Posts Tagged With: downward facing dog

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

The dog’s in my yoga practice.

Me, Bruce, Ginger & Traylor, Sullivans Island, SC.

I am a dog owner and have been for about 16 years. I have found dogs to be great companions. They do a great job at not expecting much, but being grateful for everything they receive. We could probably learn a thing or two from them. What is it we could learn? We could learn to always stretch after lying down, we could learn to protect our home from intruders, to play more, to love with out conditions, to be present, to hang out in packs with like-minded people, and to fetch a ball. Ok, well maybe not the last one.

Yes, we should stretch after lying down. Dog’s instinctively know that after their spine has been in flexion they should stretch it into extension. That’s why after your dog has been curled up in a ball for a while they will usually do one good downward dog and one good upward dog, before they carry on. Don’t believe me? Just watch your dog get up after his next nap. It is best to do yoga in the morning, after you’ve spent several hours lying horizontal and fairly still. Most people however roll right out of bed, down some coffee and carry on without ever addressing their bodies needs. Time seems to be one of the greatest available excuses to NOT do a little yoga. Is that an excuse? For years, I have seen people make time for what matters in their life. So the question is, does your body and mind matter?

What about protecting our home? I know people who have high-tech alarm systems for their homes, as well as a loyal dog, who will stand and deliver protection, if necessary. But the home that I’m speaking of is your body. This is where you really live. You experience life through your body. People are not protecting their bodies from intruders. They are allowing poisons into their bodies every day with things like pesticides, fried foods, polluted air, too much sodium, sugars and chocolate (oops, not chocolate, thank God someone discovered that chocolate is a good source of antioxidants). Toxic things come into our mind through, media, negative people, and negative thoughts. The body is abused with not enough rest and sleep. Dogs know to sleep with their ears standing guard, listening for any sounds that might alert them to danger. We have this same ability in our bodies. Our gut instinct is a great example of a warning system. The human body does give us warning signs to when there has been an intruder, such as indigestion, vomiting, diarrhea, congestion, or fever. But what about the subtle discomforts we ignore for far to long, like the ache in our feet, or the twinge in a knee, or the tightness in our neck? Only once my dog knows that the thing that alarmed her will do her no harm does she relax and accept the thing she felt threatened by. Our inner guard dog instinct seems to have gone off duty. Marketing plays on the notion of telling you all the great things about a product, golden promises of happiness if you consume, wear or apply their product. They know that if they told you its flaws, or dangers you wouldn’t buy it. Yoga should help raise our hackles, so to say. To become more sensitive to things that come into our space, that will impact or body and mind. Sensitivity is our tool for refinement. Just how sensitive can we become and how well do we trust what it is we are feeling?

Tonka and Indy rolling in the sun.

Tonka and Indy rolling in the sun.

How about the idea of play. Dogs love to play. They will take the initiative to start a play session by either bringing you a ball, or by bowing down into downward facing dog pose. Downward dog is the universal dog sign for “game on”! Sometimes when left to their own devices they will play with their own tail, or as my silly dog does, she has learned to play with her own leash. They won’t be denied that release they get from playful exertion, nor should you. I have found yoga to be very playful. I found that some yoga poses are similar to things I was thrilled to death to try when I was seven. Handstand is one of my favorite postures in yoga that automatically makes me feel invigorated and happy. There are  gentler postures too, that have a child like behavior to them. Downward dog reminds me of when I played wheel barrel with friends, walking around on our hands. Rabbit  pose reminds me of tucking into a ball to jump into the pool yelling, “CANNONBALL!”. Standing straddle poses remind me of jumping jacks. Locust pose reminds me of playing airplane on top of my brothers feet. Triangle pose feels a lot like the movement into a cart-wheel (which I still do in open grassy spaces). Frog pose takes me back to when I played softball and I was the teams’ catcher. Lunges take me back to stepping into a sprinters block when I ran track. Child’s pose is a lot like the shape I would sit in making sand castles, at the beach, for hours. So every time I go into these yoga poses, as a 40 something adult, it connects me into the aspect of play that keeps me feeling youthful and nostalgic. Which I would guess lowers my blood pressure, balances my mood and overall makes me feel jovial with myself and others. Play is definitely important to our overall health.

