So What About That Music in Your Yoga Class? Some Thoughts.

Krishna Das
Krishna Das, an oft-heard voice in yoga playlists!

If you’ve taken a class with me, you know that there’s always a playlist. It’s a big part of my weekly class planning, and I put a lot of resources into selecting songs that I think might speak to a soul, or bring a smile to a face. I love the juxtaposition of music from different genres and the way that a lyric can surprise you when heard in a different venue. I’ve found lessons in the songs themselves, sometimes, and it’s fun to theme classes in that way.

There are lots of challenges that go along with playlists. Sometimes I may have to detour or go off-course with the “planned” sequence- and the music just becomes inappropriate. Or the students that show up may not be the ideal audience for the list you’d planned. Even worse: sometimes the playlist just doesn’t “gel” with the class. Not to mention that the iPod may go dead unexpectedly, or you have the dang thing on shuffle, or you turned on “repeat” and the same Maneesh De Moor song has been playing for the last TWENTY minutes (“Jeez, this is a long song…”). Whoops. And don’t get me started on the @$%$@ volume.

There are also issues of taste, age, and religion to take into consideration. I have a lot of Hindu-inspired music that I really love. I also have a few that are, if you listen carefully, Christian in message. And although I believe you can enjoy my classes regardless of your religion, if you catch the wrong person on the wrong day, you may just turn them off to what should be an amazing experience. I played Tom Jones’ “You Can Leave Your Hat On” the other day in class, just for fun, and it made me a bit nervous. Really! Have you listened to those lyrics? No more Tom Jones. I can’t take the stress.

The truth is, sometimes I’d really rather not play any music at all. Or, I’d rather it be so neutral and low-key that it’s almost white noise. There are moments in any practice- a quiet forward fold, a juicy twist- where the music of your breath, and the breath of those around you- is like a hushed symphony. Imagine Tom Jones bleating “Baby, take off your shoes!” just then. I’m cringing.

Yoga Spy wrote a great article a few years ago outlining the “trouble” with music in a yoga class. If you have a minute, it’s worth a read, but it essentially comes down to the author’s closing argument. “Yoga,” she says, “is meant to wean us from the sensory pleasures. Can we align pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, with that oh-so-cool class playlist?” In a follow-up post, she suggests that music can be a way of disassociating from the physical or mental strain of a challenging asana practice. Ouch.

One of the most beautiful “side effects” of yoga is that it teaches you to tune in, to be present to your experience. To learn to live with discomfort. To learn to recognize grasping and aversion, to understand impermanence. Lessons on the mat seep into your daily life until you can’t help but change your way of reacting to the world. How can one be open to the still voice within if Tom Jones, or Pearl Jam, or even Krishna Das is filling the doors of perception?

I’m really drawn to this YouTube video of Maty Ezraty. She’s an iconic teacher trainer. I have a lot of respect for her opinion. She is known for asking her students,  “Do you want to be a good teacher, or do you want to be a popular teacher?” Here’s an excerpt:

“The public kind of directs people in a certain way. People (teachers) want to walk into classes and make a living… and people don’t want to hear that their elbows aren’t straight, they don’t want to hear that they need to work their upper back, they don’t want to hear that they aren’t ready for this pose, and they need to take the easier one… and so being popular, you just give them what they want. Put on the music they want, you know, don’t give them all the instructions… That’s how we can get popular, that way, just taking the easy route. If you want to be a really good teacher, and figure out how you’re going to teach yoga to people, you know, teach them yoga, the essence of it, the truth of it, how to be kind to themselves, maybe pull them back, maybe not always put the music on, because when the music is on, their mind identifies with the music, and it doesn’t really go in, you don’t really listen to what’s going on in there, and it’s not really pleasant always to listen to what’s going on in there, and that’s the yoga, is dealing with that, seeing it, to get free of it.” 

I couldn’t agree more with Maty, or with Yoga Spy. And yet, here I am- playing music in my classes. Have I sold myself out? Do I just want to be a popular teacher? I’m choosing to believe that there is more to me than that.

For my own practice at home- I don’t use music. But as a teacher, I want to bring as many people as I can into the yoga community. I believe that even with the sometimes-nuisance of music in a class, students can experience the benefits of yoga- not just the physical benefits, like increased flexibility, lowered stress, or a cuter booty, but the mental and (yes, I’m going to say it) spiritual aspects as well. A skillful teacher (which I hope to someday be) can guide her students in this direction, if they want to hear the message. It’s crucial, though, that the music not be intrusive, or jarring, or distracting. It should be appropriate, not too loud, and not offensive. Yeah, I have fallen down on these a few times- but I’m not ready to let go of the music. Not as long as it gives people a reason to enjoy class. The other benefits will seep in, regardless.

