.)

Take ten, twenty or thirty minutes a day for yourself to recharge. Not only will you feel less like strangling an elf, but in a moment of clarity you might just figure out how to get those antlers to stay on your dog’s head.

The truth is, in this time of giving, the greatest gifts you can offer are your presence and your inner light. And you won’t find either one unless you crawl out from under that pile of tinsel and cultivate your own serenity. Trust me, when your youngest finally climbs into Santa’s lap and smiles instead of running away screaming about the scary red man, you’ll want to be here and now. Practice, so you’ll be ready for the really fabulous stuff that comes in moments, not in boxes.

And however you celebrate the return of the sun, I wish you a holiday season full of peace, joy and Adho Mukha Svanasanas.

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