Archive for the ‘Yoga’ Category

“I’ll have eight pieces of pie, please.”

 

Eight Limbs HandoutWhen we go to a yoga class in the US, we expect to move and breathe, and perhaps gain some positive inspiration. But yoga has so much more to offer than just the physical postures (asana). There are actually eight pieces in the full yogic pie, as delineated in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The picture above shows the full pie in a very simple format.

Most people start learning about yoga via asana for many reasons…often times they’re in pain, and someone told them that yoga might help. Indeed it might, and all the more so if they partake in more than just the physical postures. Nevertheless, physical wellness is a strong motivator! Consistently stepping onto a mat with a skilled teacher’s guidance, you learn to appreciate the very aliveness in your body, as new sensations arise and you understand your limitations and strengths. If a student allows himself to be influenced on the mat by the other parts of the pie, the physical practice is enriched with ideas such as non-violence (ahimsa), truth (satya) and moderation (brahmacharya). Learning about your body, mind, and spirit (svadhyaya) becomes an essential part of your time on your mat.

As an asana practice grows, a breathing (pranayama) practice will naturally arise. We breathe about 20,000 times per day, and seldom do we think about it. In fact, many of us breathe just enough to not die! Staying alive is a good thing, and so is more healthful breathing. There are many pranayama practices, and they don’t have to be complicated to be helpful. For example, equalizing the inhalation and exhalation can calm the nervous system and bring mental clarity. Connecting pranayama with asana in a mindful way enriches both practices. This is often a person’s first taste of more than one piece of the pie, and so dawns the understanding that each piece supports the others. This is not linear learning, but rather, everything all the time. A bit of this and a bit of that, motivated by the individual’s interests and abilities.

For many devoted yogis, taking what we learn off the mat into our lives is the most rewarding part of the yoga journey. As we learn to physically align our bodies and to breathe more healthfully, the seeds of mindfulness are sown. We feel better among the new growth, and we want that growth to flourish. The initial seeds grow by adding in more pieces of the yogic pie…what a relief to learn how to tune out the 21st century noise periodically (pratyahara, dharana), how to engage more healthfully with others (yamas) and take better care of ourselves in the ways that matter most (niyamas). Meditation (dyana) is hip in pop culture nowadays, but it’s always been part of yoga. The fruit of dyana is peaceful contentment and union (samadhi). Considering samadhi, noted scholar Nicolai Bachman had this to say, “When we are so completely focused that our own sense of individuality vanishes, then our heart-mind field of consciousness reflects only the object of focus and nothing else. Our attention is so riveted and unswerving that external sensory input is totally turned off. We are in a zone, having let go of the outer world, and now experience a feeling of unity.”

All of this just by stepping onto a yoga mat? Are you skeptical? Or perhaps already sold? I hope our yoga journeys cross some day so we can chat about it.

Check out my website for class and workshop schedules, home practice help, and more!

Keeping It Simple

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Snowed in during the Blizzard of 2016 here in Maryland, I’ve taken some time to update my web presence. It’s anything but simple! All the Places for All the Things are very confusing, and I doubt that I’ve got it all straight just yet. It’s a work in progress.

My yoga and meditation practices have helped me understand that being ok with life’s messiness and maintaining the simple practices that nourish me are the best ways to stay balanced, happy, and able to serve others.

For all those who’ve joined me in my yoga life — thank you. I’m honored to call you colleague, student, mentor, and friend.

Check out my website for class and workshop schedules, home practice help, and more!

 

Normal Turbulence

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These days, I’m coming to appreciate mere normalcy more than ever. You know, the kind of day when you wake up, make some coffee and breakfast, go to work, maybe see a friend for lunch, make dinner, hang out with the fam, and go to bed. A day devoid of drama — nobody’s died, nobody’s almost died, nobody’s been convicted, nobody’s getting divorced, and nobody’s been shot and killed at the local mall. In recent times, all of those things have happened, and some have become shockingly common occurrences. There’s nothing particularly special about any of this…these things happen every day, all over the world. The density of these events in my life, however, has sometimes been breath-taking; not to mention that they’re happening to people I love. I’m realizing that this is, in fact, “normal,” whether I like it or not. Joy and pain are two sides of the same coin in this life; a few things are helping me navigate these turbulent waters:

Rely on your community. I’m fortunate to be part of several communities of people who I can count on…family, church, and yoga communities. I’m not doing life on my own. While my tendency is to cocoon, especially when it all seems to be too much, I’m learning that reaching out is better than withdrawing.