And lest I sound too gloomy, darnit, music doesn’t have to be just a necessary evil. Good music can be poetry, a tonic for your troubled soul. When choosing playlists, I look for positive messages- or songs that express the human experience- or songs that I can relate to a dharma talk. It sounds a bit grandiose when I put it into words, but I really do my humble best to create an experience for the class.

So that’s my official sort of on-the-fence position on the music in yoga class issue. As we know, though- things are impermanent. Ask me again in a year, and let’s see where I stand.

What’s your take on music in yoga classes? Love it? Hate it? Picky about the genre? I’d love to hear some opinions.

Beginner’s Guide to Triangle Pose, or, Stop Worrying About Putting Your Hand on the Floor

 

Triangle Pose
This beautiful rendition of Triangle Pose is from http://kristinmcgee.com.

Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana) seems, at first glance, to be pretty easy. Legs straight, check, bend to the side, check, one arm up, check, other arm down to the ground, right, good to go!…  Not so fast, yoga stud.  Let’s look at it more closely.

There are many ways to do Triangle (at least as many as there are yoga styles!) and in some schools, it’s important that you be able to get your hand to the floor, or to your foot. But if you do that, you may be missing out on some of the other actions of the pose. For today, let go of that “goal,” and think about some other actions instead.

1. Come into Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana 2) with the right leg forward. Point your right toes straight ahead, toward the front of the mat. Point your back toes toward the left front corner of the mat. If your mat were a clock, the right foot is pointing to 12:00, and the left foot is pointing to 10:00 or 11:00.  Once in the pose, check your alignment. Your shoulders are more-or-less square to the long side of your mat. Your hips are also more-or-less square to the long side of your mat. It’s possible they are less, rather than more. That’s okay- over time this may shift, but keep working in that direction.

2. Slowly begin to straighten the right leg. Feel your left hip reaching out directly behind you (pointing toward 6:00 on the mat-clock!). Let your shoulders be as square as you can to the long side of the mat.

3. Now, reach forward with your right arm, leaning out over the straight right leg. Let your shoulders be as square as you can to the long side of the mat. Feel both sides of your torso stretched and long. When you can’t reach any further forward, drop the right hand down to your right leg, and float the left hand up to the sky.

4. Let go of the ego’s need to touch the floor, or your toes, with that right hand. If you have a block, you can place it to the inside of the right leg and rest the hand there. Alternately, you can simply let the hand rest on the leg, but do your best not to let it be a kickstand. If you are tempted, rest the back of your hand against the leg, rather than the palm. As you grow stronger, your core, rather than your arm or your leg, will hold you in place here.

5. Refine the pose. For those with pain in the SI joint, it is important to move the pelvis as one unit, so be careful with this next cue- roll the left hip open so that you can begin to re-square the hips toward the long side of the mat. This is challenging. It will probably feel like nothing much is happening. Over time, as your practice develops, you will begin to notice a shift in this area. Check your ego, though. Don’t get so hung up on this particular point that you lose sight of the others.  It’s possible to injure yourself by muscling through this action. Invite a soft suggestion of rolling the hip open, and then move on.

6. Time to check in with the extended leg. For safety, you want a subtle, almost-invisible micro-bend here. Press down through the right big toe, and lift up on the right kneecap (flexing the quad muscles). This will keep you from hyper-extending through the right leg. For some folks, tightness in the hamstring may require that they have more than a micro-bend in the front knee- that’s fine. Let go of a mental image of what the pose “should” look like. You’re not moving toward a destination here, but experiencing the pose as it is for you today.

6. Resist the urge to drop your hand any lower. Check in with both sides of your torso. You should feel a stretch, intense through the left side body, but also length, rather than compression, through the right side body. Firm your belly just a bit- almost as though you were about to do a crunch. Now, it’s hard to tell, but your butt is probably sticking out a bit here. BKS Iyengar teaches this pose as though you were pressing your back against a pane of glass- and you can actually practice it against a wall to get a sense of how “flat” you are. As a beginner, as long as you are feeling length through both sides of the body, and you’re not letting your ego talk you into putting your hand lower than it needs to be- then be compassionate with yourself and feel the actions of the pose rather than worrying about the end results.

7. It’s natural that your torso will probably be facing down and to the right leg.  As your hips become more open, you will find yourself more naturally able to “square” the hips to the long side of the matt. Until that day, there will be some rotation through your spine. Feel that now: Inhale to lengthen the spine, and as you exhale, open the left ribcage and rotate it up to the sky. As you stay and breathe, cultivate a sense of spacious expansiveness through your entire torso.

8. Check in with the left hand. You may find that it will want to wing back, away from you, as though it can help leverage the opening. Give it a break- there’s no need for it to work so hard. Let it point directly up to the sky. Feel both arms pulling away from you, like extended wings.

