If it rubs you the wrong way, it’s probably rubbing you the right way.

If only we could remove all the noise and just find silence. Is there really such a thing? How far would you actually have to travel to experience this? The great Rishi’s, back in the day, would head to the Himalaya’s to get their meditating groove on. Whether meditating on a mountain, cave, spare bedroom or at the end of your yoga class there is usually still lot’s of noise. We tend to think of noise (citta) as everything outside our head, but there is a lot of noise inside that ball on our shoulders. Yet no one can hear this inside noise accept you. If I’m sitting right next to someone they can’t hear my noise, thank goodness, because most of it is nonsense. A lot of people believe meditation is about emptying their mind and experiencing silence. If that were the case then the first thing you would need to buy to have a good meditation practice is ear plugs, not a cushion for your bum. Next you would need a well insulated room that keeps down the chance of noise getting in. As much as you can’t remove the outside chatter of birds, cars, dishwashers, wind and the breathing of the person you might be sitting next to, you can’t remove the noise in your head, either.

It’s not supposed to be about that, because its not possible. I mean don’t get me wrong you can experience periods of quiet and they may even be impressively long, but the mind is eventually going to pick the chatter back up. We can’t create an environment insulated from all the things that disturb our peace, but we can make ourselves less easily disturbed.

Baddha Padmasana, Mural artist Matthew Foreman and Joanna Jackson.

Baddha Padmasana, Mural artist Matthew Foreman and Joanna Jackson.

I remember that I never used to encourage students to take breaks while practicing, somewhere along the way, I began implementing this statement. “Take childs pose (balasana) if you need to.” But as of late I have been giving this statement some thought. I have decided in most instances there is no reason to take a break. 9 times out of 10 the reason people drop into child’s pose is agitation/irritation. We bail when uncomfortable, frustrated or up against insecurities. The real truth is we need to be exactly where we are uncomfortable. The only way to get less agitated is to deal with what agitates you. Just like the only way to quiet your mind is to first know what the heck is up there, by listening to it. You can only slow down a wheel that is turning by applying the brakes. What do brakes do? They create friction, they create resistance to the movement. It’s good to rub up against the things that agitate us and really get to a place of using resistance as a tool. The more you expose your self to the agitation the more desensitized you become.

Years ago a had a dog that was afraid of other dogs. So at the time I was volunteering at my local animal shelter and I made a recording of the dogs barking in their kennels and played it back to my dog. At first very softly, than I gradually turned up the volume making sure all the while she was adjusting without much distress. I wouldn’t be doing my dog any favors if I tried to have her live in a world where she was never exposed to another barking dog.

The resistance you have to listening to what’s in your head and the resistance you are experiencing in your body is necessary. It’s like when a carpenter is making a piece of furniture. He makes certain cuts to the wood but the edges end up a little rough. So what does he need to do? He needs to sand down the rough edges. That’s what you are trying to do in yoga. Sand down your rough edges, the places where things are constantly getting snagged. Take for example the Zamboni machine at a hockey game, it comes in each quarter to smooth the ice back to a more safe and playable service. These physical and mental rough spots we have gather stuff every time we come up against them and don’t work through it. Like plague clogs your arteries, these disturbed rough spot’s clog your mind. These points are your samskaras. You can leave them alone and allow them to gather more resistance, more hold over you, or you can use yoga and your very agitated self to change them.

So next time you want your mediation to be perfect, or your yoga practice to be easy remind your self that you are missing the point. You need to get out your tools and become a good carpenter of the mind and body. Or you can think of it this way… you need to hop up on the Zamboni machine of your mind and smooth out the rough spots. Just like when the surface is smooth on a body of water it reflects with perfection all that surrounds it. Just as your mind is doing the same thing, mirroring back to you all that surrounds it. So sit and meditate. Calm the surface of your mind and see the truest reflection of yourself. Our thoughts are like a rock you throw into the smooth body of water, the bigger the rock the more it will disturb the surface. The smaller the rock, well you get the idea. So just as you can rub a rock up against a rough surface to smooth it out and make it smaller. You can rub up against the rough spots and make the things that disturb you have less power over you. Good luck and get to rubbing.

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Ninja skill

Yoga has brought me some very interesting talents over the years. And yes, contortion is one of them. I can squeeze into tight spots that most wouldn’t try. I can also shave my legs while standing on one foot in the shower. But better than that is I have acquired some great ninja skills. Don’t freak, this doesn’t mean that I’m attacking people with nun chucks or anything like that. It just means that I can sneak around like Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” without being noticed. Because of yoga I am more aware of how I move my body which allows me to walk softly and gracefully. This in no way excludes me from the occasional bumped knee or stubbed toe but it definitely lessens my chances of having that awkward moment at the E.R. trying to explain how exactly it is that I need 13 stitches. Yes, it probably is saving me money on my health care cost. I recently attempted yoga on top of a paddle board which reassured me of my great newly acquired ninja skill. How, might you ask am I sure that I have mastered ninja skills? The proof is in the number of times I have snuck up on yoga students, my dog and even my husband. And they were all slightly startled by my presence.

