Posts Tagged With: savasana

Why do I run, when it ruins my yoga?

Just the other day when I was teaching a class, I compared doing an hour and a half of yoga to that of running 9 miles. Now anyone who has ever run 9 miles is thinking it’s an over statement, and maybe it is, but I shall explain my line of thinking. All things fitness that seem impossible had their start in the “I can’t do that” vocabulary. But they eventually move towards more of the poker language “I’ll see your 10 pull-ups and add 2”, or “I’ll see your 5 miles and add 5 more.” It’s how you get to the crazy idea of running a marathon. The day that you go out for a run and 10 seems easy is the day you start thinking a 1/2 marathon at 13 miles might not be so bad. For all the people who tell me they can’t do yoga because they can’t touch their toes I just want to say “Well, I couldn’t run a marathon either, until I trained for it.”

Runners tend to gravitate towards my classes and teaching style, for one main reason : I don’t chastise them for being runners. If anything, I praise them for it and ask them when their next race is. I also incorporate a lot of great poses that deal with runner specific over-use injuries. But I also don’t sugar coat it with runners. The truth is, running will not make your physical practice of asana better, but yoga will definitely make your running better, physically speaking. As long as runners can make peace with that idea, it will make it a whole lot easier to push through 1st series ashtanga yoga for 90 minutes. You are bound to be tight, but without yoga you will only get tighter and probably experience more injuries that will sideline you.

So my comparing 90 mins of ashtanga yoga to 90 minutes of running was to make the point that they both take about the same amount of time to accomplish, and that during both you will have to overcome the quitter’s mind. That during 90 minutes of either activity you are probably going to wonder “What was I thinking to do 90 minutes of yoga/running.” Something is going to hurt, some posture, or mile is going to be brutal, and you might start to lose your motivation. When doing anything physical you are going to run up against that voice in your head that is the pessimist, the nay-sayer, the weakling. This is where running and yoga are similar. They are both a battle of the mind, more than a battle of the body. Your body can do just about anything. Hence the reason why the New York City Marathon has 50,000 competitors , the Marine Corp has 30,000 and the Chicago marathon has 40,000, just to name a few. 1% of those people are competing against each other, while the other 99% are competing against the weakest version of their self. The nay-sayer voice that around mile 16 loves to tell you, “You can’t do it.”, is the same voice in yoga that will try to tell you you can’t come up out of a backbend either. The voice is the same, it comes from the same place and can be put to rest the same way no matter if it’s running or yoga. As my teacher, Tim Miller, likes to say “Experience is the remover of doubt.” Every time I run 5 miles, it erases the doubt that I can’t run 6. Every time I run 6, it erases the doubt that I can’t do 7. This can carry on until the 26th mile is finished.

This is how I see the similarities between running 9 miles and ashtanga yoga; the surya namaskars are equivalent to the first mile of any run you go on. It’s the warm up mile, where you find your legs and the rhythm of your breathing. The standing poses are equivalent to a 5k (3 miles), it’s enough of a run on a busy day. The seated postures, up to Marichyasana are equal to about 5 miles. Right in the heart of what are commonly called the speed pump poses in ashtanga there is navasana, bhujapidasana, kurmasana. These are like mile 6, where you start second guessing yourself, and this crazy idea of staying fit. Mile 7 of a 9 mile run starts to smooth out just a bit as you start thinking you’re in the home stretch. Just like the poses baddha konasana, upavishta konasana, and supta padangsthasana do in yoga. You might think backbends are mile 9, but they are only mile 8, you must save enough energy after backbends to complete your inversions and come in strong to savasana. Savasana is equivalent to the cool down after a long run. I can tell you from experience, you don’t just sit down after a long run, or you will quickly stiffen up. You will struggle just to get your shoes off later, if you don’t incorporate a good cool down. Savasana is necessary and so is a good cool down walk after a long run.