9. Free the neck. Pull your shoulder blades down your back with a gentle shrug or two. Your gaze can be up toward your left fingertips, or if that makes your neck cranky, gaze down at your right fingers. Soften the face. Turn up the corners of your lips.

10. Listen to your body. A stretching sensation in the belly of the muscle is a good thing- sharp pain, or any sensation in the knees or low back in this posture, is NOT a good thing. Stop what you’re doing and take one of the modifications discussed above. Keep your breathing smooth and even. If the breath becomes ragged, or if you find yourself leaning on your leg to stay up, straighten a bit and come up a little higher, or take a break and exit the pose. As one of my favorite teachers says- you are not trying out for the cover of Yoga Journal. The asana is an experience to feel- not a statue to admire.

This Week’s Yoga Classes: A Look Back

Stan and Mo participating in Friday-afternoon class planning
Stan and Mo participating in Friday-afternoon class planning

I’m a bit uninspired for this week’s post- I’ve got several half-formed ideas, but nothing that’s really “ready” yet to say. So I thought I’d share with you a few moments of the past week as a newbie “full-time” teacher:

  • Music Challenge #1: Accidentally had playlist on shuffle. Again. Found ourselves listening to MC Yogi’s Shanti (Peace Out) during the first sun salutation. Quick dash to the iPhone…
  • Music Challenge #2: Made a playlist before listening to all the songs all the way through. Some of that Icelanding post-rock stuff is a little dark. Oops. As we made our way through a warm-up cat-cow, I could feel the mood around me growing heavier and more suicidal. ARGH! Another quick dash to the iPhone for something a little fluffier.
  • Not Even a Challenge, But a Music Flop: Created a playlist with some big band music, some swing music, a little jazz, and a remix of a song called “Fried Neckbones and Some Homefries.” I’m pretty sure most people pretty much despised it, but I did hear afterward that at least one person enjoyed it (no, I’m not counting myself. For my part, I never want to hear “The Girl From Ipanema” again).
  • Read a poem in class that I’m really loving: Shake The Dust by Anis Mojgani. Felt some trepidation in sharing- it felt risky- but got good feedback and handed out several copies of the text. Also got some good (helpful) criticism- slow down when you read. Noted and thanks.
  • Taught a class that I thought went pretty badly- completely forgot to bring notes on the sequence so made it up on the fly- played the wrist-slicing music- and afterward someone said to me, “That was my favorite of all the classes I’ve taken from you.” Perhaps it’s time I gave up on trying to judge the experience. Clearly you never know what someone is going to take from it.
  • Taught two really nice Yin/Restorative classes- these are always a little challenging because the mood is so… introspective. I find it hard to gauge the reaction of the students. Sometimes they look miserable- but that might be just what they need to be feeling just then. I had a vulnerable moment in class when I told them that I have found myself getting weepy in Wide-Legged Forward Fold… (don’t knock it till you’ve been there. Hips are INTENSE). As soon as I said it, I felt a little silly.  But, wait for it- this was the best moment of the week- a student came up to me after class and thanked me for validating what she has felt in the same posture. Ahhhhh! That’s what it’s all about.

So there it is. Week 2 behind me. I’m getting good at taking naps in the middle of the day so that I have energy to teach at both 7 AM and 6 PM. And I’m learning (I hope) from each mistake so that I can share more effectively this thing that I love.

“Day Off” Vegan Carrot Cookies

Still life with orchid, stuffed giraffe, and vegan carrot cookies

It has been suggested to me by some good friends and mentors that I ought to schedule time each week to have what is apparently called a “day off.” This is necessary to avoid burnout, re-charge the batteries, etc etc. I totally get it. I’m just not very good at it. I have a hard time with the concept. I was raised in a household where weekends are for cleaning, yard work, cooking, volunteering, and well, working, in an unpaid sort of way.

But, I don’t want to burn out, and I do need some down time, so I’m trying. It’s Sunday afternoon and I spent the morning doing workish stuff- taught a class, brushed and trimmed Stanley’s ridiculously long fur (an epic battle worthy of its own entry), did some laundry, and thought, now what? Naturally, my mind turned to cookies, as it so often does. Baking is such a pleasant way to spend an hour, and eating cookies no less so. Thrusting aside my weight-loss plans, I hustled to the kitchen!

The cookies of choice today were these Carrot Raisin Cookies- a super-awesome, mostly healthy-ish cookie from one of my new favorite cookbooks- Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero.  I made these cookies just last week and they were much loved by my 7 AM students (I am not above bribery) and friends. Why make them again a mere week later? One of my students gave me some nice organic carrots (I think she shares my views on bribery). Also- I’ve found that cookies are great to freeze. Cool, wrap individually in foil, and put in a freezer bag for a portion-controlled snack. 10-15 secs in the microwave and you’re in homemade cookie heaven.

