Posts Tagged With: Asana’s

If Old McDonald had a yoga practice…

I recently read an interesting book called The Dirty Life, by Kristen Kimball. It’s about farming the natural way – no engine based machinery, no herbicides, or pesticides just good old fashion hard work. I’ve always loved the idea of owning a farm but I just don’t enjoy playing in the dirt. I enjoy hard work. I love the simple task of cutting grass with our electric lawn mower. But I just wouldn’t be very good at natural farming because you have to pull the bugs that are eating your plants off by hand and squish them. When it comes down to it, I’m too girly for farming. But I’m not to girly for the work that’s required for a good yoga practice, thank goodness! In this book, the author was writing about her love of farming and I realized her words perfectly described my love of yoga. No surprise, really, because farming and yoga share some similarities. She writes ” I was in love with the work, too, despite its overabundance. The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices to bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it.  I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic. I felt my body changing to accommodate what I was asking of it… I had always been attracted to the empty, sparkly grab bag of instant gratification and was beginning to learn something about the peace you can find inside an infinite challenge.”

Even if I just took that last line to describe my love of yoga it would suffice, ” I was beginning to learn something about the peace you can find inside an infinite challenge.”  Yoga is infinite, there are still poses and breathing techniques my body is still not ready for, nor is my mind for that matter, even after having my practice established as a 6 day a week Ashtanga practice, for the past 12 years. But every word in that farming description fits how I feel about yoga.

Downward facing dog, Adho mukha svanasana
Sullivans Island sunrise!

The author says, “I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. ” Downward facing dog is just that, connecting to the ground, drawing my attention downward and inward. I have always found yoga to be very primal. For starters, you are barefoot the whole class and you’re mostly on the ground with all four’s, or more. How your body is interacting with the ground determines the success or failure of your yoga practice. Headstand is a great yoga pose that can easily help you understand the line that says ” For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences.” And because students are usually forced to slow down and deal with what some of the consequences are in yoga, such as injury, or embarrassment from falling down, they are forced to grow and to feel their body changing to accommodate what they are asking of it.

There is also no short cut. A dedicated yogi, one that has stuck with it consistently, knows that the only way you achieve some of the bizarre postures we do, is good old fashioned hard work. The author also says of farming, ” Question: Why is farming like a relationship? Answer: Because you do not reap what you sow. That’s a lie. You reap what you sow, hill, cultivate, fertilize, harvest and store.”  In yoga, you reap what you face, repeat, lift, tuck,sweat through, and breathe into.

But brute strength can only get you so far. There has to be a degree of finesse and a nice increase of knowledge (vidya) with each practice. Yoga is cumulative in effort. The more effort you put forth the more return on your investment. And what are you investing in anyway? Only the greatest gift you have ever received…your health. I recently saw an infomercial for a Pastor selling a book about taking care of your body with exercise, I think they called it “Bod for God”. It’s premise was, the best way you can thank God, and show your appreciation, and devotion to God is to take care of the beautiful body he/she gave you….DUH! I’ve known this for years. The greatest show of thanks I can give to the divine everyday is treating my body well. Just as a farmer has to treat the earth well.

The really good farmer knows what hard work is. A good farmer knows that to produce a crop, a healthy crop, it takes attention to detail. From the grounds composition, to the weather patterns, to the hours of daylight and to the critters/invaders that try and eat his crop, he knows and does it all. A day off means a day that a bug or disease can get a jump on him and destroy his whole crop.  Farmers know their land, they know how to see the smallest change in environment and how that might effect his/her outcome. We all need to become more like farmers. We need to pay attention to the details. We need to know our environment and how it’s effecting our mental and physical well being. If we want to live a productive life, as much as a farmer wants to have a productive crop, then we need to tend to matters.

It starts with the soil. In the case of the human body, your soil is your mind. It’s where all thoughts begin. It is the point of creation. Your mind needs to be open in order for creative thoughts to flow through. Just like the ground that a farmer wants to plant, it must be loose and fertile, with out rocks, weeds, and bugs. Ground that is compact and dense will suffocate the life right out of any seed. So it starts with the soil, it needs air, nutrients and moisture. Which is why farmers till the soil, over and over until its ready for the seeds. Your mind also needs air and movement, it needs to be fertile for the right things to grow. A yoga practice can do just that. Sutra 1.2 says “Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah”; yoga can make the mind less fickle, that’s my personal translation. Yoga is a moving meditation. The movement, opens things and the meditation part is like the sun, shining light onto things that need to grow. Meditation is simply the process of observation, which will expose the things that would pull you away from a productive and fruitful life. A yoga practice is equivalent to the farmer walking his acres every morning and seeing what has transpired over night, knowing his land and keeping a handle on the things that can get out of hand quickly.