Around mile 19 of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Around mile 19 of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

I think this is why for years now I have loved practicing ashtanga yoga, and I continue to be a runner. I was a runner long before I was a yogi – I am a distance runner at heart. I like the rhythm of my breathing, I like the rhythm of my legs and arms working together, and I love how my pessimistic mind doesn’t win out. Most runs and most yoga practices I conquer my negativity. I push through the rough spots and I always come out on the other end better for it. Running may be making my yoga practice harder, tighter, but I know that what I conquer while running makes me a better yogi in mental capacity. While yoga makes me a better runner in physical capacity. There is no doubt in my mind that they both make me better spiritually. Staring down your weakness has a profound way of changing you.

Not once in 4 marathons have I hit the infamous “wall” (Mile 21), which in no way means I’m discrediting it. I just happen to run slow enough and have conditioned my mind enough into an “I can” attitude over “I can’t.” Plus to be honest I haven’t run a single marathon trying to beat another person, or a previous time. Simply put, I run them just for the sake of finishing and for once more tackling my inner demons that love to tell me “No”. I remove my doubts by doing the things that I thought couldn’t be done.

Crossing the finish line of the Pittsburgh Marathon, May 2010

Crossing the finish line of the Pittsburgh Marathon, May 2010

So if you’re a runner and haven’t yet tried yoga, I strongly advise you do. Now! Put on your running shoes and head straight over to a studio near you. If you can, find Ashtanga yoga. I think you will like the similarities I just mentioned. I am not telling you it will be easy. I’m being completely honest telling you it’s hard. Running tightens you, it’s gonna be brutal, but it will save you from injuries and even burn-out. It will also give your running longevity. I foresee myself being a runner for just as long as I am a yogi. This is good place to insert my favorite Forrest Gump quote and no it’s not “Run Forest, Run.”, it’s “We was like peas and carrots.” For me, yoga is the peas and running is the carrots. Let’s see if this works “Do yoga, Forest, do yoga!” Nope, it doesn’t work, but I hope I have made my point.

Postures I suggest for runners:
Supta padangustasana (reclining hand to toe pose) – One of the best stretches for the hamstrings
Virsasana/Supta virsasna if appropriate (Hero’s pose. reclining hero’s) – for the quads and shins. If you recline in this one it is great for the psoas
Gomukasana (Cow face pose)- for the external hip rotators
Malasana (Garland pose) – for the lower back and feet
Halasana (Plough pose) – for the upper back and hamstrings
Agni Stambhasana (Fire log pose)- for the glutes and IT band.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward bow pose)- for the whole front body. Modify it by lying over a stability ball – it is just as good for you.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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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The Yoga Assembly

I remember how exciting assemblies used to be. All that Rah! Rah! Rah! stuff. When I was growing up, my school would have assemblies for the big rivalry match of all our school’s major sports. They were usually on a Friday and we would be released from class early so that we could attend. The requirements were to wear our school colors and bring your team spirit. The marching band and the cheerleaders would guide us through the school motto and school song. There would be speeches, positive affirmations and some group chanting of the school motto. This doesn’t sound that different from a  gathering at an Ashtanga yoga studio. But instead of using the word assembly, yoga calls this a satsang. By the end of a good old fashion school spirit assembly and a modern-day yoga class you have achieved the same goal, which is to have a group of people resonating the same idea – team spirit, or “We are all in this together!”

I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to teach yoga on Friday evenings and that the people I get to teach are some of the most dedicated people I know. I always joke with them by saying I love my friday peeps way better the monday people, even though a lot of the time they are the same people. The friday crowd has passed on all other possible friday night invites, so they can get their yoga groove on. I mean, it is Friday evening after all, right? The class starts at 5:30 which seems to align with the assembly idea. They have to release themselves from work a little early so that they can assemble with their yoga satsang. We have so much fun in this class. By the end we feel united in the belief that yoga is a great way to start the weekend and a great way to let go of the past week. This group of people seem to support each other like no other.

Second series at The Practice Space, March  2008.

Second series at The Practice Space, March 2008.