Okay: I’ve veered off a bit from the authors’ original recipe (which included orange zest), but the Laurasana version appears below. Do try them, they’re soft, moist, spicy, and quite comforting. Lovely with a cup of tea, and even as a healthy snack an hour or two before you practice. Oh, and don’t worry- Stan and Mo don’t get to eat my cookies when there are raisins in them. Or if I don’t feel like sharing. But as you can see, Stan’s optimistic.

Hi, I’m Stanley, and I approve these cookies.
CARROT RAISIN SPICE COOKIES
(Adapted From Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar)
Ingredients:
1/3 cup nondairy milk (almond is nice!)
1 T ground flax seeds
1/3 C vegetable oil (I like to use peanut, grapeseed, or walnut oil)
1/3 C dark brown sugar (be flexible. Light brown or sucanat also good)
1 C sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups white whole-wheat flour (of course white is fine too)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1.25 cup finely shredded carrots, lightly packed
1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional, or sub oats)
1 cup raisins (for my version today I used dried cranberries)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease two baking sheets or line with parchment paper or silicone liner.
2. In large bowl, beat together nondairy milk, ground flax seeds, oil, brown sugar, sugar, & vanilla.
3. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg & salt.
4. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients but do not overmix. Finally, fold in coconut, walnuts (if using), and raisins. Dough will be sticky and moist.
5. Drop generous tablespoons of dough onto cookie sheets, leaving about 2 inches of space between each. For more round, pretty cookies, moisten hands with water and gently form into balls instead of dropping. Bake for 14-16 minutes until edges are brown and tops are firm. Let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for 10 minutes and then transfer to wire racks.

Yield- somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 dozen cookies, depending on how much dough you eat. No raw eggs, it’s all good!

Notes: you can vary the spices as you like. Sometimes I grate fresh ginger instead of using powdered, or add cardamom or cloves.  If you’re not a coconut fan, don’t panic- it really doesn’t taste of coconut. If I were to leave out the coconut I’d probably sub oatmeal to arrive at a similar texture.

The final product- such a nice way to spend Sunday afternoon.

Discomfort in Change

Change is uncomfortable.

 

I wasn’t going to write this because it seems a little egotistical to assume that anyone would be interested- but maybe this will help someone. And it is about yoga- the real, living yoga,  beyond unrolling the mat and doing a sun salutation. 

It’s been too long since I posted here- but I have an excuse. I wish I could say it were a really good one, like, “I’ve been too busy volunteering with orphans,” but instead it’s just a real-life one. I’ve been caught up in the middle of an uncomfortable change.

At the end of the month (June 2012), I’ll be leaving my full-time job of 11 years to begin a career as a full-time yoga instructor and part-time Virtual Assistant. I’m reallyreallyreally excited. But it’s also scary, and it’s got me feeling pretty loopy lately.

Of course I have the usual fears- Will I make enough money? What if I break my leg? What if I just plain suck? More fundamentally, though, I’ve got a bit of an identity crisis going on: who am I now that I’m shedding this role?

I’ve been this (pretty much miserable) 40-hour-a-week customer-service-cubicle-dweller for most of my adult life. I’ve tried to leave before, but I’ve been held back, I believe, by the fear of the unknown- not knowing who I am if I’m not this unhappy person. I had this vague sense of gloomy destiny that this is just how things are supposed to be- you go to work, maybe you cry in the bathroom for a while, you come home exhausted and cranky, but at least you get three weeks of vacation. Then, it’s four weeks of vacation. After a while, more promotions and more money come along and then you begin to feel trapped. Maybe (yuck) you even feel like you don’t deserve any more than this, that happiness is for those people who got the right degree, made the right financial decisions, tried harder in school… you get the idea.

So now, when I’m faced with a future where I am no longer living that life-  after 11 years- I feel as though I’ve been standing in a cage and the bottom dropped out. I’m FREE! But holy #$%, now what do I do? I’m dangling out here! Can’t go forward (any faster than I am)- can’t go back (wouldn’t want to anyway)- I’m stuck in this very uncomfortable in-between state.

Being me, I have been dealing with this crisis in all sorts of unproductive ways. Primarily junk food. You don’t want to hear about that though- instead, let’s look at what I do when I remember my yoga. Meditation! Practicing, even for 10 minutes a day, helps me to remember that there is a place (you can call it center, soul, true nature, whatever) deep down, beneath the layers of my job, my car, my family, even beneath my skin, my thoughts, my emotions, hopes and fears- where I am essentially me and everything is just fine. Zen writer Cheri Huber sums it up nicely:  “Center is the unconditionally accepting, conscious, compassionate awareness that is our authentic nature. When in center, everything is as it is and none of it is taken personally. There is nothing wrong; no loss, lack, or deprivation… From center, the world is exactly the same as always, there’s just nothing wrong.”

