Posts Tagged With: Tim Miller

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

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.

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

A journey to India.

Not all journeys require a plane ticket. Some journeys are taken in the soul of a person. They never have to leave their current life to have this journey. It happens inside the life they are already living. This is my story with regards to India. I have never been and I don’t know if I’m going to get there. There is this feeling that I am missing out and that I am not as respected inside the yoga community, because I haven’t been to India. I’m not blaming anyone for these feelings, they are more than likely self implied feelings of inadequacy. But none the less, they are my feelings.

Many of the Ashtanga yogi’s I know have traveled to India, some even more than once. Most made the trek there to study with the late Pattabhi Jois, of Mysore.  I have always wanted to go, but have had numerous reasons not to. Some of those reasons are that I am quite fearful of flying, I have never had enough time and money to go for the prerequisite 1-3 month implied time frame, and I am incredibly sensitive to seeing the suffering of animals. Everything I have read and seen of India shows stray dogs and cats running in the streets with their ribs showing. Even some of the cows I have seen photos of seem to be suffering of starvation, even though cows are considered sacred in India. I don’t think I have the strength to see these things and not be broken to pieces by them. I became vegetarian instantaneously, here in the states, by seeing one semi-tractor trailer of chickens being transported for slaughter. My home currently has 3 cats, two dogs and two parrots living in it. And every evening I take care of 3 feral cats in my neighborhood, and this is America. If I go to India, who knows how many animals or children I would want to bring home. Because of these things, I have not journeyed to India but I have been taking a different kind of journey;  the journey of what to do with my feelings of inadequacy.

There seems to be a bit of a divide in the Ashtanga community; there are those that received Pattabhi Jois’s blessing to teach the system, and there are those that didn’t get that blessing before he passed. Just because I didn’t make the many trips necessary to receive this blessing does this make me any less dedicated or deserving than those that have? Am I missing out on some sort of spiritual epiphany? Do we have to leave our lives to find ourselves, or to gain permission? It seems that my dharma is to study here in the states, with my teacher, Tim Miller. Since I practice yoga I have had many spiritual epiphanies without having to go to India. Could India create more or different epiphanies? I’m sure it could, but life really is what we make it. I am taking a journey to India, it just looks different than most people’s. I’m making it a journey inward to the place inside myself where the desire to go to India exists.

Photo taken by Vatsa Shamana. Vatsa was a student of mine from Mysore, India. He took this picture on a recent trip home.

Photo taken by Vatsa Shamana. Vatsa was a student of mine from Mysore, India. He took this picture on a recent trip home.

How am I taking this journey? Well I am studying first and foremost with Tim Miller. He has taken over 18 treks to India, and he was given Pattabhi’s blessing. I have been reading about India and yoga for years now. I am seeking out the wisdom of others and I am doing the most important thing of any journey, which is the study of the self – svadhyaya.

I’m still struggling with that feeling I get when trying to find my place in the Ashtanga community. There is a sort of chronological order to things which I think should be considered, such as Pattabhi studied and taught for 80 years, Tim has studied and taught for over 33 years and I have studied and taught for over 13 years. Though I never experienced India first hand, I have tried to experience it through reading many wonderful books about India. For years now I have been listening to Tim tell stories of India and Pattabhi Jois. I continue to honor Ashtanga yoga as it has been taught from teacher to student; Pattabhi to Tim, and from Tim to me. That’s as direct a path I figured I could get without going straight to the source. It has been what has worked for me. I am proud of my dedication. I am proud of my unwavering belief that Ashtanga yoga is a great way to make my life better.

Through the years of studying the sutra’s I have learned a few things. A great bit of advice from the sutra’s comes from the niyama’s. The niyama’s are about how do I interact with myself. One of the ways to better understand that is self-study, svadhyaya. Svadhyaya has helped me look more closely at why I have felt inadeqaute. What this self-study has made me realize is that we all take different paths and there are many different mountains for us to climb. A very dear friend of mine has climbed Mount Everest. He speaks of the Northeast Ridge being one the harder climbs to the top. There are many faces of a mountain that you can climb to get to the top. I think staring down my own feelings of inadequacy has been like climbing that Northeast ridge. I have had to make peace with myself time and time again about feeling like I am looked down upon by other yogi’s for not making the journey to India.

