Posts

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Breathe in Moonlight

Waxing Crescent Moon (NASA, International Spac...

Waxing Crescent Moon (NASA, International Space Station, 02/28/09) (Photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

Since we began having new moon circles at the True North Yoga studio, I’ve been reconnecting to the lunar cycle. I’ve always noticed the moon in the sky, when it’s visible, but I went through a period of not noticing mindfully. Over the past couple of years I’d forgotten how the moon speaks to my spirit and I’m glad to feel it’s pull again.

During the last full moon I was guiding a yoga class into deeper breathing when I was struck by how the moon’s cycle mirrors the cycle of the breath.

Try this:

Sit comfortably and lengthen your spine. Breathe in and out through your nose. Make each breath a bit deeper, a bit longer, until you are using all of your lungs.

Notice your inhale. Notice how the lungs fill slowly, taking in more and more air until they are full. The inhale is like the waxing moon, growing from a sliver in the sky to an orb.

Pause at the top of your inhale, holding your breath in gently. This pause, with your lungs at their full capacity, is like the full moon hanging in the sky for a night. Savor it’s power and sweetness as your body takes in oxygen.

Slowly exhale, noticing the emptying of your lungs. The exhale is like the waning moon, gradually releasing all of it’s energy and light as it shrinks to a crescent.

For a brief moment, pause at the bottom of your exhale. Notice the emptiness, like the lack of light in the night sky during the new moon. Be aware that the emptiness is ready to be refilled, and with an inhale begin the cycle again.

At our new moon circles we revel in the emptiness, for the moonless night signifies a readiness to begin. It is the time of potential unmanifest. When the moon is new on March 11, pause for a brief moment and invite in all that you are ready to create in your life.

And when the moon is full, breathe in moonlight and savor the sweetness of your creative power.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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?

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Yoga to Say “Thank You”

The Thanksgiving holiday reminds me to be grateful for the opportunity to attend last weekend’s workshop at Kripalu. I am particularly grateful to my yoga students, who graciously gave up their weekend yoga classes so I could take the trip to Massachusetts.

A big take-away from the weekend workshop was insight into my own mental, spiritual and emotional needs. Not surprisingly, considering my latest career choice, I discovered that I am more confident and better at integrating information when I’m moving. It’s no wonder that in my corporate job I fell asleep in business meetings and seminars and never remembered a thing that was discussed.

This got me thinking about Thanksgiving dinner, when my minister brother, whom I love very much, starts the meal by saying grace. It’s nice to express gratitude for food and family, but when he speaks with his well-trained preacher voice I tend to zone out. (Nothing personal, bro. It’s just hard to sit still and listen without my mind drifting away.)

What if we pushed our chairs back from the table and did a moving prayer of gratitude? Moving prayers are nothing new. Dancing has been a form of worship for millennia. The Sufi Whirling Dervishes certainly pray that way. Yoga teacher Seane Corn teaches how to bring prayer into yoga practice in her “Body Prayer” classes.

My chair yoga class helped me work out a prayer of thanksgiving. It’s based on a chair adaptation of a half Sun Salutation.

A chair yoga prayer of thanksgiving.

A chair yoga prayer of thanksgiving.

Reach into the sun’s energy. Sitting near the front of the chair, inhale and reach both arms overhead.

And offer it to the earth. On the exhale, fold forward and lay your belly on your thighs, reaching your hands to the floor.

Open your heart to receive the universe’s grace. Bring your hands onto your knees, inhale and lift your heart, peeling your chest and abdomen off of your legs. Look ahead and press your heart forward through your arms as your spine extends. Lift your chin slightly.

Bow in humble gratitude for abundance shared. Holding your knees, exhale, drop your chin and round your back.

 

This works very nicely with a standing half Sun Salutation as well. You can speak the prayer or simply hold the words in your mind as you move. Flow through the sequence as many times as you need to feel it becoming part of you.

Another benefit? All that forward folding will massage your abdominal organs and stimulate digestion, so your body will be ready for that big plate of sweet potatoes, turkey (or tofu) and corn bread stuffing.

Enhanced by Zemanta