So I’m hanging in there. In three more days, I’ll be past this part of the crisis… and maybe then I can get back to blogging more productively about yoga.

“Do or Do Not: There is No Try.”

Wise Jedi (and yogi?) Yoda offers advice that transcends time, space, & your feelings about science fiction.

As modern yogis, sometimes we find inspiration in unusual places. So: Happy (belated) Star Wars Day!*

Have you ever felt that, despite your best efforts, your commitments to yourself just don’t lead to the results you’re looking for? The problem may be in your self-talk. Do any of these sound familiar?

“I’ve been trying to eat more mindfully.”

“I try to practice regularly.”

“Today, I’ll try to be compassionate to others.”

What could possibly go wrong when you’re trying so hard? I’m a firm believer in the power of language. Yoda said it best:

“Do or do not. There is no try.”

-Yoda. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

When you “try”- what are you really saying? “I’ll make an attempt, but this may not work.” “I’ll put in some effort, but…”

Trying gives you an out. It’s a half-hearted way of approaching life. It has an escape-hatch built in- “Oh well, it was worth a try.”

This week, challenge yourself to stop trying and just do.

“I will eat mindfully.”

“I will practice regularly.”

“Today, I will be compassionate to others.”

Getting rid of the wishy-washy language can have a major effect.  Make the mental shift and know that even when you fail- you’re still doing. There’s nothing wrong with less-than-perfect results. What matters is your whole-hearted commitment to them.

Where have you been lacking commitment? Where can you stop “trying” today? Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

*While it may seem a bit silly to link Star Wars and yoga, I am not at all the first one to do so. See this fun art by artist Rob Osborne, and here’s an interesting piece by Steven J Rosen on the connections between Star Wars and the Gita… or, you can just Google “Yoga and Star Wars” and watch the afternoon fly by. People are very creative. 

A Sad Tale of Ahimsa and Janu Sirsasana C (Or, Your Yoga Teacher is Kind of a Hypocrite)

Janu Sirsasana C- photo from http://www.sensational-yoga-poses.com

So recently I’ve been playing a bit with the Ashtanga Primary Series. It’s more like a flirtation- I’m not ready to commit to a serious Ashtanga practice.

To mix metaphors, you could even say I’m just dipping my toe in the water.

My incredibly crippled, feeble little pinkie toe.

The one that I mashed mercilessly into the ground two days in a row in an attempt to do Janu Sirsasana C.*

You see, in this version of Janu Sirsasana (“Head to Knee” pose) your bent leg is contorted so that the the sole of your foot is pressing into your opposite thigh; the heel is up in the air and your toes are pressed into the ground. It requires openness in the hip and Achilles tendon that I, apparently, do not possess. Right, ouch…

I did this posture on Saturday during my practice, and it was pretty painful. When it came time to practice again on Sunday, as we finished Janu Sirsasana B, I thought “Oh God, this isn’t going to be good.” Ignoring that wise little voice, I muscled my way into the posture- both sides- and then limped through a sad little vinyasa after to the next posture. I believe that I actually whimpered.

The next day, my pinkie toes were killing me. I could still wiggle them, but not in a happy way. I had to tell someone about my silly toe problem. I sought out a sympathetic friend.  “You’re not going to believe the ridiculous injury I gave myself this weekend,” I said, and described the series of events that led up to the mangling of my toes.

My (beloved, honest, good) friend said to me, “Wait. Isn’t this what yoga is about? Not doing this kind of thing? Isn’t that what you always say?”

“Well… yeah.”  And then I paused, and really thought about it. Yeah, I knew. I knew it was a bad idea to deliberately, manually, stub my toe. I knew that I was not practicing ahimsa– the yogic law of non-violence. But, as so often happens in a practice, I let my ego win over my good yogic sense. And until my friend called me out, I hadn’t truly internalized the lesson. I was violating the yogic law of satya– truthfulness- as well!

So, what should you take away from this? Your yoga teacher is a hypocrite? Hopefully not. Maybe, she knows whereof she speaks? Sounds better. Let’s go with that.

Seriously, I think what really struck me is that no matter how far I think I’ve come, the practice continues to teach me. I’d gotten complacent with myself (“Sure, ahimsa, right, I’m good, I don’t need to worry about that”) and I’d forgotten how to hear my own voice. Thankfully I could still hear my friend’s, reminding me (kindly) to practice what I preach.

I haven’t quite figured out what I’m going to do next week when I get to Janu Sirsasana C- but it’s going to be a lot gentler.