Remember to be grateful every day. No matter what’s happening, there’s something to be grateful for. Find it. As Meister Eckhardt wrote, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” I’ve taken to watching at least part of the sunrise every morning, giving gratitude for the new day and the Creator who made it.

Keep the big picture in mind. Some days are harder than others to hang onto the belief in a Grand, Good Plan. And yet, all is despair without that faith. Ann Voskamp writes in One Thousand Gifts:  A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, “I’ve got to get this thing, what it means to trust, to gut-believe in the good touch of God toward me, because it’s true: I can’t fill with joy until I learn how to trust.” There’s certainly no joy in stress! So rather than wearing stress as some weird badge of honor, I’m continually choosing to trust God. Sometimes it’s a minute-by-minute thing, and that’s ok.

Stay present to your breath and your body every day. Shocking, I know, that a yoga teacher would say this! But here’s the thing — if you’re paying attention, really paying attention, to your breath, then you’re automatically being present in that one moment. Your mind isn’t wandering to the past or future when you’re focused on this very breath — a welcome mental break. Being present, breath by breath, also plays a healthy trick on your nervous system, and calms you down despite your best efforts at hysteria. Try this:  sit somewhere, and notice the parts of your body that are touching something…feet to the floor, butt on the chair, etc. Sit up tall and take a hand to your heart. Place the other hand on your belly. Relax the tops of your shoulders down, away from your ears. Close your eyes if that feels comfortable, and begin by noticing the rise and fall of the chest. Gradually allow the breath to deepen into your belly, and let the belly expand into your hand with every inhale. A long, smooth exhalation finds the belly retreating inward. Notice the warmth beneath each hand. Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring awareness back to your breath. Allow the sense of yourself sitting and breathing to really wash over you, to renew and refresh you.

Be generous with “I love you.” Just say it, every chance you get, over and over and over. Make no assumptions about what someone knows. No matter what we know, we all want to hear it.

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so.
One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut,
or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.
–Mary Jean Iron

View my complete schedule of yoga classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia!

Rising Back to the Surface

So I’ve been away from writing for a while…many reasons, perhaps all good, perhaps not. One truly good reason is that I’ve been practicing and teaching a lot of yoga, and I recently completed a year-long advanced teacher training (RYT-500). It was a richly rewarding experience, as much for deepened friendships as for the actual training. Both have added much to my life and to my yoga teaching.

Perhaps going forward, this blog could be more about what’s on my mind and less about “writing an essay.” I’ve sometimes wondered whether I started the blog because I had a few things on my mind, and once written down, that was that, no further need for the blog. Hmmm.  We shall see!

As for what’s on my mind this week — relaxation. One of the great gifts of yoga is that we learn to tune into the body and breath. We find out that true relaxation isn’t sitting on the couch with a bag of chips, isn’t reading a book, isn’t playing a game of [choose your sport]. What if you learned how to position your body in exactly the right way so that you could breathe fully and easily, and so that there was no compression or tension in your body at all? So that you could simply BE? This week I’ve been playing with my favorite ways of using various props (I love props!) to find the most supportive set-up for the body. I think I’ve got it! When you find the sweet spot for physical comfort and easy breathing, you relax into a blissful, gauze-y haze, and when it’s time to come out, your mind really resists rising back up to the surface. It isn’t sleep. It’s something else entirely, and it’s delicious. When you do rise back up, you feel softer, a little melt-y. It’s a little easier to go about in the world. You’re a little nicer to the cat.

If you’re curious and would like to give this relaxation thing a try — I’m teaching a one-hour class on exactly that this Friday night at the Yoga Center of Columbia, 6:45-7:45pm. Subsequent offerings will be on February 28 and March 28, same time.

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these. –George Washington Carver

View my complete schedule of classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia!

Peace Amid Bombs

lotusdrawing-purchased1.jpgLast week was quite a week if you lived in Boston or were tuning into the news. The devastation wrought by bombs brought death, chaos, uncertainty, fear, grief, anger, worry, and finally, some relief on Friday night that maybe that chapter was now written and finished. There seem to be many more such chapters than there used to be, and so I ponder how to live well and thrive with such things as the backdrop.

