My home practice…not very bendy

So…I had some photos taken yesterday at Lululemon Athletica Manhasset sporting their new line of yoga gear.  The photos will be used for product notifications throughout the month.  I’ll also be teaching a few of their free Sunday classes in December along with other teachers from Vitality.  Fun stuff!

What occurred to me as I was on my way to the store, planning what poses I might strike, was that I don’t have any of those impressive, typically photographed, “advanced” postures in my practice.

You know the ones…deep backbends, splits, crazy inversions and arm balances:

What would those Lululemon shoppers think of my not so “advanced” yoga photos?

Who cares?!

What does it mean to be “advanced”?  I am not a particularly bendy yogini.  I come to the mat consistently and love my practice.  I feel honored to be teaching.  But, I don’t handstand in the middle of the room or hold flying pigeon (yet, anyway!!!).  Do the poses we can contort ourselves into make us “advanced”?   Obviously the answer is no.  The biggest impact my teacher training experience had on me was the realization that the practice is not merely physical.  Asana is 1 of 8 limbs.

Yoga is the process of discovering who you are, from single moment to single moment.  Bendy or otherwise.  It really doesn’t matter what you can or can’t do physically.  Labels are worthless. The phsyical practice (asana), while amazing and empowering, is simply a vehicle to a larger self-realization and ability to inhabit a quiet, peaceful, non-reactive mind.

So, if you are like me, and not particularly bendy, throw away any meaning you have attached to your physical ability.  Embrace what you do have and ignore the labels.

Embrace what you do have

What I’m teaching…Enlightenment is everywhere

Love this clip!  A beautiful illustration of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2:

Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah

The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga

The entire outside world is based on your thoughts and mental attitude.  The entire world is your own projection.  Your values may change within a fraction of a second…If you feel bound, you are bound.  If you feel liberated, you are liberated.  Things outside neither bind nor liberate you; only your attitude toward them does that.

Sutra commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda

Yoga media…

Yoga Dork recently posted the trailer for the latest of the many yoga documentaries and it got me thinking…yoga and the media.   Not sure how I feel.  While I’ve learned a lot about yoga’s history and evolution and was exposed to many styles, traditions and teachers through watching these films…I am still undecided as to the impact they have on society’s understanding and perception of the practice that is so personal to me…or even it if matters?  Yoga is big business and currently extremely trendy, stylish  and “cool”. All of these movies prove and contribute to that.  And all of that attention=money.  And all of that money=power.  Too much power can go to your head, be taken advantage of, and result in harm…even for yogis.

I just want the practice to remain pure.

Here are a few trailers…food for thought.  What are your thoughts on yoga and the media?

http://vimeo.com/50675064

Yoga, Inc.: A Journey Through the Big Business of Yoga

 

The world needs yoga. This stuff is powerful and intense. It has the power to harm when held tightly, studied without practice, and posed rigidly. Done right, it also has the ability to heal and cure.

Tara Stiles from the Huffington Post

 

What I’m teaching…Right speech and the Vishuddha chakra

The 5th chakra is the Vishuddha, which translates to “purity”, “purification”, or “pure place” from Sanskrit.  Located in the neck, shoulders, throat, mouth, tongue and jaw, the Vishuddha chakra is the gateway from the lower, more material/physical energy centers (chakras 1-4) to the upper, more spiritual/metaphysical 6th and 7th chakras. It  governs our ability to communicate, self-express, create, and listen.

Imbalances in the chakras are thought to result in illness.  These invisible energy wheels can either spin too fast or too slow; leaking energy out or blocking energy flow within.  Physically, excessive or deficient energy flow in the 5th chakra can lead to thyroid imbalances, teeth grinding, neck/shoulder stiffness or tension, hearing/speech problems and throat/jaw ailments (such as chronic sore throats or TMJ). Imbalance can also manifest as excessive talking, interrupting, manipulative behavior, inability to listen, shyness,  fear of speaking, inability to express yourself clearly, stuttering, lying, keeping secrets, addiction to smoking and being “wishy-washy”.  The good news is that yoga, meditation, and diet can get your wheels to spin just right.

Some asanas that bring awareness and balanced energy flow to this region are:

Simple neck rollsUstrasana (Camel pose), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge pose), Sarvangasana (Shoulder stand), Halasana (Plow pose), Matsyasana (Fish pose), Purvottanasana (Upward plank pose), and Bhujangasana (Cobra pose).

***If you are experiencing any neck “issues”, pain, etc., please practice under the guidance of your teacher.  Most of these poses can still be practiced safely, but may need to be modified.

Pranayama, bandha, and mantra:

Practicing Ujjayi pranayama (victorious breath), Jalandhara bandha (net-bearer bond or throat lock), and chanting Om or “Ham” or any mantra of your choosing will also get the energy moving through the Vishuddha chakra.