Weeds can quickly take hold and suffocate a plant. How many weeds are there growing in your head. A great example of a weed in your mind is a repetitive, negative thought where you are putting yourself down. That will suffocate anything good that’s trying to grow in your mind. Where a narrow mind is like dense soil, the density will not allow anything new to come into your perspective, leaving you stuck in repetitive patterns, that are producing the same results (this is the hala hala, poison). The bugs are like other peoples thoughts and opinions that have come in and tainted your view point, especially if you haven’t formed your own well thought out opinion first. Too much rain will drown the crop, because too much of anything is bad…moderation! Too little light, rain or nutrients is also bad. Just remember this, in yoga it is the terrible two’s that will get you in trouble; too much, too soon, too fast, and too little rest. It’s all about balancing opposing forces (dwandwa, twoness – duality).

Be the best farmer of the crop you are trying to produce in your life. I know and believe Old McDonald would have been a great yogi, had he had the time. Who’s to say he wasn’t a yogi, just without the asana’s? Keep this last thought in mind from The Dirty Life ” Of course we have a chance, he’d say, and anyway, it didn’t matter if this venture failed. In his view, we were already a success, because we were doing something hard and it was something that mattered to us. You don’t measure things like that with words like success or failure, he said. Satisfaction comes from trying hard things and then going on to the next hard thing, regardless of the outcome. What mattered was whether or not you thought you were moving in a direction that was right.” Just like sutra 1.12 says “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah.” ; steady practice with non-attachment, steady practice with non-attachment,  steady practice with non-attachment, worth repeating because that one is tricky.

And one last thing to keep you steering the plough in the right direction is this line from a documentary I recently watched called Enlighten Up,” It doesn’t matter what you are doing, but why you are doing it.” We can so easily forget the why because we are so focused on the what.  For me, when I’m on my mat it goes back to what the Author, Kristen said which is “I knew why I was doing, what I was doing, and I BELIEVED IN IT.” Well said.

Old McDonald had a yoga practice E  – I – E  – I  Ommmmmmmmm!

I believe in yoga, enough said.

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

Stacking stones, stacking bones.

Moonlight beach, Encinitas, CA 2010

I have studied with my teacher, Tim Miller many times and in many different places. I have been to Mexico to study yoga under a thatched roof that is 20 yards away from the Carribean Sea and I have studied in his hometown of Encinitas, CA, where his studio is also just a stretch from the pacific ocean and here in my hometown of Charleston, SC, with many beaches available. My 1st  visit out West was to take his first series Ashtanga teacher training back in 2008. I remember going for my first walk on the beach and being challenged to shift my preconceived notions of what a beach is. I grew up having to travel to the east coast for some beach time, where the water is warm and sea shells are washing up on the beach everyday like individual precious reminders of the creation that’s going on under the sea. I would seek to collect memories amongst the vastness and variety of shells that would wash up on the beach. This was one of my favorite past times. Well, the Pacific isn’t anything like the Atlantic. The Pacific water is very cold. When I was there it was 54 degrees. It’s clearer than the east coast. You can see your feet getting bright red from the cold water, if your standing knee deep in the ocean. But the oddest thing to me was the lack of shells. Instead, what was scattered on the beach were stones – smooth stones, that varied in color and shape, but were all relatively similar in appearances. I was first disappointed, as I find it very meditative to walk a beach looking down at each step to see what washed up, artistically-crafted shell I can find. I can seem to do this for hours, peacefully. Since these stones were my only option I decided to start collecting them. Each one in my hand was different and when I stopped expecting them to be shells, I started to see the beauty in each one. The ocean had been rolling and polishing them to the smoothness and shape that made them each very individual. But, what was I going to do with a handful of stones?

There is a practice of stacking stones in Buddhist cultures, where the stones are stacked as prayers. The number of stones might correlate to the number of family members. These stone prayers were stacked around temples. Closer to home, when I was young I remember being taught about hiking safety in girl scouts. We were taught to mark out trails using sticks or  stones in the form of arrows to guide us safely back to where we began. You will see fancier renditions of this by some hikers who will opt to stack stones instead. I have hiked a few trails in my time and have come across these expressions. They always leave me wondering…How long had they been there? Who stacked these and why? How many other people had walked past and been intrigued by this natural art? So I decided to take a whirl at stacking stones, and it became a very interesting experience for me.

I started with the collecting process, which naturally made me feel like a little girl again collecting things from nature. Carrying them back in the hem of my shirt, excited to see my loot dropped in a pile at my feet. I knew since I wasn’t going to spend a day frolicking in that very cold ocean, this could be a fun way to spend a day at the beach. So as I started to make a stack of stones, I kind of figured I’d do one, and that my attempt to balance stones would be a passing interest. But after I stacked one, I began the second, and then the third, until I had 5 stacks of stones. I started to enjoy the challenge of pairing the stones. The effort it took in patience to find the stones perfect balance point and the delicacy required to stack stone number 6 on number 5 without affecting all the stones below. You might get to stone 4 and knock them all down while adding stone 5. This process was slowly forming a very quiet space in my mind. I had begun to appreciation each stone’s character points that were ultimately going to influence their balance point. I started to see the parallels that stone stacking had to the alignment process of my bones in all the asana’s I had traveled out here to learn from my teacher’s 30+ years of experience.