I have also had to confront my feelings of jealousy to those that have found a way to make the trek to India. There is a sutra that reminds me how best to embrace others. If I do this, then I am at peace. Sutra 33, chapter 1 Maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatah citta prasadanam – The mind becomes serene when it cultivates friendliness in the presence of happiness, compassion in the presence of unhappiness, joy in the presence of virtue, and equanimity in the presence of error. If my fellow ashtanga yogi’s are also letting the sutras guide them in life then it should be abundantly clear that they would not judge me based on whether or not I have been to India, and that they should really not judge me at all. So if they are not judging me, then how do I escape the feelings of “You’re not good enough”?

I escape these feelings by doing another practice. The times I have wanted to walk away because the road was getting rough are too numerous to count. But what tells me I am deserving of respect with or without a stamp on my passport, is that I haven’t walked away. That I haven’t given up, instead I have given in. I believe there is a big difference between giving up and giving in. Giving in means softening, to become more malleable, to adapt, to adopt new patterns and philosophies, to keep going inward a.k.a. svadhyaya! But giving up means you walk away. “When the road gets rough, the going get tough” and every practice I do when I’m tempted to walk away makes me tough, resilient and deserving of respect. The only real respect I need is self-respect. I respect myself greatly and I’ve gained most of that respect from not quitting. I know that I am authentic, honest and that I live yoga instead of just doing yoga. My yoga filters into everything I do and I didn’t need to go to India to get to this place. This place was already inside me. I just needed to journey inward. Every time I stand on mat and chant the invocation, I invoke Krishnamacahrya, Pattabhi, Tim, India and my own inner guru. I’m accumulating a little more dust on my lotus feet. The feet are the symbolism of the journey and so far I’d say that my journey has been pretty great right here in my own back yard.

Years ago when I was thinking about moving I asked my teacher Tim “Where should I go.” I said “I want to move somewhere where Ashtanga yoga is popular and booming.” and he said “Why don’t you go somewhere it’s not and bring it to life.” That’s what I have been trying to do for 8 years now in Charleston, SC. It has been a long, slow process, but right now I think we have a pretty darn great community, even if it is small. I appreciate each and every person that loves the practice as much as I do here in my small town some 7,000 miles away from India. The story goes that Krishamacharya daksha (payment) to his teacher was that he had to go out into the world and be a householder and teach yoga. I felt like Krishnamacharya when Tim said why don’t you take the road less traveled and bring Ashtanga yoga to people who haven’t experienced it. It’s what I’ll be doing today, tomorrow, and the day after that. It’s not easy, but if Krishnamacharya didn’t quit, Pattabhi didn’t quit, and Tim hasn’t quit, then neither will I. Even when it’s hard and I am feeling inadequate I just do what they have all done before me. Practice, Practice, Practice. As my teacher says “the only thing that removes doubt is experience.” I have that, 13 years strong. Today will be no different. “Ommmmmmm. Vande gurunam charanaravinde….

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

Ripe for the pickin’.

Do you remember your graduation from pre-school? Do you remember all the excitement about starting out the next year at a new school? Each year working your way up to the eventual end – graduation from college. Is it that there is an eventual end that keeps us on track? Is it knowing that at some point we will be given the reward of a title that allows us to keep our nose to the grindstone? What if there were no-end? If there were no diplomas, would you still work as hard as you do and for as long? Is it possible you would work even harder for less – less acknowledgement, less status, less pay? It seems as the human species goes, we do well with things that are going to end but we do terribly with things that have no end. If I told you that you only needed to do backbends 50 more times before you could spring right up out of it to standing, would you be willing to do 50 more? What if I told you it was going to take 100 more backbends, or 500 more? Would you still be as willing to do them? What if I told you all you were ever going to get out of yoga is a better night’s sleep? Would you do it, would you stick with it? I find the hardest part about yoga for some people is the endless effort that is needed without knowing what the results will be.

The most difficult sutra for a yogi says “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah” – Practice without attachment to a particular result. But if we are putting forth effort, aren’t we aiming for a particular result? Well, how do we practice with out attachment? We must practice patience. I do believe you will ultimately get any result you strive for with enough due diligence. In the same way that you eventually do get to enjoy a nice glass of wine. But keep in mind that wine was first a grape, or even further back a seedling. The process of making a good glass of wine takes a while. If you just consider alone the fact that it takes about 3 years to make a productive grape vine. Let’s not forget about all the TLC that is needed in that three year process to keep that vine healthy, pest free, frost free, drought tolerable, etc. Add to that how the soil had to be cultivated before the germinated seeds could be planted. Then of course, there is the harvesting, smashing, fermenting, bottling etc. It takes from 1 year to 5 years to make a bottle of wine, the extreme being 20 years with reds. If people were only willing to put that much time into their yoga practice. Just think of the limitless potential you could experience by allowing yourself time to mature into a yogi.