Here’s a beautiful Sanskrit mantra that you can learn easily:

Om asatoma satgamaya
tamasoma jyotir gamaya
mrityorma amritam gamaya
Lead us from the unreal to the real
From darkness to light
From death to immortality
Simple meditation for the Vishuddha:
Come into a comfortable position, you can choose Sukhasana (with blankets under your hips or even leaning against the wall), Savasana, or just sit in a comfy chair.  Eyes closed, hands where they feel good.  Bring attention to the neck, throat, mouth,  jaw, and shoulders.  Begin to breathe deeply to relax them, one by one.  Visualize a beautiful sky blue light appear to illuminate this region of your neck and throat, and see it take form into a blue lotus flower with 16 petals (you can glance at the picture below for help here).  Imagine the light brighten with each inhalation and dim a slight bit on exhalation.  Inhale- the light brightens.  Exhale- the light dims a slight bit.  Timing your meditation helps.  Start with 1 minute and increase from there.
Finding balance within the 5th chakra means making a commitment to choose your words.  Communicate with truth, kindness, peace, and love.
The Buddha called it Right Speech:
Refraining from lying, refraining from slander, refraining from harsh speech, refraining from frivolous speech
Patanjali taught non-harming and truth in Sutras 2.35 and 2.36 (Ahimsa and Satya, the first 2 Yamas, which are so foundational and important that they actually come as the first 2 teachings of the 8 limbs of Yoga), both of which can be applied in communication and speech:
ahimsa pratishthayam tat samnidhau vaira tyagah
In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease
satya pratisthayam kriya phalasrayatvam
To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient
And Lao-tzu defines the highest state of man as knowing when to, and not to, speak in the 56th verse of the Tao:
Those who know do not talk
Those who talk do not know
Block all the passages!
Close your mouth, cordon off your senses, blunt your sharpness, untie your knots,  soften your glare, settle your dust.
This is the primal union or the secret embrace
One who knows this secret
is not moved by attachment or aversion, swayed by profit or loss, nor touched by honor or disgrace.
He is far beyond the cares of men yet comes to hold the dearest place in their hearts.
This, therefore, is the highest state of man.
Communication starts in the mind with a thought.  Learn to filter yourself first in those moments.  Ask yourself, “Does this thought foster positivity and love?”  If not, end it there.
If you find yourself thinking about lying, stop it there.  Choose silence.
If you find yourself thinking negatively, judgmentally, or unkindly about someone else…stop it there.  Think about something else or think instead of that person’s good qualities.
If you find yourself in a group of people engaging in gossip, trash talk, or even simply talking about someone that is not there…excuse yourself and walk away.
Our words have significant power.  Our voices are meant to be pure and the throat chakra used as a place for purification.
When we lie, gossip, blab on and on about nonsense, and insult or speak at others in anger, a ripple of negative energy is emitted.  Choose silence instead.  Remember the old addage, “If you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all”.

What I’m reading…A Vagabond Song

My lovely 91-year-old grandmother recently fell, breaking her hip and landing in the hospital for surgery and then rehab.  Looking out of her upstate NY hospital room window this week, she watched as the leaves began to change colors and float from the trees.  She recalled a poem she adored from the 6th grade.  She remembered just the first line, “There is something in the Autumn that is native to my blood.”  I learned then that she and I both share a love of the fall.  We googled it and the beautiful words below, from a 16th century poet, are what we found.

 

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood—
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.
The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry
Of bugles going by.
And my lonely spirit thrills
To see the frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills.

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;
We must rise and follow her,
When from every hill of flame
She calls and calls each vagabond by name.

A Vagabond Song
by Bliss Carman

Oriah says…

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

My home practice…once upon a headstand

My first real yoga “injury” happened earlier this year in a headstand (sirsasana I).

Iyengar’s headstand

I had just started practicing the posture in the middle of the room, so when my teacher cued the pose in class, I was excited for more practice.  I was a few breaths in when I lost my balance and almost fell over to the left.  I caught myself, but immediately felt a strong pain from the left side of my neck down the shoulder and back into my shoulder blade.  I realized I was wearing my bangs in a tiny hair clip on the top of my head, which may have contributed to the loss of balance.  That was the first mistake.  The second mistake was probably catching my fall.  According to Iyengar, if you feel you are about to fall from a headstand you should let go:

One should remember to loosen the interlocked fingers, relax, go limp and flex the knees. Then one will just roll over and smile.

But, I didn’t want to fall in a yoga class; my ego told me that I am a yoga teacher and, therefore, should not fall in front of others.

The mistakes continued.