Dog’s love without conditions like no other being. I have seen this 1st hand with dogs that are living in squalor, with neglectful owners, and they still love their owners despite their circumstance. They don’t say “I’ll love you more when you brush me”, or when you play fetch with them, or if they get a steak dinner. They love whatever they get, period! We however say things like “I’ll love myself when, I am 10 pounds skinnier”, or “when, I have a college degree”, or “when, I have the husband that loves me back”. We are always waiting to love ourselves more, later. We seem to not be able to love ourselves today, or even tomorrow. Maybe we will in a week, or a year, or in the right, town, house or car. Why the stipulations? It’s like we are building up to some great big moment in our lives. What happens after we hit that pinnacle point, when all of our ducks are in a row? Will we then love ourselves as we are, or love our husbands as they are? Sometimes you are not going to reach this pinnacle, so what then?

Dog’s live in the present. My dog’s love their twice a day walks. They know they are coming because if by 5:00/6:00 they haven’t gotten the second one they begin to ask us with displays of dog behavior that says “Hey, what’s up?” But even if they still don’t get that walk they just wait, patiently, in the moment. The other best example I can think of to show you their amazing ability to be here now, is;  they might meet a new dog and have a 30 second scuffle establishing some terms to their new relationship and then they move on, there is no grudge holding, or revenge planning. They accept and go!  They don’t dwell in the past with remorse and anger, they don’t rush out into the undetermined future with planning the next attack to settle their score. They just let it go and go back to enjoying life. We have got to stop hanging on to things that are unchangeable because they already happened. We should learn to be content, in the moment, even if it’s doing something hard, or confrontational. This too shall pass, just wait for it. Dog’s scuffle, I know this because my dog has what people call a greeting disorder. Even with these run in’s that seem like they should be life altering, she let’s it go and moves on, even to the point of being great dog friends with some of the dog’s she initially put her guard up for. Things that are uncomfortable will pass. Yoga is a great place to practice strengthening your ability to see it thru and get over it. It’s likely, you will be uncomfortable in about 70% of every yoga practice you show up for. We are putting our bodies in some very awkward positions, but if you just BE with the sensation, listen to your breath, and your body you will find that the sensation is changing, and is no longer as uncomfortable as it once was. This can happen even within the 5 breaths of an ashtanga yoga pose, in just 5 breaths! This is what’s so nice about the memorization of the ashtanga yoga sequence, is that once it is put to memory you can get down to the job at hand of being present with each stretch because you are no longer worried about the future.

The best things dog’s do, if allowed to these days, is they hang out in packs. Spend a little time at a dog park and watch this at work. Dog’s like to be around their own species and they know that there is greater success in numbers. They learn how to work together, and they know how to honor each others strengths. If you are having hard time meeting some of your goals, then start hanging out with like-minded people. Let them support you, inspire you, and help you achieve greater success. This will always be the argument for why yoga works in a class room environment. We are there to support, inspire, and strengthen each others assets. It is good to have a home practice for more personal reflection but it’s also important to have a place to go to for inspiration, and even accountability. When I practice with my teacher, he holds me accountable for my results, there is no finger-pointing, no excuse making, there is just what I am doing in the present. Some days I need help holding my feet to the fire, and that’s what I get when I am practicing yoga in a roomful of other yogi’s. The collective energy of it makes us all a little better, more hardworking and better at being team players. We are strengthening our pack, our pack of downward facing dogs.

Now, the whole fetch the ball thing… well believe it or not we can learn from dog’s in that regard too. The only way you can catch a ball is to keep your eye on it. So whatever it is you want from yoga or life you must keep your eye on it; one pointed focus, one pointed dristi. Where we gaze and what we focus on determines a lot. Dog’s have two more feet than us, and we have thumbs, but we all just have two eyes. So look at your dog’s next time a little more closely for all the lessons you can learn from them. Take those lessons to your yoga mat and out into the world. Focus on what feeds your soul more than what feeds your belly. Besides your soul is going to out live your body.

So the advice from my four amazing dogs is…stretch more, protect your home, play more, love more. NOW! With people around you that support your goals and you will catch what you keep your eyes on!

Me, Indy, Tonka and Ginger, Columbus, OH.

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

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