Patience. If you try Padmasana before it's time you might risk injury.

Patience. If you try Padmasana before it’s time you might risk injury.

A three year yoga practice could be like growing your deep roots and vines before you are ready to produce a mature fruit ripe for the picking. During that 3 year period processing what you’ve learned. Then you might be ready to be picked, pruned and overall cleansed of the fruit that might be weighing you down and that can be turned into something better. But even then, you might need to sit and contemplate your next phase of yoga, just like wine sits in the fermenting process. You must discard the waste before you can take on a new form – going from your solid state to a liquid state of being. In yoga, we are trying to become more fluid, to become sweeter, to become better with age. Each of us has the potential to add to this world something unique, something that comes from a good exploration process. If we walk away from yoga before the process has had time to really set in, we would be missing out on all the colorfulness that yoga brings to so many. With enough yoga we do become a lot like a red wine. Where it’s hard to get the stain of yoga out of our hearts, just like it is hard to get the stain of red wine out of carpet. Yoga leaves an impression, and a strong one at that, when practiced for years, not months.

Wine doesn’t make it to your lips without having a heritage. Most vineyards are centuries old. The craft being passed down from one generation to the next. The craft being refined with each year by experimentation. From when to pick the grapes, to what to add to the soil, to how the climate produced a specific result. When you are part of Ashtanga yoga, you become a part of that heritage. Yogis before you have experimented. They have refined the craft of Ashtanga yoga. You automatically get an umbilical cord to India. Just like wines have a particular flavor when they come from a particular region, you automatically step into a family tree with the great, great grandfather figures of Ashtanga yoga – Ramamohan Brahmachari, Krishnamacharya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Tim Miller. As each year of your practice goes by, you are becoming a bigger limb on this old, amazing family tree we call Ashtanga yoga. You are fertilizing the soil for the next crop of yogis.

So give yourself time. Don’t be in such a hurry. Be still. Stand in the sun. Receive from the earth what it has to offer. Be gentle when you prune back what you no longer need. Squish out all the flavor that yoga is giving you, and be willing to share it with others. Don’t hold back and don’t be shy to have your own unique flavor. Yoga makes us ripe for the picking. You just never know when you will be picked in life and for what cause. You might get picked to be a mother, you might get picked to be a cancer survivor, or you could get picked to be a civil servant, or picked to write a great novel. Whatever it is you get picked for, yoga will make you humble, sweet, patient, generous and RIPE.

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SURPRISE!

13 years of practicing Ashtanga yoga, whew! Is that a good thing? Is it worth celebrating? Absolutely. How did I celebrate it? Well the same as I do everyday, by unrolling my mat and doing another practice. No cake with candles, no party hat’s, no invited guest… just me, myself and I. But wait… if I have done thirteen years of yoga is there any “I” left? Yep. I haven’t transcended the ego yet. But do I really want to? No, it’s what gets me on my mat. It’s what gives me the courage that a weaker ego might back away from. I still believe my potential is limitless. I still believe, even though 13 years older, that I can do more than I could at 28. So that’s what makes this worth celebrating.

I was told by my teacher years ago that I should always remember my first experience with yoga and always remember my first teacher. What I have learned from that advice is it will keep you humble. As you practice, you automatically improve. That is only if you practice consistently. As the late, great Pattabhi Jois would say “Practice, practice, practice…all is coming.” With so much improvement it’s possible you can lose sight of the place you started. It’s kind of like that Oscar winning moment for an actor where they thank their high school drama teacher. Where we start, is our anchor. We are aiming for buoyancy in yoga. Our ego more than anything else needs to stay tied down, or it can carry you away. It’s a lot like those buoys in a harbor that are markers to tell the ship where the channel lies.

Me & Tim, Yoga on high, Columbus, Ohio - 2005.

Me & Tim, Yoga on high, Columbus, Ohio – 2005.

People in your life can be great buoy markers. People that have inspired you. People that keep you on the right path. Kind of the like the bumpers in a pin ball game, keeping the ball in play. Hopefully the company you keep are people who keep you on the right track and also keep you humble and grounded. This is why one of my buoys is my teacher Tim Miller. He knows just the right dose of guidance to provide each dedicated student, and he is not over indulgent in handing out compliments. You have to earn his respect and you might not even know when you get it. But he did this one thing that led me to believe I had earned his respect. He remembered my name, time and time again, even if it had been a year since I last saw him. It’s no easy task, I am sure, to remember his students names. He travels all over the world teaching workshops. And he still teaches a full-time schedule at his own studio. But yet every year, I head back to study with him, he remembers my name, where I’m from and even what some of my problem asana’s are. This has always inspired me and I try to emulate him. (www.ashtangayogacenter.com)

Some of my other buoys are my dedicated students that show up again and again and that live some pretty crazy, busy lives. Yet they unfurl their mats day in and out. These are the students that bring good vibes into the space. These are the students that want to grow, that don’t accept “no” from their bodies, or minds for that matter. The ones that lay down a path of hard work that ultimately gets them to their yoga aspirations.