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This idea of walking softly reminds me of an expression I had painted on the walls of my old yoga studio back in Ohio: “live gently, walk softly.” Yoga is a great place to become aware of both of these things. This old studio of mine was on the second floor of a building that had beautiful old hardwood floors. These floors called great attention to just how heavily we moved our bodies. Every time students would step forward into virabhadrasana it would sound as if they were trying to kill a cockroach. Or when they would jump forward to standing, it could sound like they were trying to break through the floor to make a fast escape. This became a great teaching opportunity for me to point out the heaviness of their movements and to educate them on using their bandhas. While doing yoga, the idea is for your movements to not be heard, to become like a superhero that can sneak around, unnoticed. I often joke with my students that this could give them the ability to eavesdrop on their children. Of course, only if necessary. It sure could make it easier playing the role of Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. But generally speaking, walking softly makes you seem like a more compassionate and relaxed person.

Some Buddhist cultures take walking softly to a whole new level, they go so far as to sweep their path every where they go as to not step on any living creature. Most of us aren’t going to go to such extremes but it wouldn’t hurt to become a little more aware of our movements and the impact they have on others and even our-selves. It could do us some good to become more aware of our body language. There was a study done about how many years slouching ages us. You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that we look 7 years older when we slouch. Ha, did you just sit up a little straighter when you read that? Another negative to slouching is that you collapse at your diaphragm which is the muscle that facilitates breathing for you. If your slumped over, I guarantee you are not breathing optimally. Imagine what effect that might be having on your mood and energy. Forget that liquid crap – 5 hour energy. I guarantee you sitting up straighter and moving around more will give you energy that you are lacking.

This idea of “live gently and walk softly” is the same as “leave no trace”. When you venture out into wilderness you are to respect it enough to feel no need to change it. Leave things just as you found them, do not leave any trash, do not break any branches, attempt to not wear away the beauty that should be left for others to see. It should be as if you were never there, just as you should never know when a good ninja has passed through. We shouldn’t need to try to change yoga either, but we should try to become one with our environment. Now a days, many people in the yoga community have this need to put their stamp on yoga’s history, to lay claim to something that was a gift to us all by the benevolent God Shiva, as the story goes. Just as the divine mother gave all of us this beautiful earth. All the more reason to live gently, for future generations. All the more reason to leave yoga unchanged so the richness of its history isn’t watered down. Samurai were a bit more refined than ninja’s were. The samurai acted by a code of conduct and they were devoted to serving their king. So maybe a little ninja skill and a little samurai skill could do us all some good.

People are clomping around as if they are Frankenstein. If you’re scaring small children with your mannerisms and behavior, there is a problem. I often say to my students that the expressions they make while doing yoga should never frighten a small child. I remind them that if someone accidentally walked into the yoga room they shouldn’t think it’s an anger management meeting. From the way we move our bodies, to the way we breathe, to the expressions on our face, we should apply the softly and gently approach.

I love how sometimes students are forced into walking softly when they choose to skip savasana. Yet I am never surprised that some people can’t pull it off. As they clang, jingle and stomp their way out of the yoga room. I have always thought two of the most unattractive qualities are being oblivious and irresponsible. Yoga is great for changing both of these behavioral problems. I’ve heard it said in a much more poetic fashion than this, but once yoga awakens you, you can’t go back to sleep. Meaning once your awareness has moved into your physical being (niyama) and outward towards others (yama) you can’t undo those positive affect’s its bound to have. This is a blessing and a curse, but I can’t imagine living any other way. So I live gently and I always try to walk softly. Matter of fact, I like to try to practice it, in the most literal sense possible by walking around the yoga room when they are all peacefully tucked into savasana. Every now and then a creak in my knee or ankle gives away my movement, but for the most part I have mastered being a yogi ninja.

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36 backbends, 1/3 of the way there.

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“Life is a great big beautiful three-ring circus. There are those on the floor making their lives among the heads of lions and hoops of fire, and those in the stands complacent and wowed, their mouths stuffed with popcorn.” -Christopher Hawke

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Bending the light backwards.

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Arching with the morning light.

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Sometimes backbends feel like you’re in a tight spot.

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Backbends can be a heavenly experience.

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Bow! Wow! Wow! Yippee! Yo! Yippee! Yay! It’s another great day for backbends.

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“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” – Bruce Lee

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“It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the inessential.” Bruce Lee

Crazy ideas are great! They are what keep life juicy. In Ayurveda it’s called “ojas”. We all could use a little more juiciness, right? You know how awful it is when you’re eyeballing a piece of fruit sitting on your counter, just waiting for it to ripen to perfection. You finally take a bite, only find its spoiled and all dried up. That’s what happens when you sit on ideas for far too long. They go bad, from all the ways you talk yourself out of moving forward with them. Well, this is one of my recent crazy ideas, which is a small part of a bigger one. I’d like to share with you what I have learned so far. I am only 36 pictures in to the plan of taking 108 different pictures of backbends, all over the place. I’m at the 1/3 of the way there mark, like the 1st 1/3 of the sound of Aum, aaaaaaaaaah. I’m hoping there is a shift in the next third and a final explosion of insight in the final third. Just like we have to create that verbal sound of “A” way in the back of our throats, I had this idea brewing in the back of my mind for a while. The courage I needed to do it finally moved forward out of the dark shadows of all my doubts. One of my students inspired me to take this journey. Everywhere interesting that he went he did a headstand and snapped a picture of it. Now that I am 1/3 of the way in, I’m slightly wishing that I had chosen a pose like headstand (Sirsasana) or downward facing dog (Adho mukha svanasana) to photographically journal, instead of wheel, as I am a natural forward bendy kind of girl. The word natural and backbend don’t belong together in my case. Too many years of running, or too much comfort in protecting myself. I’m not much of a risk taker, I am more a creature of habit. I find comfort in the consistencies in my life. For me, forward bending has always been consistently easy. Backbending (Urdhva dhanurasana), however, doesn’t have much consistency. I am sure you will see that in my pictures. I hope you enjoy the photos. If you’d like to check out all of them, you can follow me on Instagram @catherinewoods. I’m really starting to enjoy the challenge of finding interesting backdrops, trying new shapes with my body and sharing quotes. But maybe next time I get a crazy idea like this I’ll do 108 child’s postures (Balasana)