I remember a workshop I took within my first year of practicing yoga with Rodney Yee. I remember him demonstrating a pose called Trikonasana (three angled posture). He taught me a great lesson that day. It was the art of refinement. Small movements create a chain reaction in all areas of the posture’s alignment. Rodney Yee’s background was ballet. So he seemed to be demonstrating an impeccable understanding of his body and the ability to influence it’s alignment with a intelligent approach to movement, which was done without force. At the time, I am pretty sure that I was coming at my yoga practice with all braun and no grace. After seeing him make a few tiny movements and watching his posture go from what seemed disintegrated to integrated, it opened my eyes to a whole new approach to alignment. I had to find the balance point of each individual muscle and have the patience to allow all the muscles to work together with appropriate effort and sensitivity. Much like Patanjali’s yoga sutra 2:46 “Sthira Sukham Asanam” : Asana’s should have equal parts steadiness and ease.

As you build a yoga posture, it becomes just like stacking stones. First you have to have a good foundation, which is why it’s just standard to do yoga on a firm service. Then you have to start from the bottom and work your way up.  It begins in our feet, hands, arms or our sit bones (Ischial tuberosities). It really just depends on the asana that you are trying to build. It begins at the part of the body that will have the most contact with the floor. But what isn’t always paid attention to is that even once your foundation is set, the way you stack the rest of the stones/bones matters too. It’s the teeter totter principal. Too much weight in any one direction will throw off how the load is carried.

As I am looking at each rock and feeling its weight and character in my hands, I have to try and feel for it’s balance point. I would roll the rock around to feel where it was heavy and to try and find a flat, smooth point. We can do this to with our bones by contracting back and forth between the opposing muscles that make the bone move in a given direction. The size and strength of a muscle can influence the impact it has on the movement of the bone. So you start to look for misalignments, areas where there is not equal movement. We all get the same muscles but we don’t all develop the same. Some of us have stronger abductors then adductors, or quadriceps vs. hamstrings, or core vs. back strength. These disproportionate make up is bound to create bad mechanics in our movements. But yoga is the process of tuning us into these things with awareness being the tool. Training our sense’s to feel more intimately stress and strain on the joints and ligaments. Sometimes, one of the only ways you can know what balance feels like is by pulling your body out of balance in both directions. Then start refining your movements slowly to where the center point lies.

It’s the pendulum swing. Sometimes you have to try the good and the bad to find what is just right. It’s very much a Goldilocks approach to yoga. Is the porridge too hot, or too cold? Does my pose need more of this, or less? Looking for the greater then and less then symbol in each muscle to find the appropriate give and take to the movement you are trying to isolate. Give it a try: tilt your pelvis posteriorly, and then try and tip anteriorly, and then try and negotiate the neutral point, where there is no stress on the pelvis as it comfortably holds a neutral position.

There was an interesting scenario that happened a couple of times when I was trying to stack the stones. Even though 5 stones seemed perfectly balanced if I placed the 6th stone wrong it caused the other stones to misalign. This is what is going on in our bodies everyday, under our skin, beneath our muscles. There is disintegration instead of integration. My teacher, Tim, likes to talk a lot about integration. It’s a great word to describe a balanced yoga posture. If we pick up a bad pattern of movement in our hip, it can create a reaction outward from there. An example is, if the hip is not functioning optimally, then it may create a strain and weakness in the knee. Or, it can create a imbalance all the way up in to our shoulder eventually affecting our neck. You could relatively look at areas of the body as representations of each stone you are trying to stack. 1st stone – ankles, 2nd stone – knees, 3rd stone – hips, 4th stone – lumbar spine, 5th stone – thoracic spine, 6th stone – cervical spine, and 7th stone  – the head. It’s not only about the bottom stone/bone, it’s about how they all work together and distribute their weight on one another.

It took me about 2 hours to collect and balance 5 towers of stone. And in that time, I learned a lot about my level of patience. I learned that speed does not assist delicate things well, and that force will not create balance, and that center isn’t as it outwardly appears. Center is where things meet, they don’t compete and they seem harmonious. Can I describe yoga asana’s that way? I can now. During my attempts at asana’s, day in and day out, I am looking for a point of balance that I feel my way into patiently and gently. When I move this way the poses that I’m striving for comes surprisingly easy. So, I say : if your having a hard time with your asana development, then take a break and go stack some stones, and see what you can learn. Then go back and try and stack your bones with the same interest, sensitivity, kindness and maybe even a little prayer while you do it. Stacking stones on a hiking trail will always get you back to the beginning. Maybe reminding ourselves of how far we have come from that beginning by looking back down the trail for the markers will give us a greater appreciation for our progress and abilities. Stop on this yoga path every now and then and stack some stones so that you don’t lose your way by being clouded with frustration and lack of patience.  Pattabhi Jois said “Practice…and all is coming. ” Whatever it is we practice, stacking stones or stacking bones?

Successfully stacked stones!

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

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