*Ironically, this link suggests that if you aren’t comfortably able to do this posture, that you instead work up to it by doing a pose called-  wait for it- “Toe Breaker.” Oh, okay. That sounds reasonable!

Better than Video: Capturing the Moment With Your Own Mindfulness.

Or, Six Steps to Daily Mindfulness Plus a Cool Video!

If you haven’t yet seen the Lotte Time Lapse Video, it’s possible you may now be in the minority.The video is brief- just 2 minutes and 45 seconds, but it’s become incredibly popular in the last week, with over 2.8 million views.  It was put together by Dutch father and filmmaker Frans Hofmeester to chronicle his daughter’s first 12 years in brief video clips. It’s an amazing little capsule of a life.

So what is it about this latest viral video that so captures our attention? What keeps us coming back 2.8 million times? The comments below the story voice a common thread- I love this, I wish I had done this with my children, they change so fast…

The Lotte Time Lapse Video is a beautiful example of the universal human need to grasp things as they are now- to cling to our lives as closely as possible, to avoid inevitable change. We know that our condition is impermanent. Babies become girls who become women who become old ladies… And so we make scrapbooks, take photos, check in with FB, buy commemorative plates, so that we can freeze time in whatever way possible. It’s completely natural for a parent, or even a “pet parent” (in my case) to want to capture every moment as fully or completely as we can.

Pema Chodron, in her book “When Things Fall Apart,” uses a lovely metaphor for this attachment: “We are like children building a sand castle,” she says. “We embellish it with beautiful shells… the castle is ours, off-limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet, despite all our attachments, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

So: there’s nothing inherently wrong with photos, or time-lapse videos, or even (ahem) framed plaster-cast paw prints. The key is not clinging to each moment desperately (“Honey! Get the camera!”)- but to capture the moment by living in it fully, presently, and completely. This is possible through the practice of mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? You’ve probably experienced it before- a moment where you became intensely aware of what you were feeling, the color of the sky, or the touch of another person’s hand. Perhaps you even realized that you were experiencing something in a more intense, awake sort of way. Meditation teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has a nice definition:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;

On purpose,
in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.”

In other words, being mindful is to purposefully bring your complete awareness to the what’s happening right now. It means not passing judgment, not running a commentary, just experiencing the experience. You won’t be able to sustain this mindful awareness for more than a brief moment- but you can touch into it as frequently as you remember to do so. See how this might lend itself to capturing a moment fully?

How do we get there? In many cases, we may find our introduction to mindfulness through a yoga practice. “Become aware of your breathing,” or “observe your reaction to the pose,” a teacher may say. In this way we learn to hear the chatter in our mind (as discussed in this post), but we also learn to return to this moment, to this breath. Of course, It’s easy to be mindful when your instructor is reminding you. How can you carry this practice off the mat?

Let’s get started with six steps to a basic mindfulness practice. 

  • Begin by setting a goal for yourself of 5 or 10 times per day to start- where you will be completely mindful and present in the moment.
  • Create touchstones for yourself- hang up a special image or a phrase (ideas: “be here now,” or “aware”) where you will see it and be reminded to become aware. Your bathroom mirror, the kitchen, your computer monitor, the visor in your car might all be good places for you. You could even use technology, setting reminders on your smartphone.
  • Use these touchstones as cues. When you see your image, or word, draw in a mindful breath. You may say to yourself, “I am breathing in.” Use your senses completely. What are you seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, feeling? Are there emotions or thoughts present? Let your mind’s touch be light. When you lose the awareness, let it go and move on. There’s no need to cling to that mindful attention- it will be there again when you are ready.
  • Throughout the day, as often as you can, bring mindfulness to your interactions with others. At work, when you’re talking to a co-worker, turn away from your computer or your desk. Look in their eyes and engage completely. While on the phone,  close your eyes and really listen to the other person’s voice.  When talking to a loved one, turn away from what you’re doing and give them your full attention. You’ll find the quality of your interaction increases dramatically.
  • Resist the temptation to multi-task. If you are eating, put away the computer, book, phone, and bring your awareness to each bite. If you’re washing the dishes, really just wash the dishes. Unless you need to really look at it, try making a habit of turning your phone over on your desk so that you are not tempted to look at it every time it vibrates or makes a noise. The Facebook message can wait.
  • Be compassionate with yourself as you practice. Remember the goal is not to judge, but simply to notice. If your mindfulness attempts are frustrating, or if you catch yourself finishing off a bag of chips while watching TV- just tune back in. Be aware in that moment, and notice your reactions. This is mindfulness too.