So here is what I have learned so far.
1) Not all surfaces are conducive for backbends
2) Backbends are cruel without the proper warm-up
3) Bending your spine in the wee morning hours is for the young, and I mean like the 8-year-old gymnast, not the 42-year-old runner/yogi. (However I prefer to shoot these pics in the morning as I do not care for an audience and the morning light is beautiful. So for that reason, I must suffer. Art is an expression of suffering, sometimes.)
4) Some places and or surfaces are very scary to lift yourself up off the ground in a vulnerable, belly exposed position.
5) Backbends on treacherous surfaces drive the point home of sutra 2.46 Sthira sukham asanam. First and foremost sthira! Steady! Then ease comes.
6) Since I am doing most of the pictures as selflies this has made repetition a great teacher. My teacher, Tim Miller taught me the benefit of repetition years ago with backbends. He has a way of inspiring you to do 12 backbends.
7) Pictures always speak louder than words. I have become immensely informed by my photos as to where I need to do some work and research. Try it, you will see things that you might not yet be able to propriocept.
8) From sharing my photo’s, so far to date (By what people have chosen to share with me privately), I have inspired 3 random people to try to do a backbend and to keep them incorporated in their practice. (I’m finding backbends in some yoga communities are becoming a lost art)
9) My lazy habits are being exposed, my external hip rotators overwork, while my internal rotators underwork. My cervical spine is stiff.
10) I have learned that I am a dreamer, that I believe I can fit into tight places and do things my body has never done before. Not only am I a dreamer, but I’m not afraid to leave my comfort zone after all.

Questions I am wondering if I’ll have answered at the end of this 108 photographic journey
1) Will my backbends improve in such a way that I will be able to do tic toc’s?
2) Will I understand my psoas better? And get better movement and expression through it?
3) Will my body require less backbend preparation to experience a good, comfortable and correct backbend?
4) Will I be able to grab my heels in Kapotasana, by myself?
5) As I have been enjoying finding murals to use as a backdrop to my photo’s, I wonder if I will finally make some room to start painting again. Long before being a yoga teacher, I was an artist. I admire each and every one of the artist I have used in my photos. They have embodied the “Go big or stay home.” mantra with their art and I thank them for that.

I think at the pinnacle 108, it will just be a landmark. I imagine at this point that I have caught some sort of backbend bug. If you were to talk to my students this wouldn’t be a surprise, as I have been driving home the numerous benefits of backbending for years now. I now feel like I am on a mission to find the most unique expressions of backbends and the most unique backdrops to accent the experience. I intend to be 80 years old and still standing up out of Urdhva dhanurasana. Join me. I promise, it will be good for your health.

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My name is not George, but I am curious.

One of the best accessories you can bring to your yoga practice comes from a children’s book, also an old wives tale. It doesn’t cost you a thing and it looks better on you than those new yoga pants. What is it…it’s curiosity! You need to bring this to your practice more than you actually need to bring a yoga mat. Mat’s are just for comfort, but curiosity is for transformation. It’s the fertilizer for any life changing work you are hoping yoga will facilitate. In the children’s book “Curious George” George, the little monkey was always on some adventure, all because he was curious. There’s also the old wives’ tale that cats are given 9 lives and their curiosity puts them in jeopardy of running out of those 9-lives. I once heard that if you have found yoga in your current life, it’s because you were a yogi in your past life, and that you will keep coming back to yoga until the work is done. Maybe we yogi’s get something like the 9-lives of a cat for navigating this yoga journey.

I see people all the time coming to yoga with the latest yoga mat, coolest yoga attire and the best sweat absorbing rug, along with the latest prop that they believe will help them execute pincha mayurasana. But I don’t see them bringing any curiosity to their practice. Curiosity is evident in people who are experiencing results and progressing along nicely. But I have seen some people practice for 5+ years and their practice is not evolving. The reason is they have no new approaches. They are going about their practice as they always have: wrought with predictability, smothered with unwillingness and drowning in disinterest. Disinterest is like a wet blanket to the fire of curiosity.