Me & my grandfather -  1983.

Me & my grandfather – 1983.

My grandfather was another great buoy, even though he is no longer of this world. His example inspired me. He never complained, yet he probably had things to complain about. He had an 8th grade education, held down two jobs and raised 4 daughters, half his life by himself, as his wife died young. He built his own house with his own hands and lived in it for 60+ years. He tended an acre land for a garden to feed himself and his family. He lived through the depression and appreciated everything in his life. He always dressed impeccably, darned a hole in his sock and polished his shoes. He made me once sit at the dinner table until I finished my dinner and I learned to appreciate what I had been given.

Georgia Marathon, 2010

Georgia Marathon, 2010

My mother is also one of my bumpers that keeps me on the right track. She gives so generously to others. She is always, sewing, cross stitching, knitting, baking something for someone. Things made from her love of these hobbies, as well as the enjoyment it ultimately brings the recipient. She, like her father, cooked 98% of all meals we ever ate as a family. No microwave, no frozen entrée, food that is fresh and healthy. My mom always made me go to school. I ended up graduating with perfect attendance through all 14 years of education. My parents didn’t let me walk away from commitments. My Dad believes in seeing things through and that hard work and persistence pays off. They are why I have finished 4 marathons, and only missed a handful of yoga practices through 13 years. I was raised by a hard-working family. Hard work doesn’t scare me. If anything, it motivates me because the reward at the end, I do believe, is greater. Hard work will always reward you with self-esteem. You can not lose from hard work, you can only gain.

These are the people I celebrate every time my yoga anniversary comes around. Maybe I should bake them a cake, put on a party hat, and invite them over to celebrate my anniversary. But since some of my buoys can’t be where I am, and vice versa, I just hold them in my heart for the whole month of February. Is it a coincidence that yoga came into my life the month of february? The month of love, the month that celebrates the heart? I think not. I love yoga! I fell in love my very first class, and more and more each day. Even the bad days. This is the month for me to be thankful for the people who gave me what is necessary to take the long road, and not look for the short cut. Have you ever thought who you’d like to have over to dinner to say thanks to? Have you ever thought about what you would say to them? Is “thanks” enough? Does it encompass what you feel? I recently read a great anonymous quote that said ” You haven’t really lived until you have done something for someone who can not repay you.” These people I cannot repay, at least not in dollars. But I can repay them in respect and admiration. I can also repay them in behavior by carrying on some of the great morals and ethics they taught me and being an example to others.

I’m looking forward to celebrating this anniversary every February. I am very thankful to the one person I had a dinner conversation with 13 years ago that said to me the same thing I have said to many people since…”Yoga is not what you think. It’s not just stretching, just give it I try. I think you’ll be surprised.” He was right. It’s not what you think, it’s so much more than we can even imagine. 13 years in, it’s still surprising me.

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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!

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Having the time of my life.

Pattabhi Jois, or affectionately called Guruji!

Many would agree that the Grandfather of Ashtanga yoga was Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, or affectionately called, Guruji. He kept time for Ashtanga for over 80 years. According to the stories my teacher tells, at age 13 Pattabhi ran away to take up study with Sri Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was the keeper of time for yoga before Guruji. If you take to Ashtanga yoga now, you are then keeping time for the system. The Hindu Goddess Kali, the mother of time knows that we all want more of it. Why then do we treat time so cruelly? Wasting time? Some people keep time with grace and ease. From all the stories I have heard of Pattabhi Jois, he did just that. At 80 years old, he looked just as strong as 20 years earlier; assisting the many yogi’s that would line up at his door in Mysore, at all hours. So why are so many killing time, running out of time and forgetting that time can be on their side?

Yoga reminds me to appreciate the time I have and to choose more wisely how I use it. It helps me to slow down and be more present. When we are present we are using our time the way it was intended. When we dwell on the past, or worry about the future, we are trying to manipulate time, to control time, or steal time. The best way to understand time is to know that time has a rhythm. It’s that perpetual tick, tock that time functions on, an even swinging motion that allows time to stay balanced. So, if it is balance that we are looking for, then maybe we should learn more about time.