When everything around you is chaotic, how do you find peace? Meditation takes you within yourself, communing with God, remembering that you are always supported. Being outside enjoying nature, can invite a sense of freedom and gratitude. Letting your beliefs truly be your guiding light, holding them close and finding the practices that really nourish your spirit, elevates the day and lightens your heart. Keeping it simple whenever you can is just good, solid advice.

In yoga we stabilize and then lengthen & soften, add breath and relax. We stay steadily engaged, but relaxed. Being steady in your strength with a practice that grounds you physically engenders a spiritual steadiness that provides peace within. You can step off the mat and into your life with genuine, active good will toward others. You might even find more compassion for others, seeking to do what’s best for them. And if more of us lived this way, there would be a lot less chaos.

View my complete schedule of classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia!

It’s a Yoga Practice, Not a Perfect

LotusDrawing.purchasedWhen I was young, I played the flute. I practiced every day, even the boring stuff, like scales. I was thrilled when, after years of practice, I could play the Telemann Suite in A Minor, and it actually sounded like, well, the Telemann Suite in A Minor. When we love what we do, we want to do more of it, right? The practicing becomes the journey, the goals fall away, and we enjoy the ride.

Yoga is just the same. Getting “good” at yoga is a problematic idea that I’ll write about another day. For now, suffice to say that the practice is the whole point. If you can practice with a teacher every week and then take a bit from that practice home with you, it’s gold. If you have the space, leave a yoga mat unfurled in your home…if it’s staring you in the face, you’re more likely to step on it and do something. Five minutes on your own every day will do wonders for your physical and mental well-being. Trust me, I’ve learned by doing. The days that I practice I’m not just nicer (ask my family), but I have more mental clarity, focus and I’m better able to be present. My body feels lighter, and I move with ease.

The main thing is to show up to your mat every day. It almost doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re feeling a bit off, you could lay there on your mat and breathe. That’s yoga. You could step on your mat, do a few poses, and then go walk the dog or make breakfast or throw in a load of laundry. Maybe later in the day, you’d walk by your lonely yoga mat and step back on for a pose or two! Let go of the idea of “not doing it right” and just DO it.

“A big shot is a little shot that kept shooting.” — Anonymous

View my complete schedule of classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia!

Yoga, Before & After

Lately I’ve been asking my students to reflect on how their bodies and minds feel as we begin the practice. They take  a few moments to center and just check in. We’ll often come back to these questions toward the end of the practice, and see what gifts the asana practice has given. I usually see tension in students’ eyes or bodies as they arrive, and the relaxed versions of those wonderful people when they leave! What happened to bring about this dramatic change?

It’s a beautiful thing to let your mind get quiet, to focus on connecting your breath with your movements, and to listen to the rhythm of a teacher’s voice…an asana practice gives you a break from thinking and the opportunity to feel. A yogi feels her strength and power when she moves into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog), and then, deepening into the pose, finds a delicious opening when the hips and upper thighs press back. Hugging the forearms toward each other and finding your core integrity, the muscles on the back engage and the neck & spine find freedom. This deep inner awareness of the physical body gives the thinking mind a break, and it’s a dance we delight in over and over again, moving through the rhythm of a well-rounded practice. Heat builds in the body and the prana (breath) flows more easily and creates more space.

And then there’s the final pose, Savasana (Relaxation Pose). After building heat and strength and making more space for prana to flow, we rest comfortably for 10 minutes or so. The breath slows as the body settles deeply into rest. Here’s how good it is:  someone created a t-shirt that says, “I only came for Savasana.” And so here’s why yogis arise from a practice as the people we’re meant to be:  we have paused, reflected, engaged, and let go. We take this truer, relaxed version of ourselves out into the world. And it makes a difference!

View my complete schedule of classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia!

Standing on Your Own Two Feet — A Yoga Miracle

Standing on your own two feet is the most important asana — Judith Hanson Lasater

One of the very first poses a yogi learns is Tadasana, Mountain pose (pictured above). On the surface, it doesn’t look like much, does it? She’s just standing there, right? No, not really! As I tell students, there are a lot of layers to Tadasana, and we unpeel those layers over a long stretch of consistent practice. There’s really a whole lot happening in a well-aligned Tadasana, and in fact, we attempt to bring that Tadasana alignment into every yoga pose. Kindness, patience, consistency, and a willingness to regard the body with new eyes are key to this unfolding.