Where does curiosity come from? Do we all get our fair share? Look, right now I am being curious about where curiosity comes from. Can’t get any more curious than that. We were all curious at one time. Around about age 3 we start filling our heads with as much information as our little selves could handle. We did this by using the symbol for curiosity, the question mark (?). So that means that when practicing yoga (but really life in general), we should be asking more and more questions. This is the way out of ignorance (Avidya). In the yoga sutra’s the definition of ignorance/avidya is seeing the impermanent as permanent (Sutra 2.5). For all those people who believe they can’t, they don’t understand yet that everything is always changing. Everything is impermanent. The way through ignorance is questioning the state of things. As sutra 2.26 says Vivekahyatir Aviplava Hanopayah – Uninterrupted discriminative discernment is the method of removing ignorance. So here’s your ammunition for a good yoga practice – How? What? And Why? “When” is not terribly important because if your asking How? What? and Why? the “when” will take care of itself. Too many people set themselves up for failure by taking things at face value, believing what they have heard from others. Life is meant to be questioned, and the more you do, the more you grow.

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One example that I can give is my approach to the sensations I feel during yoga. If I run into pain or an injury, I take it upon myself to find out what muscle the pain is coming from and what that muscle’s function is. I identify and examine; the same way a good detective would examine a suspect. I suspect that muscle is the cause of such pain, but I must first gather all the information that I can about it. I always say when I’m teaching a class that you need to approach your yoga practice the way Jacque Cousteau approached his love of the sea, with curiosity and passion. Before He passed away he had been an explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher. All of his great accomplishments were because he was curious. It’s the same thing that had Christopher Columbus sail the ocean blue, and Buzz Aldridge navigating through space. There is endless opportunity for discovery, but only if you question and challenge everything you know and hear.

Next time you want to have a great experience on your yoga mat, don’t try to reinvent one you already had, by wearing the same clothes, or putting your mat in the same place. Do away with predictability. Come at your practice with new eyes. Approach it with what I call the 3-year-old brain. Ask lots of questions, and try a bunch of different approaches. Get used to saying “that was interesting, but what if I did this.” Stay captivated by your body’s adaptability. Be open to uncharted territory. I often say during Surya Namaskar “Inhale and look toward horizon”. Christopher Columbus must have been looking out at the horizon when he thought, “there must be more out there, that we haven’t explored yet.” Keep the horizon in mind, for keeping the dreamer inside of you alive.

It’s probably no coincidence that one of yoga’s fabled character role models is Hanuman, a monkey, just like Curious George. Let your inner monkey do what’s most natural – be curious. Stay open to the idea that ALL things are possible. If you’re not so sure just go roll out your yoga mat and let your teacher and all the students around you inspire you. Dream big, and don’t accept that what seems permanent, is permanent. Curiosity really is your best accessory no matter how good you look in those new yoga pants. Don’t mistake outward appearances, for the real benefit of inner work.

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Sisyphus has nothing on us Ashtangi’s

Day in, day out, day in, day out, day in, day out, rest day. Day in, day out…get the idea. This is the life of an ashtangi. For most of us, it’s an accurate portrayal of our daily lives, too. On a day-to-day basis, there usually aren’t big changes, but just little ones that pop up. Most of our days have some consistency, or so it appears. But if you do Ashtanga yoga, you know that there can be big differences day-to-day. Because of the sequence being the same, it helps you to realize just how different you really are each day. With the practice having the same format, it’s sort of like a painter always starting with a white canvas. Or you could think of it as being similar to the story of Sisyphus, a character in Greek Mythology.

Sisyphus was condemned to a life of suffering, by the Gods, for his deceitful ways. He was to push a large boulder, up a mountain, every day, just to have it roll down again. Same boulder. Same mountain. Every day. For eternity. He’d find himself standing at the top of the mountain watching the boulder roll back down, and it is believed that on his way down he was left to think about his situation. * It is said by Albert Camus, in the book The Myth of Sisyphus that “when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance.” Camus also says that “[t]here is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It is that statement, that makes me say Sisyphus has nothing on us Ashtangi’s. Because unlike Sisyphus, we choose to push the boulder up the mountain in what our daily practice. Every morning we wake up and see “the boulder” waiting for us at the foot of our yoga mat. We dutifully accept our fate, without scorn. All Ashtangis know there will be some dukha along the way, as well as some sukha. We accept that, and practice anyway.

I just read a book called The Dude and the Zen Master, by the actor Jeff Bridges, in which he implies that Camus was trying to say that Sisyphus was a hero. Jeff interprets Sisyphus feelings about his fate as such “Instead of just saying, Oh man, what is the use, he [Sisyphus] finds some interest in his job: Oh look at what happened this time! Funny, I never noticed that little shrub before. The rock sure raised a lot of dust this time when it rolled back down, wasn’t that interesting? Oh here it goes again. Oh, there it goes. Watch it.” If Sisyphus were attached to his outcome of getting the rock to the top then his suffering would be great. But IF he was able to do his work without expecting his outcome to become any different, then he would be free to enjoy the process, instead of the result.

Ashtanga yoga is a process, not a result. That is why Pattabhi Jois said “Practice and ALL is coming” the word WHEN, IF or HOW are not in his statement. Because it’s not about outcome, it’s about process. If you do the practice there is bound to be many different outcomes, but any particular outcome never removes the need for the process. The process of ashtanga yoga is till death, or until we can no longer move our bodies. The Ashtangis that I know celebrate the big anniversaries, 10 years, 15, 25 years of daily practice. All the way to Pattabhi who had over 70 years of practice to see what the ALL was about.

Janu Sirsasana C, day-in, day-out.