Pattabhi did so much for Ashtanga for 80 years. He was steadfast in his teaching. His presence in the community reached all corners of the earth, and when he spoke of yoga it was clear and precise. Now the job falls on the fathers and mothers of ashtanga yoga, which would be people like my teacher ,Tim Miller. He has been teaching what he learned from Pattabhi for 32 years. This time line falls on me as well because of the 12 years I have studied with Tim.

Some yogi’s these days are taking up with new teachers and new styles of yoga every few months. Not seeing any one thing through for very long. That would be like a child being relocated to a new home every few months, breaking up the opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than him or herself. What’s bigger then the individual self? Family. Family becomes a network of people that you can go to, to help you feel your roots, for what grounds you. The great thing is we are born into a family, but we can also make a family  by the company we keep. The Ashtanga community does this very well. Whether we take study with Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern or Tim Miller, we still feel like a family because all these great teachers studied with the grandfather of Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois. I am reminded of the family that I am a part of every time I go study at Tim’s studio in California. As I am surrounded by so many dedicated yogi’s. We are sharing our struggles and triumphs together.

Pattabhi was such a good teacher and such a good man that the one thing he really seemed to bring about amongst all his students is respect. All the great teachers of Ashtanga yoga seem to respect each other. For the 12 years that I have studied with Tim, I have never once heard him speak ill of another teacher. If anything, he almost always seems to give props to other teachers, especially in their differences. I think this kind character is why I continue to study with him.  I think this is partly a side effect of Tim having had such a great teacher himself. From all the stories I have heard and books and articles I have read about Pattabhi, he seems to have been a man of impeccable character and grace, with an amazing sense of humor and lightness of being.

I think Ashtanga yoga has this whole time thing pretty figured out. It takes time and lot’s of it to see the pay-off of yoga. I never understood my teachers statement that “Nobody should teach yoga until they had at least practiced consistently for 10 years.”. Now, I understand this statement. The amount of growth I have experienced in theses 12 years would be hard to show you. But I remember my struggles, and they leave me in a state of gratefulness. Grateful to have such great teachers, grateful for my health, and grateful to be wise enough to not take time for granted.

If time weren’t such a great teacher, I think the practice would be only 30 minutes or 40 minutes long, instead of an hour and a half. But I think the sequences were set up in such away to wean out those who aren’t willing to make time for their practice. Now that’s not to say that you can’t and won’t occasionally need to do a 30 minute practice. Most Ashtangi’s know what they have to sacrifice to roll out their mats. Time also teaches us by how our body changes over time.

Baddha Konasana.

Times greatest lesson is probably exposing impatience. Through my journey there have been several poses that I have become very impatient with. They were not progressing for me quick enough, which naturally pushed me towards aversion. Because these poses were so difficult and confrontational, I would rather not practice them. But I am grateful for my early wisdom to know that the only way I was going to improve in these poses was due diligence. My greatest teachable moments have come from  difficult postures like , baddha konasana, Marichysasana D, virasana and kapotasana. These poses marked milestones. Baddha konasana took 9 years to get my head and knees down. Marichysasana D took 3 years to bind, and somedays it can still be elusive. Virasana took about 4 years and kapotasana took about 10 years just to touch my toes. My teacher likes to call poses like this speed bumps, necessary intrusions to slow you down, to expose your grasping (aparigraha). I could have walked away when it got hard, but I didn’t. Time is what I have available and I’ll make good use of it.

It’s annoying that some poses come and go. The body is always evolving and changing. Some poses that were once easy become hard, and hard poses can become easy. These moments always make me chuckle. As we age through our practice, poses are bound to change. I find that I practice much slower in my home practice now compared to when I was 28. That is why Patanjali gives us the secret to the longevity of a yoga practice, sutra 12 chapter 1, ” Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah” STEADY practice, with non attachment, will stop the mind from fluctuating.” Steady like time. Not when it’s convenient. Not when it’s easy! Everyday consistently. Pattabhi knew this, Tim knows this, and I know this.

I heart Guruji!