It takes consistent practice, but mindfulness can become a natural part of your daily life. So build your sandcastles, take some pictures. Maybe even a time-lapse video! More importantly: don’t forget to smell the salt air, and feel the sand under your fingers.  In this way, you may find a way to, as Pema says, “enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

Titanic Yoga: Your Ship Is Sinking

Titanic Wreck by Ken Marshall- http://www.titanicuniverse.com/

Today marked the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. This isn’t the kind of thing I would normally know about. However, due to a silly turn of events (forgot to charge phone last night; had to save battery and so chose not to listen to music on iPhone on way to class, therefore turned on radio) I happened to catch part of Bob Edwards’ (NPR Morning Edition) interview with the author of the book Unsinkable: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic by Daniel Allen Butler

The bit I heard was pretty interesting. But what really caught my attention was just a tiny snippet I heard just as I pulled in to the parking spot at the studio. The author commented that many of the passengers aboard the ship refused to believe that it would sink because they had been told so often that it was “unsinkable.”

While I’m sure these passengers quickly came to terms with the inevitable sinkability of the vessel, it struck me as an interesting snapshot of the human experience from 100 years ago. How often in my life have I chosen to believe what I was told- or what I wanted, intellectually, to believe, rather than what my own senses were telling me? The “ego mind”often has much to say that the “body mind” or “gut feeling” would contradict, if we would just listen. On the mat- if you’ve ever injured yourself by pushing a little too far in a pose, you know what I’m talking about. Off the mat? Ugh. Don’t get me started- if you’ve ever pursued a bad relationship even when your heart was telling you it was trouble, you know what I mean.

This week in my practice- on and off the mat- my intention is to listen to my instinct, to my gut, to what my senses are experiencing. With any luck, I can dodge an iceberg- or at least be aware of the collision.

How to Establish (and Maintain) a Home Yoga Practice: A Practical Guide

Your furry friends may be quite helpful in your practice at home.

This guide comes from my own efforts, some more successful than others, in putting together a home yoga practice. Like anything worth doing, it is a bit of work- but you’ll love the benefits. Enjoy!

1. Create your space. The first step in establishing a home practice is to work out the logistics- where can you comfortably practice? You may need to exercise some creativity and move furniture to make it happen. Ideally, it’ll be a place in your home that is quiet and free of distractions. If it’s a space that you can dedicate to the practice- even better. Add a little decor to make it special for you. A meaningful knick-knack, flowers, candles- whatever makes it your sacred space. However, if this is not a possibility for you, give yourself permission to make it special on the fly as you unroll your mat- remembering that this is your time to connect with your innermost self. (Also: bonus karma points, you can pat yourself on the back for not needing things like candles and flowers to make your practice space sacred. Nice job!)

Props ‘n’ stuff: Make sure you have a decent mat. You may not want to spend a lot of money right off the bat on a Manduka or Jade mat (both of which I do recommend, when you’re ready to make a long-term commitment) but please make sure that you don’t hate your mat- if you’re slipping, or it’s stinky, or it hurts- spend a little more on a better one. Props such as blocks, bolsters, and a strap are also great, but you can live without them for a while if needed. Have a clock or a timer handy. I’m also a fan of having a portable iPhone speaker/dock in your practice space so you can play music or listen to a podcast. But DO turn on Airplane mode- you don’t want to get a phone call or text in the middle of your practice.

2. Now that you’ve established your practice space, it’s time to Create a Structure. Part of the charm of going to a studio or a class at a gym is that this part of the work is already done for you- you just have to show up. You can do this for yourself, and set yourself up for success, with just a bit of initial planning. Look at your calendar- when can you expect yourself to practice, and for how long? Give yourself a reasonable schedule to start- maybe 1-2 times per week for 30 minutes. While you may want to establish a vigorous daily practice, setting your expectations too high at the beginning may lead to frustration, disappointment, or burnout. Commit the time to yourself as you would to your partner, your employer, or your children- write it in your planner, schedule it in your phone, and then show up. Once a week (I like Sundays, just because) you can re-evaluate the plan for the following week.

While you’re writing, make a list of the positive benefits of yoga, and why you want to make it a part of your life. Your list might include stress management, strength-building, greater health, increased flexibility, a closer connection to your inner self, or even just that you deserve to do something for YOU. It might feel a little silly to write these things down- but please do it anyway. Seeing these things in black and white can be a tremendous motivator. If it’s practical, place this list where you can see it frequently and be reminded of your commitment- your bathroom mirror, your fridge, whatever works for you.

When creating your structure, it’s also important to decide how you will practice. You may  want to listen to a podcast one day, and focus on hip openers another day (Don’t panic! There’s more on “what to do” below). Whatever you decide, make that part of your schedule and your commitment. If you show up to practice and don’t know what to do, it’s easy to walk away. Having a format to follow will give you a greater chance of success at sticking with it.