Janu Sirsasana C, day-in, day-out.

The practice is the boulder. However, it is up to you whether you push it up the mountain. It’s also up to you whether it feels like a burden, or a blessing. Pattabhi was always saying “You do”. Some say it was his limited/broken english that made him say it that way, but maybe he just didn’t see the need to say it any other way. Such as “You have to do this…” or “When you do that…” or “If you do this…”. He knew, for those of us that do, “You do” is enough. Sisyphus did, but he had no choice. Maybe he eventually realized that the God’s meant “You do” and not “You have to do this.” One statement carries burden, while the other sets you free – Jivan Mukta. The God’s probably thought this work would be good for Sisyphus, so that he could see the error of his ways. We yogi’s understand this. Our practice helps to get rid of our samsara halahala.

* Excerpt from Wikipedia.

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Paying for patience.

If patience were for sale, would you stand in line to buy some? How much would you want? How do you think they would be selling it, by the hour? Personally I have found my patience level is directly related to how much something is inconveniencing ME. Damn ASMITA – ego! My ego you can make me such a terrible person sometimes. I am usually forced into becoming patient after I have done something stupid while trying to out smart my impatience. Like the proverbial speeding ticket, as you’re speeding to get where you need to be you end up getting pulled over. Naturally, you end up getting where you needed to be, but later. Or how about how your impatience makes you push aggressively against every warning sign your body is giving you, and you injure yourself trying to get one more yoga asana in the “I can do that pose” pile. Which then sets you back weeks from actually being able to do that pose. Do you recognize any of these scenarios? If so, then fall in line behind me for your fare share of patience. It’s marked down to $9.99 a hour! Would you pay that? Either way, you’re going to pay. If you don’t find a little more patience in your life.

I have stuck with Ashtanga yoga for 13 years. The number of poses that haven’t come easy for me out weigh the ones that have. My husband says I’m a diesel. What he means is, I am good at long and slow distances when it comes to running. What I think he really means to say is I am willing to suffer as long as necessary to get something that I really want. What I have come to realize is that I like rubbing myself up against discomfort to find out just how much of it I can really handle. This personality trait works really well with Ashtanga yoga, because there are poses that seem strategically placed to weed out people who can’t handle the discomfort. For all the poses that could scare me off I usually just dig in even harder. I find I am incredibly patient when things are difficult, but terribly impatient in the most mundane moments of my life, like walking my dog.

I think I have the Ganesha spirit inside of me. Ganesha is all about overcoming obstacles. When yoga throws a pose at me that seems illogical to my body, I just trumpet out “Oh yeah, watch me!” then I take another deep breath and carry on. In my practice I have come up against Marichyasana D, Baddha Konasana, pashasana, kapotasana, dwi pada sirsasana and a few others. Here’s what I can tell you about these asanas. Don’t give up, and don’t think they will come quickly. Marichyasana D took me 3 years to bind. Baddha Konasana took me 10 years to get my forehead to the floor and knees down. Pashasana has taken me 13 years on my left and is still a tad elusive on my right. Kapotasana took me 7 years just to touch my toes, and dwi pada sirsasana only happens for me as Yoginidrasana, because of a herniated L5/S1. Even with a consistent 6-day-a-week practice these poses have taken a long time to come around. So why should we do yoga for ten years just to get our forehead down to the ground? What’s the point?

Baddha Konasa. Years of running made this pose a practice of patience.

Baddha Konasa. Years of running made this pose a practice of patience.

The point is, if I don’t walk away from challenges in yoga then it’s likely I won’t walk away from other challenges life throws my way. The point is, I now have a sense of pride every time I execute those postures. No one but me made them happen. But put these things aside and ask a different question. Why would I walk away when I have no ability to predict when I will be able to do these postures? If I would have put a time limit on my yoga practice; that, if these things don’t happen for me in a year then I’m walking away. Who’s to say that the day after I walk away it wouldn’t be the day my hands clasp, or my head touches the floor. I feel there is a greater risk in walking away than there is in seeing it through. Walking away will always leave me with regrets, but seeing it through is like turning the door knob of opportunity. Walking away is like never even ringing the doorbell of opportunity. Sure I have regrets from things I didn’t walk away from sooner, but they are always overshadowed by all that I am proud of myself for NOT walking away from.

Why not walk away from Ashtanga yoga when the going gets tough? When I did bind in marichyasan D no-one dropped party streamers and brought me a cake. No-one read about it in People Magazine. The interest rate on my visa card didn’t drop, the bills in my mail box didn’t go away, the dog I wish would live forever didn’t suddenly defy nature and survive her cancer, and my boss didn’t call me into her office and say “I hear you bound Marichyasana D last night. Congratulations, here’s your new office and a $5,000 raise.” So what is all the hard work for if it didn’t get me any of those things? But keep in mind what I did get…pride. How much is pride worth and would you stand in line to buy some? Do you think buying pride would feel the same as earning it? If two lines were forming one selling pride, and another selling patience which line would you stand in?