How do we take such a basic pose as Tadasana off the mat and into our lives? It might begin with just noticing how you stand in the checkout line or how you sit at a computer. It all starts with awareness. Out of a developing awareness arise healthier habits:  you notice that you feel better physically if you keep the feet parallel and draw the thighs in, back, and apart. Your low back feels so much better just from doing that, that you start to root down more firmly through your feet and legs. Out of the rootedness arises a firm belly and lifted chest. That core integrity invites a lengthening at the back of the neck, as the crown of the head lifts skyward. And then you smile!

Rooting down to rise up on and off the mat can also bring forth something amazing within your mind and spirit:  you learn to stand confidently on your own two feet (or hands!!). You find out that you matter a lot, that you have a lot to offer, that your voice is welcome and your opinions matter. You discover and appreciate your own self-worth, and share your gifts generously with a world in need of whatever it is that you have to offer. It’s a little yoga miracle, and it all starts with a pose that doesn’t look like much at all.

View my complete schedule of classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia!

Glass Shatters

I recently watched the movie I Don’t Know How She Does It, with Sarah Jessica Parker as the lead character. She’s an over-extended woman trying to manage a high-powered career that requires a lot of travel, as well as a husband and two young children. She made painful choices as she moved higher up the career ladder, and…well, I won’t spoil it for you in case you haven’t seen it.

It reminded me of an adage that a wise friend once shared with me. She said that as we walk through our lives, we’re constantly juggling five balls in the air. The balls are named Work, Family, Health, Friends, and Spirit, and you’re desperately trying to keep them all up in the air. Here’s the thing we all have to learn:  Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four, though — they are made of glass. If you drop one of those, it will be permanently damaged in some way…perhaps just a scuff that you can work around, or a deep crack that will require careful attention for a long time.  But maybe one will be shattered. The point is, if you drop Family, Health, Friends, or Spirit, there will be some irreparable damage and things will never be the same.

Here’s how yoga can help you keep those balls up in the air:

1. Yoga isn’t about nailing a pose better than the person on the mat next to you. It’s not a competition.

2. When you practice yoga, you learn to tune in to your body’s needs and modify poses as you need on a given day. As I tell my students, sometimes just laying on the floor breathing can be your practice!

3. Just as we practice one pose at a time, we live life off the mat moment by precious moment. Yogis cultivate awareness of the present moment, as we tune into what our bodies and teacher are saying.

4. Challenging poses help us acknowledge our weaknesses, our human fragility. They also invite us to persist with our practice and to overcome our fears.

5. When we come upon rough patches in life, we might bend and sway a bit, but we can root down into what sustains us and rise up to meet what comes.

It’s all about balance and prioritizing.

View my complete schedule of classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia!

Keeping a Vacation Spirit Alive

I’m just back from a wonderful week of relaxing vacation with friends and family. Now home, I’m wondering how to hold on to a little bit of last week’s spirit…less frenzy, more peace, more fun. I never wore a watch last week, didn’t check my calendar, and only occasionally looked at email. I rested, walked the beach, read, played games, floated in the Atlantic, and practiced yoga. One of my favorite spots was on a deck swing overlooking the ocean, breathing in gratitude and letting go of stress. Ah, the bliss of free days!

With the return to my normal life, there’s laundry to do, bills to pay, errands to run, and myriad other mundane tasks. Riding the wake of vacation, though, I find myself navigating through stress a bit more skillfully. Deeper breaths, a softer tone and demeanor, and more conscious gratitude envelop me. I’m blessed in so many ways — supportive, loving friends and family who know me and love me anyway, a truly wonderful “work” environment (I still can’t believe people pay me to teach yoga and help run a studio!), many creature comforts — and yet peace can be so elusive.

Taking a yoga class yesterday, my teacher encouraged deep breaths, a personal pace to the practice, and feeling the earth beneath our feet and hands. It was just the message I needed to hear. Full, nourishing breaths helped me find spaciousness inside and calmed my mind. Pacing the practice to serve my own needs strengthened my resolve not to let my busy calendar push me into a frenzy. The grounding practice I enjoyed in class reminded me that God is always with me and that I am best served when I relinquish control. While that deck swing and the Atlantic are miles and miles away at the moment, I do believe I can still feel a touch of ocean breeze and taste the salty air!

View my complete schedule of classes at the Yoga Center of Columbia!