3. Figure Out What To Do. When I first started my own away-from-the-studio time, this was the hardest for me- I wanted so badly for my home practice to be a beautiful 90 minute class that challenged and invigorated and taught me new things about myself… and yet I had no idea how to make that happen. Luckily, we live in the Internet age. Give yourself permission to use technology to your advantage:

  • Podcasts: There are some awesome (free) podcasts available on iTunes- you may have to listen to a few before you find one that speaks to you, but the price is absolutely right. I can recommend Elsie’s Yoga Kula and Dave Farmar– they’re both pretty great at cueing, so you’re able to follow along without a visual.
  • Streaming video online sites: these work well if you have a laptop or iPad- a friend of mine uses Do Yoga With Me, which is free. There are some great podcasts/videos available from Yoga Journal at no charge as well. If you don’t mind paying, I’m a fan of YogaGlo– it’s reasonably priced and boasts some big names for high-quality instruction. There are many, many more sites, and most of them are pretty cheap to try out. I’ve found that I can learn something from even my least favorite class.
  • Books, flashcards, magazines- Yoga Journal and Yoga International both offer at-home sequences as part of their magazine, and that’s a great starting point. There are all kinds of books available- and if you’ve got a library card, even better!
  • DVDs- I started my own yoga practice with DVDs, and there are a lot of great titles out there to choose from. This is a little more of an investment, and if you are bored by repetition, may not be the way to go- but if you’re looking for a structured practice, it may work for you.
Over time, with consistency, you’ll begin to tune in to your inner teacher, discovering that you can practice without these tools. You may come to your mat and find that your body’s craving a certain pose, or sequence- or maybe just some deep breaths. This is a good thing, and something to enjoy- but until it happens, allow yourself to use whatever means necessary to help you.
One last note: when crunched for time, it may be tempting to skip Savasana or a resting pose- please make sure that you include at least 5 minutes at the end of your time in order to absorb the benefits of the practice. Cut something else if you have to, but this is really important. Really.

4. Be Kind to Yourself. A few notes on compassion:

  • So you wanted to practice for 90 minutes but you got up late and now you only have 30- don’t beat yourself up about it. Treat yourself as you would your best friend- give yourself credit for showing up at all. Maybe you got to your mat and your iPhone wasn’t charged so you couldn’t listen to the podcast and all you could think of doing was a few Sun Salutations and then you got kind of frustrated and laid down in Savasana for a while- that’s okay. That’s yoga too. You showed up. Nice job.
  • If, like some people I know… (okay, I’m talking about myself)… you tend to over-do: please, listen to your body. If you’ve done three challenging practices in a row over the past three days- your body needs time to recuperate. Take a day off or find a more restorative/Yin sequence.
  • If, like some other people I know… (yep, still talking about myself)… you are capable of talking yourself out of your scheduled practice for whatever reason- be kind to yourself by at least giving yourself the chance to practice. A wonderful friend of mine once introduced me to the 10-minute concept. If you think you’re too tired, or you just don’t want to do something, promise yourself you’ll try for at least 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, let yourself give up, if you still want to. Spoiler alert: you probably won’t.
  • Reward yourself: give yourself occasional pats on the back for sticking with your plan. After a milestone (a month, two months, whatever) treat yourself to something special. Maybe a new outfit (I’m looking at you, be present) or a new mat- or a trip to your favorite studio. It’s possible you don’t need motivation in this regard- bonus karma points for you again! But, for the rest of us, when starting a new habit, rewards can be a great motivator.

5. Invest in the (at-least-occasional) class with a certified teacher. Full disclosure: I am a yoga teacher, but I promise this is not completely self-serving. Yoga, like any physical discipline, can lead to injury if not practiced properly. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do it on your own at all- there is tremendous benefit in a consistent home practice. However, the experience of receiving personalized cues, adjustments, and assists is invaluable to guide you in practicing safely. Additionally, it saves time in un-learning unproductive habits. (I’m still struggling with a little headstand tic I created for myself several years ago).

Find a good studio with a teacher who will give mindful adjustments and detailed cues. The best teachers will also be happy to talk to you about any concerns or problems you may be experiencing in your home practice, so this is a great opportunity to get individualized advice.

Finally, from a social aspect- many students also find that it is invigorating to supplement their home practice with classroom time. Connecting with community is an important part of the yoga experience, and not easily replicated online.

If you’re looking for more reading on this topic, I recommend two great articles that you may find helpful: Kara-Leah Grant’s Elephant Journal piece on “10 Tips & Tricks for Establishing a Regular Home Yoga Practice”, and Judith Hanson Lasater’s “Bring Your Practice Home” on YogaJournal.com.

I’d love to hear from you about your own challenges or experiences with your home practice- please email me or leave a comment below.