I’m sure we could look at the word assembly and see it synonymous with congregation, or a collective. That whenever you gather a large group of people together hopefully the undertone is that you realize you have something in common. Which naturally raises the energy vibration of such a gathering. I have taken many trainings with my teacher Tim Miller over the years. People come to his trainings from all over the world. I have practiced alongside people from Sweden, Japan and Australia, as well as Florida, New York and Oklahoma. By the end of these two-week trainings I’ve made many friends, comrades in the journey of ashtanga yoga. One idea unites us all. Once in the yoga room practicing together, we become like one gigantic lung, one breathing vessel. Creating prana for all of us to share. Prana is called the life force so when people make the joke, “Let the force be with you.”, it’s actually a true statement. In a mysore practice with 30+ other ashtangi’s, no-one is talking, there is only breathing and movement. Yet it feels like we are having a conversation. This must be the language of love. Our love for ashtanga yoga, is our unspoken language. No one is talking, everyone in the room is working hard, but yet there doesn’t seem to be a shred of animosity or jealousy, even though the skill level in ashtanga yoga can vary greatly. There just seems to be harmony. This is the same thing the football coach, track coach and school principal were trying to get us to embody at that school assembly. We are better united, then we are divided. We can get further when the company we keep has a unified philosophy.

There is another interesting element to this type of gathering that I recently stumbled upon. I was picked to serve on a criminal jury trial. The experience was rather sad and depressing but ended up providing me many new insights. One of those was this: strip people of all their identifiers like suits, degrees, jewelry and coiffed appearance, and you realize that you can always find you have something in common with each other. As I was at the  gym where I teach most of my yoga, a few weeks after the trial I noticed the prosecuting attorney, as well as the judges clerk, working out at the gym. What I realized was this… the gym is a great place to join people together even though in our outside responsibilities we are very different. As I saw the prosecuting attorney exercising in her plain white tee and black pants, I realized in this environment, we have no labels. We are all just congregating for our better health. In a yoga room there are no mothers, brothers, housekeepers, landscapers, lawyers, rich, poor, infertile, adopted, fashionable, smoker, alcoholic, and so on and so forth. It’s as if the playing field were leveled back to the most basic truth. Which is we are all human and we mostly all have the same parts. That without labels and identifying responsibilities we are equal.

If your teacher is a good teacher, he or she has learned to teach a great class, no matter the reason that each student is there. They shouldn’t teach a better class to a lawyer, than to a housekeeper. You don’t favor the tall over the short and you don’t draw attention to the mother, over the motherless. We are a satsang; a community of people who ultimately  agree that yoga is good for us. Which is why each person wakes up in the morning and packs their bag with yoga clothes and a mental commitment to get it done, whether they struggle or float gracefully thru the sequence, whether they can do headstand (sirsasana), or sit in lotus (padmasana), whether they can stay the whole hour and a half, or just an hour. Take off the make-up, the fancy or ragged clothes, jewelry, pull back the highlighted or dull hair into a ponytail, with your beach towel or your yogi toes, no phones, no degrees, for the most part no apparent differences, and no openly different opinions (no doubt the opinions and labels vary widely). These things aren’t necessary to practice, you never need to know them. All you know is the person to the left of you wanted to do yoga today. The person doing backbends behind you, wanted to do yoga today. The person taking early savasana, wanted to do yoga today. So yoga has done it’s job, it has united us, yoked us together. It has assembled us, in more ways than one. We have congregated under the same roof, under the same sun, and under the same belief that yoga is good for us. Wether practicing in Japan, Portland or a tiny town in Boardman, Ohio, yoga works. If you have ever wanted to be apart of something that has no prerequisite, this is it. You can be a Democrat, Republican, Buddhist, Episcopalian, third child of eight, high school drop-out or cancer survivor. All accepted and invited, no questions asked. Really. The only underlying question is “Are you willing?” Because when you are “We are all in this together.”  We are all the same.

So, atha yoganusanam. Samastitihi!

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

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