Pride is like food for our spine. It pulls your shoulders back, and you seem to stand a little taller. Especially if it came from sweat and hard work. The pride I gain from overcoming one difficult asana gives me fuel to over come the next, and the next after that. I think pride is what gives our eyes that little twinkle. Look into an ashtangi’s eyes after their practice, you’ll see that twinkle. I think pride settles our heart, and it strengthens our convictions. It is limitless in all that it gives. The beauty of pride is it best earned with patience. Patience is the real hero. Its sort of like how your body makes a shadow; patience shines a light on areas that are weak. As you work through those areas you get stronger and then can do more. Pride is just the after effect of your patience.

I love those moments where the Universe laughs at me for thinking I have control over all that’s around me. When the ego boast the “ME! ME! ME!” cry and all you’ll end up hearing is the Universe laughing. The ego may drive you to want more asanas, but sooner or later the ego becomes weak. What takes over when the ego walks away…the heart. Its inside the heart that patience lives. Don’t be afraid to let hard work pay off and to see things through. There will be no party, and probably no checks will be written, but there will be a sense of great pride. Pride like that can make you feel as strong as an elephant. Hopefully that elephant like feeling you experience is Ganesha pointing out to you that you are overcoming obstacles. So, put away your wallet because patience can not be bought. But I promise you, if you don’t find some you will end up paying for it.

Patiently moving into Kapotasana.

Patiently moving into Kapotasana.

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Primal is all the craze!

It seems these days that primal is all the craze. If you’re in the loop you’ve read Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, or if you’ve ever picked up a weight you have probably heard of the Paleo trend. These are trends that are about getting back to simpler times, not needing high-tech shoes or equipment and not consuming processed foods. If it comes in a box don’t eat it. If your shoe’s came out of a box don’t wear them. Seems like boxes are bad. The idea is that 4 walls limit your thinking even all the way down into how your muscles think. By confining our feet we limit their strength and potential. This really isn’t news to a yogi. We have been going barefoot – all natural since yoga came into existence. There is nothing more primal then going barefoot. There are other things that we do in yoga that keep it primal like dog pose, camel pose (Ushtrasana), fish (Matsyasana), eagle (Garudasana), and duck pose (Karandavasana). Those are just a few of the animals we try to embody in the course of a good yoga practice. We don’t need anything except our bodies to do yoga, no weights, no prop’s, no mirror’s and definitely no shoes, so if you want primal this is the way go.

(Excerpt from Born to Run – “No wonder your feet are so sensitive,” Ted mused. “They’re self-correcting devices. Covering your feet with cushioned shoes is like turning off your smoke alarms.”)

What else about going barefoot ties into that primal urge? In the Ashtanga opening chant we pay respect to the dust of the guru’s lotus feet. When you see pictures of the great indian mythological Gods you don’t see any of them tucked into lotus with a pair of Nike’s on. After Gandhi died they bronzed a pair of his sandals, symbolising all the great work he had done while he walked this earth. Feet are considered a representation of the journey our great teachers have taken, the idea the dirtier the feet, the more they have experienced. There are other cultures that embrace this foot thing in different ways. In japan you never wear shoes into a home. In India you never wear shoes into the sacred space inside a temple. It’s also consider offensive to have the bottoms of your feet face your guru. But here in America our feet pretty much live inside a pair of shoes and these shoes go everywhere. We traipse all over the place in shoes that can be dirty and grimy, but supposedly comfortable. But are they really?

Many people visit their doctors because they have foot or knee pain. Take it from me, I have seen my fair share of feet over the 13 years that I have been teaching yoga and we don’t exactly have pretty feet. Proof of this is that many women try to decorate and disguise their feet by painting their toes all sorts of colors. We will put just about anything on our feet. But yet it can be hard to get some people to embrace doing yoga barefoot. Our feet are crying to be set free. Your feet can send pain to the knee and possibly all the way up to the back. Our bodies first defense against the stress of being bipedal begins at the feet. So many people don’t have a healthy defense to these stresses because their feet have become weak and even deformed.

It’s time for people to go bare. To let their feet get tough and strong, to let the toes stay spread apart instead of being squashed together, and to let the arch of the foot be just that – an arch. I see bad foot mechanics every class I teach. I see people who can’t stand on one leg because their feet are so weak. We should be treating our health and fitness in the simplest way possible and quit complicating matters with machines, shoes, and gadgets. Let’s just get back to pushing and pulling, jumping and pressing, twisting and flipping and contradicting. For every movement we do, we want to do one of opposition. If we point, we should flex, if we collapse we should extend, if we stand, we should fall. Ashtanga yoga has all of this, and then some. We drop back into back bends, we jump forward to standing, we point our feet, extend our spines and twist just about everything we can, all in an hour and half…and all barefoot.

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The first series/yoga chikitsa alone has enough movements in it to make you realize that your feet aren’t well. This should make you stop and wonder. If your feet aren’t functioning optimally, then what effects are they having on your knee? Ankle? Back? My two greatest loves are running and yoga. The reason is… I need nothing to do either. I don’t need a gym, and I don’t need equipment. They both can be done from my home. I can step out my front door and go for a run, and I can bust out some yoga moves in the middle of my bedroom. They are both freeing to me because of this, which means they leave me feeling liberated. One of the goals of yoga is just that; to become a liberated soul- jivanmukta.