It’s going to take me time to become half the teacher Pattabhi was. It’s kind of like marinating; the longer you soak in the juices, the more flavor you’ll have. All these great teachers are making the practice rich with history. Ashtanga has been around for almost 100 years, fairly unchanged. Each person that carries the flame of ashtanga in their heart is adding to the well spring of authenticity and history of this great practice. Each time we practice, it’s a way to say thank you to all the teachers of the system. Thank you for keeping time with such grace. Thank you for making our Ashtanga community a family that we can feel part of, even when we are rolling out our mats 3,000 miles from Tim’s studio, or 9,000 miles from the birth place of ashtanga yoga, Mysore, India. I feel connected to each and every person that is doing their part to keep Pattabhi’s work alive. I feel honored to be carrying this torch that has been carried by many. We are a family of great students and teachers. The light of this torch is dispelling darkness, with just a little yoga. I’m having the time of my life studying and teaching yoga. Light your flame, and don’t waste anymore time.

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We’re getting the bandhas back together!

Ugh Bandhas! For a yoga teacher, they are one of the hardest things to teach. For starters, you cannot show them to people. So You’re left with trying to explain something to people that on a day to day basis fluctuates a bit. Also, in the yoga world there’s this talk that you should be doing bandhas  24/7. That’s a tall order along with everything else we have to do. But they are interesting, and once you start to figure them out for the first couple of times, they actually become very intriguing. If you can execute them properly, they will make things easier. Maybe “easier” isn’t the right word. But instead, they will make things more accurate. Or an even better idea is they will direct your energy. When I do them to the best of my ability they seem to keep my practice on track, kind of like the way trains follow rails. But there definitely seems to be a learning curve to them. At 13 dedicated years of Ashtanga yoga practice, I think I’m still on that curve.

Chaturanga Dandasana. Holding it is a good bandha check.

It seems like with every new pose I take on in my yoga journey, there is a new process of learning how to use my bandhas properly. They are not as easily executed in every pose. Yes, for the most part they are an energetic movement that is inward and upward. I think of their engagement a lot like the way a suction cup engages to a surface. That when you engage your bandhas, in essence you are creating a sealing effect of keeping your energy secure, stationary. Once this seal or mudra has been executed, you then can work to direct your attention to the innate lightness we all are capable of. It’s as the yoga sutra’s say, Sutra 46 chapter 2, ” Sthira sukham asanam; a yoga asana should be steady (sthira) and at ease (sukham) at the same time.” But the most truthful part about that sutra is its order. Sthira is first, because you can not be at ease if at first you are not steady. A seal or mudra happens when two things come into agreement or alignment. Right? Your front door won’t seal closed if the door is not aligned?

I know if you translate the word “bandha” you actually get the definition as a lock, like a lock at a dam. A dam couldn’t work effectively if it didn’t seal properly. In my opinion “to seal” would be more appropriate definition. So how do you get this alignment to take place, to create this sealing sensation? Let’s be real. The bandhas are more sensation then they are an anatomical action. I mean don’t get me wrong, there are specific muscles involved. But even if you know definably which muscles to contract, does that then make bandhas automatic? Absolutely not. Especially interesting is that even when we do know which muscles to activate, we don’t tend to be the most adept species at things that are subtle. We are definitely much more in tune with gross movements. But that’s the beauty and the mystery of the bandhas. Which is that they, more than anything else in yoga, are teaching us about the subtle, sensitive, and more mysterious side of the practice.

Here’s another way that you can try to understand the use of bandhas in your practice. Have you learned yet how to drive a stick shift car? Just a sidebar: You should, because you never know when or why you might need to drive a stick shift car. What a process it is, right? Intimidating and yet so liberating once you master it. Well, bandhas are a lot like the clutch in the stick shift experience. You must learn how to operate it to get the car in gear and maneuver your way through traffic. Seems like it should be an easy enough process, but using two feet and one hand, all coordinated together turns out to be a lot harder then you would think. Sounds like the things we do in yoga. Sometimes yoga and stick shift driving have that feeling of trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time.

You first have to take your foot off of the brake to get anywhere. In yoga, for some of us that means getting the “I can’t” thoughts out of our way. Doing yoga thinking “I can’t” is a lot like driving your car with your foot on the brake. Then you have to push down on the accelerator while easing off the clutch smoothly at the same time. If not, you will bounce the car forward or stall out completely. They are subtle movements, it requires a sensitivity of how much to release the clutch and how much to push the accelerator. You might think of the clutch as the mula bandha and the accelerator as uddiyana bandha. They must work in unison. You can’t have one with out the other, and you must first engage the one before you can effectively engage the other. In yoga, mula bandha is sometimes called the roots and uddiyana bandha is called the wings. You could say then that mula bandha is the element of sthira and uddiyana is the element that creates the ease of execution, sukham. Just like you have to ease off the clutch and push down on the accelerator.

