Posts Tagged With: balance

The largest land animal has a lot to teach us.

I have always had a thing for elephants, yet I have never met one personally. Sadly, I worry I never will, but that’s for another time. I have read many books about elephants, where they are the lead character. One of my favorites is Modoc, by Ralph Hefler. I shall share a list with you at the end of this of all the great many elephant stories I have read for all the elephant fanatics like myself. Once I started practicing yoga, I found it comforting that in the mythology of yoga there is a character named Ganesha. Ganesha is an elephant headed figure considered to be very sacred amongst yoga practitioners. Which, for me, was a good thing because it made picking my  Ishta Devata very easy.

Ganesha Statue.

What is an Ishta Devata, you might ask? It’s something that you resonate with. But by definition it is a “cherished divinity”. It might be an energy that you devote your practice to (Bhakti yoga), or it could be described as a force that makes you calm and steadfastness in your direction. It could be a feeling that you do not doubt. I have never doubted that an elephant head God-like figure wouldn’t be a good match for me. I find elephants to be exquisite in their beauty, impressive in their grace (even though appearing outwardly clumsy). They show great empathy in their family network and they exemplify what a support system should look like. They seem to embody the ability to grieve and they are pregnant for 22 months. So they must be amazingly strong, wouldn’t you say? In the mythological symbolism of the Great Ganesha, he is considered the deity of choosing for removing all obstacles. He is a great archetype to honor at the beginning of all new endeavors to help assure that your path will be obstacle free.

However, I prefer to think of Ganesha as a source of strength that I can go to, to overcome my obstacles. I do not like the notion of removing obstacles because I strongly believe it is the obstacles I have met and overcome that have shaped me into the resilient person I am today. Obstacles require creative thinking. Obstacles make our travels less linear and more meandering. It’s the terrain of life that gives our journey shape, the up’s and down’s, in’s and out’s, and the back and forth. To share with you a truth about linear travel, I can tell you this: I live where it is very flat and many roads tend to be very straight. Nothing feels more exhilarating then when I get into the mountains a few hours away. The curving, climbing, wrapping, and descending shapes of the road and the scenery that goes along with it always takes my breath away. Roads like that seem to bring out my adventurous spirit.

If all my obstacles were removed wouldn’t that make my journey easy and uneventful? If the troubles that lie ahead were taken away for the sake of my comfort, what would I appreciate? It’s usually in the uncomfortable places that I find myself most alive and even willing to be daring. Being comfortable sets up the likelihood that I might become dull (styana). Dullness isn’t exactly a label I’d like to wear. I don’t know about you.

I align myself with Ganesha when standing face to face with an obstacle. I take strength from this Divinity because Elephants embody so much of what I need. What’s one of the first things you might need when facing a obstacle?  Family, friends, right?  Elephants live in great family structures that are very loving, supportive and even adoptive at times of loss. They set up a system of what’s called allomothers, whose job it is to look after the young calf and help it along. I need people around me, that support me, and help me along when I’m facing an obstacle. Don’t you?

What else do Elephants have that might inspire me during times of challenge? They have thick skin, hence the name Pachyderm. This thick skin is why they have no true predators,except for humans.:-[  The only time you will see an elephant down is from illness, age or humans. When I am confronted with difficulties, it is no time to become thin-skinned. It’s time to toughen up.

Of course, one of the most apparent traits of  strength comes from the fact that they are sturdy creatures, not easily knocked down. Matter of fact, they seldom lie down at all. They need almost 22 hours a day to feed themselves to keep up their energy for their 600 mile migration during the dry season. There is no time for the weary. They can travel many miles on their four sturdy legs. Elephants have to constantly stay on the move for food and water, for the sake of survival. When I’m facing a challenge its necessary to keep moving forward. It’s time to keep up my energy with things like yoga, a good diet, and people around me that will encourage me. Staying in one place creates stagnation – movement is the answer.

Now their most charming physical attribute is of course their trunk. How could I possibly see inspiration from their trunks? Their trunk is a great representation of strength and flexibility. Their trunks are sensitive enough to pick up a single blade of grass or strong enough to break the branches off a tree. Like sutra 46 chapter 2 says “Sthira sukham asanam” You should be at ease and steady in your asanas. Learning to be strong and flexible is about becoming balanced between opposites (dwandwa)? Their trunks can be very delicate because it has over 150,000 separate muscles fascicles, it is also highly innervated making it extremely sensitive. It is said, in the yoga tradition, that the human body has over 72,000 nadi’s (or little rivers, energy pathways) that act as our information highway. In order to keep our nadi’s functioning well we need to become aware of bad energy in our body which would create an energetic traffic jam of sorts. We need to stay sensitive when facing obstacles and yoga is great way to do that.

Then of course there is their form of communication. They communicate mostly at a pitch that we humans can not hear. Even they aren’t really hearing it. They are FEELing it. Their feet are designed in such a way that they are able to feel vibrations traveling miles to them through the ground. The sensitivity that they have in their feet and trunk allows them to communicate miles apart and at times reunite a family group that had gotten separated. This communication allows them to survive some pretty challenging conditions. But the most amazing thing about this type of communication is that it requires great sensitivity. It requires that they feel information instead of seeing it, or hearing it. The human species is far to dependent on sight and sound. So much so, that we love to hear the sound of ourselves speaking and to see ourselves in a mirror. Instead we should  trust what we feel. Our gut instinct can be a great resource in time of difficulty. It’s this sensitivity that will allow our decision-making through difficult times to be less reactive and more responsive. Sensitivity can be refined when practicing an OM. Try to feel it, instead of hear it.

Sutra 30 Chapter 1 describes everything that an elephant is not. “Vyadhi styana samsaya pramada alasya avirati bhrantidarsana alabdhabhumikatva anavasthitatvani citta viksepah te antarayah.” Translated – The obstacles that distract the mind are illness, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, overindulgence, illusions about one’s self, lack of perseverance and instability. Sri Swami Satchidananda interpreted this sutra as such ” Remember, yoga practice is like an obstacle race; many obstructions are purposely put on the way for us to pass through. They are there to make us understand and express our own capacities. We all have the strength but we don’t seem to know it. We seem to need to be challenged and tested in order to understand our own capacities. In fact, that is the natural law. If a river flows easily, the water in the river does not express its power. But once you put an obstacle to the flow by constructing a dam, then you can see its strength in the form of tremendous power.

I look to elephants, all shapes and sizes, fact and fiction to guide me through my obstacles and to overcome difficulties. I go to Ganesha for strength and wisdom. I am reminded by the great elephants that we are here to help each other along, like  elephants do in their herds. Horton from Dr. Seuss said “A person is a person, no matter how small.” We are all trying to get over different obstacles, at different times, and of course from different places. Let’s just remember “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant is faithful 100%.”  – Dr. Seuss. We could all use a trunk to hold on to, sturdy legs to stand on, thick skin to cope, sensitivity we trust, and a family to count on. Let’s be inspired by Elephants and remember to pay homage to Ganesha.

Om Gum Ganapati Namaha! 

Great Elephant Reads:

Modoc by Ralph Helfer

To the Elephant Graveyard by Tarquin Hall

The Astonishing Elephant by Shana Alexander

The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson

The Cowboy and his Elephant by Malcolm Mac Pherson

The Inconvenient Elephant by Judy Reene Singer

Still Life with Elephant by Judy Reene Singer

Hannah’s Dream by Daine Hammond

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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