I believe one thing that can liberate you in life is when you eliminate excuses. There is nothing more freeing than not needing a lame excuse. We all know that 90% of excuses are lame. So one of the other beautiful reasons to fall in love with Ashtanga yoga is it’s a sequence designed for memorization. Once you have committed the sequence to memory you can do yoga anywhere, no excuses. I have done it on a beach, in a little cabin in the woods, in Honduras and a small island in the Atlantic just to name a few. Having no excuses is very liberating, I promise.

Yoga and running are not going to be comfortable but there-in lies the beauty. They aren’t supposed to be. It’s in the discomfort that you will experience your primal nature of being stronger than you thought you were. Discomfort and bare feet take you back to the root of your ancestors. They made the place you call home what it is. Their survival, and their hard work got you where you are. So every time you stand barefoot at the top of your yoga mat, you should feel plugged into to centuries of hard work and discomfort. And you should fear not just a little more of the same. Being comfortable never got anyone somewhere new, different or exciting. All the brave souls that didn’t have the choices you do, that had to go barefoot, that let their feet collect a little more dust, that had to lift one more bale of hay, that had to plough one more line in the field, that had to climb one more tree to harvest the coconuts. They gave you your freedom to stay liberated.

So out of respect to all souls past that laid the ground work for your comfort, let’s get a little uncomfortable. Let’s get a little more primal. Go barefoot. Spread your toes, pull up your arches and feel the sole of your foot tapping into souls of the past.

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(Excerpt from Born to Run – “Just look at the architecture,” Dr. Hartmann explained. Blue print your feet, and you’ll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch, the greatest weight-bearing design ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down the tighter it’s parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowel would ever stick a support under an arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure. Buttressing the foot’s arch from all sides is high-tensile web of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, twelve rubbery tendons and eighteen muscles, all stretching and flexing like an earthquake-resistant suspension bridge.)

Categories: Asana, For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unsaid

I recently inherited a parrot from my husband’s family. They have had this bird for over 40 years.  I have been working on bonding with him. During this process, what I have really been working on is communication without words. He does speak, but he probably doesn’t comprehend the use of his words, as he will often say “Hello” as I am leaving. But he has mastered the appropriate greeting for my return. He joins our dogs in barking to announce my arrival. I guess he figured since they do it, so should he. It’s very funny seeing your parrot bark. But than again I see people mis-use language all the time. I also see people mis-use inflection and mannerism with their words. So why is it we are so dependent on words instead of what they evoke? We use words to mask so much of what we really mean. This is why I love the stripped down simplicity of a mysore yoga practice. There are no words, at least none spoken, but there is a language. It’s a beautiful language filled with support, encouragement and understanding.

We have become too dependent on words. There is a big difference between just speaking words and actually communicating. Communicating takes listening. You won’t always hear in words what the person actually means. Just like my parrot can’t always tell me what he wants. I have to become a very good listener via body language, and the use of his feet and beak to really understand what he wants. If not, then I usually end up being the recipient of a harsh bite. This same thing happens in yoga sometimes. If you aren’t being an active listener to the teacher, or the warnings from your body then you may get bitten by the hard truth of injury.

I have taken classes over the years where the teacher offers just words; no inflection in their voice, no adjustments through their hands and no darshan either (which is a loving glance). I have found through the years of study with my teacher, Tim Miller, that during his mysore classes, he often  uses darshan as a tool, for encouragement. His hands on adjustments also offer communication. I know that when my teacher touches me firmly and with confidence, it means he has confidence in me –  that I am capable of going where he is trying to take me. It says to me loud and clear “You can do this.”  So what about inflection? I can tell you that my parrot knows how to use it, when he’s not getting the attention he wants, he will get louder and louder until he is noticed. Just the same, I can calm him down with a softer voice and a gentle touch. There is nothing worse to me then a monotone teacher. It sounds to me like they are bored, which I do believe some teachers are. They have lost their “Joie de vivre” for teaching. Pitch and tone can go a long way in expressing the joy there should be in a good practice.

I recently taught a class that seemed like they were all visual learners. It was as if 70% of the class had no ears, only eyes to guide them. Imagine how complicated life must be if they can only understand conversations by what they see and not by what they hear. Where has the art of listening gone? When did we become so dependent on sight. The problem with sight is it is filtered through our preconceived mind (samskaras). This is why  people  recount a story differently even though they all witnessed the same scene unfold. Sight is not reliable, but it is helpful. Even sound is not terribly reliable, because you can read between the lines. But your sense’s are reliable. In order to understand my pets and my pets to understand me, we have to sense each others needs. I have a house full of animals and none of them speak english, but they all speak patience, thank goodness. Because we humans are sometimes selfish in our interpretations of our animals needs. They are so patient with my ignorance of their world and their communication. They however comply to everything I ask, in english. They are good listeners.

Mysore yoga gives us a chance to become better listeners. We have the opportunity to listen to our breathing, thoughts, sensations and our dreams. The quiet of the practice allows room for patience. When in a classroom environment where the teacher is barking commands there is little room for patience. People often feel rushed in a led class, but not mysore. It’s a beautiful practice that has movement as it’s language. Not facial expression, not words, not inflection – just movement. It’s like a liquid conversation. I’d say it’s like a painter painting. The paint is going on the canvas, but it’s blending with other colors. During a mysore practice, our movement blends, each of our movements is like a brush stroke, each person a color. There’s a group effort in mysore style yoga even though no one is doing the same thing at any one time. It probably looks like chaos to an outsider. But for those of us practicing together it’s like a symphony. We each move a different way and experience different struggles. One instrument playing alone can make beautiful music but a symphony leaves an impression.