What’s interesting, is when you first learn how to drive a stick shift car, you are taught on a flat surface because it’s easier. But then when it’s time for you to refine your stick shift driving skills, you have to try it on an incline. It is a whole lot harder to know what degree of effort to apply to the gas and how much to release the clutch, all at the same time while  worrying about drifting backwards. The smaller the hill the easier to figure out. Just like the easier the yoga asana, the easier it is to activate your bandhas. But the more things in an asana that you have to pay attention to, the harder it seems to be to remember to engage your bandhas. You put people upside down in yoga and it seems that the last thing on their radar is bandhas. Lucky for them, bandhas automatically engage a bit when inverted, not completely though. Asking people to engage their bandhas when attempting a new, more advanced asana is a lot like trying to ask the driver to take their foot off the brake when sitting on a steep hill, in a stick shift car.

Sometimes we might accidentally let our bandhas out, and then our energy flows but without any guidance. However, we need to have the ability at a moment’s notice to activate the bandhas and get our energy and attention back on track. First, learn how to find and use your bandhas in easier poses, then as you advance you will know what to do with them. Bandhas are much more fun when we know how to use them to make our practice freer and lighter.  Bandhas are most effective when activated together.

You may not remember this cartoon from the 1970’s; The Super Friends. It had these two characters named the Wonder Twins. According to wikipedia “The Wonder Twins powers are activated when they touch each other and speak the phrase, “Wonder Twin powers activate!” This phrase is unnecessary and just a habit of theirs. Physical contact, however, is required. If the two are out of reach of each other, they are unable to activate their powers. As they are about to transform, they would each announce their intended form. “Shape of…”, “Form of…”” Our Bandhas are a lot like that. They need to operate together .And when we do activate them, they allow us to take on new forms and shapes.

Me and my brother just before releasing the fish I caught the summer of 1980.

I’ll give you one more story of how I see the bandhas operating before letting you run off and experiment with the cause and effect of bandhas in your asana. Have you ever been fishing? When I was young and before many years of being a vegetarian, I went fishing a few times from a shore of  Lake Pymatuning, in Ohio. Nothing fancy. We used the worm, weight, and bobber system. In order to catch the fish we needed the worm to dangle below surface, so we put a tiny weight on the fishing line. Nothing that was too heavy that would cause the line to drop to the bottom of the lake, but enough weight to give the look of the worm dangling. Then a foot or so above that on the line we attached a plastic red and white bobber to allow the line to float so that we would be able to see when the fish took the bait. The weight on the line is your mula bandha and the bobber giving the line buoyancy  is uddiyana bandha. We must be grounded, but buoyant in our asana’s. Just as it can be tricky to catch a fish, it will be tricky to catch your lightness of being. As my teacher, Tim Miller says “somethings in yoga can be taught but other things must be caught.” Go fish for your bandhas. Be patient, be sensitive and don’t be too attached to your results. Sutra12, Chapter 1, “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah; Steady practice, with non-attachment, will stop the mind from fluctuating.” Just as I let go of all the fish I did catch, we need to learn to let go of our expectations. If you always want to go fish for the biggest fish out there, you might miss out on the beauty of the little one’s.

So let’s get the bandhas back together and make another great album. Maybe we’ll call this bandha album,  THE ROOTS and WINGS, or THE CLUTCH and ACCELERATOR, or  The WONDER TWINS, or The WEIGHT and BOBBER? But no matter what you know or think you know about the bandhas, they are definitely worth your consideration and examination. Whether you think of them as a suction, clutch, roots, wings, super hero powers, weight and buoyancy, or anything else creative you have heard, they are a necessary tool to the practice. Before you know, it you will be reeling in your bandhas. They will help create a greater mastery of the mystery.

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

Disguise my struggle?

So back in the day, I started to teach yoga way before my time. I started yoga back in 1990, when it was starting to expand quickly just like the american waistline is doing now. It was expanding at an elastic waistband pants kind of speed. Yoga was popping up everywhere. I was lucky, to have had such a good experience with yoga at my first sampling. Not good in the way you might think, like I excelled at it. Nope, I failed at it miserably. But that’s what made it good. That was the hook. I remember coming out of that simple hour practice scratching my head and wondering how approximately 12 basic poses weren’t within my capabilities. I had been lifting weights and running for years at this point. I was 28 and had also injured my back twice, both times doing leg press. I’m not a big fan of that movement even today, but I can and still do them as I am wiser, stronger and of course more flexible. My wisdom comes in the form of learning not to disguise my struggle but to remove it.