I stayed up until we were cued to come down and take child’s pose.  It hurt…a lot. Later in the class, we were cued into another headstand variation (sirsasana II), where we played with some fancy garudasana leg variations, and I did it.  After class, I could not turn my head to the left or bring my ear to my shoulder.  I applied heat for a few days, got a bunch of massages, and did all of the neck and shoulder stretches I knew, but I was still sneaking in a few painful headstands at home. (My ego didn’t want to “lose” its headstand practice!)  It took a week or so and the stiffness lessened, but the pain and restricted range of motion did not.  Literally 4 months later, with little improvement, I told a physical therapist yoga friend about it.  That was my turning point.  (Thank you Lindsay!!!) She identified the muscle- the levator scapulae.

And showed me the stretch for it- tip head down and to the side, place opposite hand behind back, use hand of same side to give added stretch.

She also suggested I continue applying heat- even this number of months later.  And, no more sneaking in headstands.  I took the advice and used the time off from headstand to work on pinca mayurasana (forearm stand) and actually study up on headstand.  I found varied opinions on how much weight to actually bear on the head and where exactly to balance.  So we will all have to form our own opinions about that.  But, here is an explanation of how to find the crown of the head that made the most sense to me.

The crown of the head can be found by placing the right palm of the hand on the forehead and allowing the fingers to spread over the crown of the head, where the tip of the middle finger lands is basically the crown of the head. This point should line up with the ears as well.

Jivamukti Yoga Center

Last week, I literally woke up one morning and the pain was gone.  I had full range of motion.  So, after over a month of dedicated time off from headstand, I decided to give it a try again- putting to use all of my new knowledge along with my new core and upper body strength from forearm stand.  It felt better and more stable then any other headstand I had ever done before.  I may continue to experience occasional tension and tightness in my neck and will continue to stretch and heat when needed, but I will not approach headstand the same way ever again.

Here are some tips and my new opinions on sirsasana I:

  • Make sure your hair is not going to threaten your balance.  Lower your ponytail and/or remove any hair accessories from the top of your head when preparing to take the posture.
  •  If you cannot hold dolphin pose comfortably for 5 breaths, while shortening the distance between feet and elbows, IN MY OPINION, you are probably not yet strong enough in the upper body for sirsasana I.  I just feel that strength in the upper body must be developed to avoid excessive weight, stress and injury to the neck.  I found that working with dolphin and forearm stand helped me find that strength.
  • NO hopping, skipping, or jumping up into headstand!  Learn to enter the posture by walking your feet close enough to your elbows that bringing one, then both, knees into the chest feels like floating.  Hold- and then straighten the legs.  I didn’t classify the way I was practicing (lifting 1 leg, making an “L” by raising the 2nd leg, and then joining the legs) as kicking up, but I realized that I was actually hopping into the “L”.  That meant that I was using momentum, not core, to find the pose.  I also did a lot of “teeter-tottering” in my headstand, constantly catching my balance by shifting weight between my wrists and elbows.  Dolphin plank is great at firing up the core and building strength.
  • Don’t rush.  Pause and breath in each stage of the pose, use your breath to gauge your readiness to move further.  There are no benefits to getting into headstand today vs. next week, month, or year.  Build strength first and enjoy the pose safely.
  • Know your practice.  Know that you don’t have to do everything the teacher cues.  Know that taking breaks or choosing not to practice a posture one day because your body is not feeling it is also yoga.  Know that pain is different from sensation and is your body’s way of telling you to STOP.

There has been a lot of controversy in the press about headstand.  You have to make your own decision to practice it or not.  But, if you choose to…please make sure you are ready.  I realize today that I was not.  But I am now.

From the Daily Doodle

If the chakras could speak…

What are the chakras?

The word chakra is Sanskrit for wheel.  The chakras are wheel-like spinning energy centers in the subtle body.  The 7 main chakras are aligned along the spinal column. It is believed that blocked energy in the chakras  leads to imbalance and illness (physiological, psychological, emotional, and spiritual) so it’s important to keep this energy flowing freely by practicing yoga, meditation, and eating a healthy diet.  Each of the chakras are associated with different colors, shapes, body parts and glands, senses, states of mind and emotion, elements, mantras, and much more.

If the chakras could speak, here’s who they might be quoting…

Muladhara (root) chakra

And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.

Confucius

Svadhisthana (sacral) chakra

Emotion always has its roots in the unconscious and manifests itself in the body.

Irene Claremont de Castillejo

Manipura (solar plexus) chakra

Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.

Seneca

Anahata (heart) chakra

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Dalai Lama

Vishuddha (throat) chakra

If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.

Mark Twain

Ajna (third eye) chakra

Trust yourself.  You know more than you think you do.

Benjamin Spock

Sahasrara (crown) chakra

It is only when we silent the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts.

K.T. Jong

To learn more about the chakras, go here or read this.