We need to bring the simplicity of a mysore practice into all of our practices. We need to be less dependent on what we hear and see, and more receptive to what we are feeling. A great musician feels what they are playing. The music that moves you the most did so because you felt it instead of just hearing it. It touched something inside of you. It’s no coincidence that the 4th chakra/the heart chakra is called “the unstruck sound”. This is a sound that you don’t hear with your ears. You feel this sound with your heart. That’s what we’re getting in touch with every time we do a mysore practice. The brain uses language, but the heart uses feelings.

I recently just finished reading a great book about the idea of what’s left unsaid.  Yoga isn’t about what’s said, it’s about what’s not said. Enough with language. Animals are hard to understand if you are expecting to hear words/language. Animals use movements to express moods and desires. My parrot drops his head when he wants petted, or he squats low and quickly flutters his wings when he wants me to come to him. My dog raises her bum but lowers her chest when she wants to play, my cat head butts me when she wants petted. When these things fail, then animals will use sound –  barks, squaks and meows, but first they trust their instincts and their instincts are to communicate with movement. Let’s try to not worry so much about what we are saying and more about what we are doing. There’s a great quote that keeps it simple “Actions speak louder than words.” Let’s take action, get on your mat and leave the words at the door. It’s just better to leave somethings unsaid.

Shhhhh, just listen. Ushtrasana, Camel pose.

Shhhhh, just listen.
Ushtrasana, Camel pose.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Staying a float

They say that if a rip current is pulling you out to sea, relax and let it pull you, then swim parallel to shore until it releases you and then you can swim in. This is counterintuitive advice but it is life saving. In most cases panic sets in and people who find themselves in this dire situation behave more like salmon and swim aggressively against the current exhausting themselves and putting themselves in greater danger. There are moments in life where we will feel like we are getting pulled out to sea, losing sight of the shore. We all need to find a way to stay afloat at different times in our lives, to stay on the surface of the disturbance and not get pulled under. This is a lesson in life worth learning, because there will always be things that pull at you this way and that. You can exhaust yourself fighting it, or you can let go and float. I see people all the time in yoga that practice like salmon, working hard and throwing themselves around the room. I feel as though people don’t watch enough nature shows, because if they did, they would realize that salmon die at the end of this journey. There is a better way to practice yoga and a better way to get through the rip currents of life.

Staying afloat in Urdhva Padmasana - upward lotus.

Staying afloat in Urdhva Padmasana – upward lotus.

Yoga is supposed to look effortless, not just for those that have done it for years but for every student beginner to advanced. Imagine if flying didn’t look effortless to a bird or if running didn’t look effortless to a cheetah. Yoga doesn’t have to look like a struggle, nor feel like one. It’s as simple as stop fighting. But don’t you hate when people take complicated things and make them sound so simple? Which almost seems like an insult for those that are struggling. I know first hand those people don’t mean to make it sound so simple, but in a lot of cases it is. You just need to get out of your own way.

We human beings are natural graspers. That should be an obvious truth because we have thumbs. All the grasping (Aparigraha) we do eventually becomes a pattern. It’s these patterns that we need to break. Those patterns are the rip current. Negative patterns pull us further away from the person we are capable of becoming. The shoreline symbolizing where we are at peace, with two feet firmly planted. What’s the first thing we do when we are knocked off our feet? We grasp, we reach out for anything to stop our fall. In the Ashtanga yoga invocation the chant speaks of these samaskaras (mental impressions/ patterns) and the halahala (poison) they can become. One of these patterns of grasping I find in yoga is this inability to drop our heads back physically, as well as mentally. In order to float you need to be able to just drop your head back. We don’t seem to trust our necks. It’s as if the neck symbolizes the connection from our bodies, to our minds. When energy doesn’t flow through the neck freely in becomes a holding pattern. I find it always helpful to take into consideration that we are mostly water. So why is it so hard to behave like it? Water can cut through stone. Given enough time and repetition the stone will yield. All the more reason and proof to make yoga a lifelong commitment. To give your body enough time to yield, you must repeat an action you wish to change.

The danger of a rip current lies in the fact that they can not be seen, but they can be felt. Not everything we do in yoga can be seen to the eye, but everything we do can be felt. I always say you need to approach all poses with a greater-than and lesser-than approach. Do I need more of this sensation or less? Yoga needs to be about the sensations that arise and our abilities to be sensitive and responsive to them. To not overreact, nor do too little, but to find the current of energy most productive that will carry you down the river of progress. To stay afloat in your yoga practice for years and years to come, it’s about adapting to where the body is on a daily basis. Not to how you wish it was, but to its current state. To stop fighting up-stream against what’s not and embrace what is. So many students over look the daily state of their practice because they are too busy looking at how they wish it was in the future. It’s sort of like wanting to have a baby but not wanting to be pregnant. Things take time. If students would remember to look at how far they’ve come, they might be able to see that this current they are fighting against might actually be moving them in a better direction. So maybe they should go with flow and just see where it takes them. Relax and realize that swimming upstream is only for the salmon. Just go where your practice takes you.

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