So I started to teach within the year of my first finding yoga. I had no business teaching. But I was lucky for a couple of reasons. I was so lucky to find some of the best teachers right at the start and studied with them as much as I could. Tim Miller and Sean Corne were extremely influential in my journey. I even remember a comment Tim made at the very first workshop I took with him, which was “No one should teach until they have practice at least 10 years consistently.” I now very clearly understand and agree with that remark. Another great gift of insight I was given by Sean Corne was to record myself teaching. I did, and I still do. There is no greater teacher, to a teacher, than him or herself being played back.  I teach some of my best classes when I am recording them. Why? Because then I am teaching that class to the hardest critic I know; ME. I try to do this about once a month. It really holds my feet to the fire in making sure that I am giving my all, all the time. When that little red light is on and I begin a class I hold myself to higher standards. Doing this often then never let’s me become complacent.

I stumbled upon this next great teaching tool by accident. The sound of my own voice teaching a class that I was practicing along with. Now, there will be many varying opinions on this, but hear me out firs,t because I think you might be surprised at how this has shaped me as a teacher and as a student. I have heard from many people over the years that they do not like when the teacher practices with them. I sometimes think the people who do not like this are the ones that want hands on adjustments all the time. I don’t know about you but I only want to be adjusted in the poses that I am doing poorly. Plus, an adjustment should only be a temporary assistance; that after having experienced a few times, I can then apply the action myself. It’s in the struggle of application that growth happens.

When a teacher see’s you struggling there is an appropriate time to intervene, but it’s not always appropriate. It is necessary for the student to first try and to then apply. I sometimes find that I can spend more time adjusting people who are just being lazy and not applying their own hard-fought effort first. I do treat everyone differently though and for different reasons. Ultimately struggle needs to be there, it means that you are in a new place. A place where effort is necessary. This struggle, though, needs to be appropriate.

When I would practice with the students I found that teaching and talking is extremely challenging. What became very apparent to me is that the struggle of trying to talk and move my body in and out of asanas was apparent in my voice. One of the poses I noticed this in the greatest was Camel/Ustrasana. When I would go into this pose and instruct the students on how and what to do I heard my voice. I sounded like I was being strangled. I thought, “That can’t be good”. So I started to realize that I was struggling. If I couldn’t do the pose without apparent struggle, how could I expect them to. So I taught myself how to remove the struggle and not just disguise it.

Ustrasana/Camel variation

My challenge became my voice. How to use my voice to inspire them, instruct them and to prove to them that even the most advanced pose can be accomplished with-out struggle. So as I continued to practice and teach, I listened very closely to the flux in my voice to point out to me where I needed to do the work. It’s what the student is supposed to be doing when listening to their breathing. The greatest reason we give a sound to our breathing, with ujayi, is to be able to listen. If our breath didn’t have this sound resonating it would be much harder to hear where the struggle is. So to make it even more apparent, in case the students haven’t yet learned to listen to their breath, or they are being forgetful, or they are getting lazy about it, I will have them speak, out loud, during class. I will instruct them how to do Camel and then I will ask them to repeat three times, out loud, “I love camel pose. I love camel pose. I love camel pose.”, while they are in the fullest expression of the pose. From the first to the third, I will ask them to remove the strangled sound in their voice. They will be forced to notice that there is a force that opposes effort, and that is relaxation. Hopefully they will remove the struggle by embracing where in their body they need to relax.

This same tactic is used with runners. It’s a good idea to run with someone and try to converse. If you can not hold a conversation with your running mate, you are pushing too hard. Or if you are dominating the conversation you aren’t pushing hard enough. Try it, you will be surprised at how your fitness level improves. Now, in a yoga class there is usually no talking, so my best advice to you then is to listen to your breathing. What you are looking for is the subtleties of change. Whether the breath stops, shakes, too loud, too soft, speeds up or slows down. It’s likely in a class that your breath will do all of these things. The more you practice, the more your breath will become equal and balanced just like your effort should become balanced to your relaxation. Stirtha sukham asanam. Asana should have steadiness and ease.

Voice is a beautiful thing. It has the ability to scare if you yell, soothe if you whisper, comfort if spoken confidently or inspire with enthusiasm. I try to do all these things with my voice while teaching. When I play back the recordings, it is those types of things I am listening for along with whether or not the information I am dishing out makes sense. Whether I’m speaking too quickly, too loudly, softly, bored, angry, frustrated or disinterested. These emotional nuances can be felt in our breathing as much as they can be heard in our voice. Yoga is teaching us not to disguise these things but to face them and see where they are coming from; to trace down the source of the struggle and remove it.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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