Week #3, Yama #3: Asteya- You’re Stealing More Than You Think

And here we are with Asteya, the 3rd of Patanjali’s Yamas. In case you’d like a quick review, here’s #1- Ahimsa and here is #2, Satya (with a follow-up here).

(Complete and total just random by-the-way: I can’t decide if I should be capitalizing these guys or not, so I’m sort of sticking with not-capitalizing them except in the first paragraph, which makes, I know, no sense whatsoever. If you have thoughts about whether or not yamas should be capitalized, please leave a comment or drop me an email.)

It’s been quite an interesting practice bringing the yamas to life in my classes. I (selfishly) am enjoying the research I do to understand other people’s “takes” on the moral laws; it gives me ideas and it also gives me perspective on my own actions. This week, as I examined non-stealing, I found myself “stealing” several times.

No, I haven’t been shoplifting Yogitoes or ToeSox or anything like that. I manage to keep my kleptomania under control pretty nicely. It’s the less tangible “stealing” that’s a problem for me… and I’m thinking, maybe for you too.

You see, asteya means taking anything that is not freely offered. 

This week I took some granola from a friend without asking her- see, I knew she’d say I could have some, so that’s okay, right? Yeah, not really. If I put myself in her shoes- and she was really hungry because she hadn’t eaten breakfast- I might feel a teensy bit resentful about that.

This week I also found a book that I forgot to return to a friend. He asked me a few weeks ago if I had ever given it back. I was pretty sure I had, so I said “Yes.” Naturally, I found it this week as I was cleaning. Of course I’m going to give it back to him, and he won’t be upset- but I stole from him, nonetheless. I stole his time with the book; I stole the book itself, for a time; I stole a little bit of his trust and confidence when I said “yes” even though I was only ‘pretty sure.’

These may seem petty- but as with all of the yamas, where we draw the line is arbitrary. Once our eyes are opened, as mine were, this week, we start to think about our actions in a new light.

Are you guilty of any of the following thefts? Can you identify what is being “stolen” in each of these scenarios? Answers at the bottom of the post.

  1. Parking in the “15 minute parking” when you know you’re going to be there for more than 15 minutes.
  2. Downloading music without paying for it
  3. Borrowing software from a friend and installing it- or using pirated software (listen to the rationalization in your head on this one)
  4. Telling someone else’s joke or using their quote without giving them credit
  5. Tipping the server less than usual because you spent more than you planned elsewhere that week
  6. Calling a friend and keeping them on the phone while you drive home because you’re bored
  7. Getting in the 10 items-or-less lane with more than 10 items
  8. Taking more than you can eat from the buffet
  9. Calling a meeting and arriving unprepared
  10. Teaching a yoga class and 1) starting late or 2) ending late
  11. Attending a yoga class and 1) arriving late or 2) leaving early
  12. Telling a story about another person that shows them in a less-than-favorable light

These are common thefts- are you completely innocent?

I’m going to commit another sort-of theft here- in my research on asteya, I found an interesting concept that I’d love to quote directly or link to, if I could find it (if you know who said it or where it is, please let me know so I can give credit). The basic idea was, when we steal, we’re making a choice: we care more about the outcome of our actions than we do about the collateral damage. For example, I’ll take the last cookie in the box because it is more important to me to enjoy the cookie than it is to let my husband have it.*

Or, let’s look at asteya from another angle. Gandhi said, ” We are not always aware of our real needs, and most of us improperly multiply our wants, and thus unconsciously make thieves out of ourselves.” The practice of yoga allows us to fine-tune our “needs” vs. “wants” thinking so that we can better understand what we really need. 

Without that finer understanding, we are prey to the common fear that there is just not enough for everyone. Not enough cookies- not enough jobs- not enough money, or time, or friendship. We become jealous and fearful and grabby.

A physical practice to counter this fear is to bring more of a grounding element to our asana. You can easily add this element to your practice by doing the following:

  • Take time for child’s pose. Bring the forehead to the earth, or a block or blanket if needed, and allow your exhales to invite a sense of dropping down, or melting into the earth. Take several deep breaths here- slow down each breath as much as you can- and feel the security of knowing you are completely supported.
  • In Tadasana, Mountain pose, bring the feet together, or keep them hip width apart, with the toes slightly closer together than the heels. Have the outside edges of the feet parallel to the long edges of your mat. Close your eyes and feel the weight distribute evenly between all four corners of your feet. Lift your toes and observe the sensations there.
  • During standing postures, close eyes, if possible, and press down as evenly as you can through all corners of the feet.
  • Notice how much strength you can draw up from the earth. Practice isometrically drawing your front foot toward the back and the back foot toward the front- as though you were trying to wrinkle the mat between the two feet! This will draw up energy from your feet to the pelvic floor, up through the belly and spinal column, and to the crown of your head.
  • In postures where one hand can touch the earth or a block- Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose)- notice how one additional limb on the floor, or point of contact, can re-stabilize and re-ground you.
  • Drishti- use the gaze as an additional grounding element in your practice. Look down at the earth and allow the features of your face to soften, as though gazing at someone you love.

Reminding ourselves that we are safe, secure, and grounded, is a lovely way to trust in abundance in the universe. Whether this is, for you, a trust in the natural order of things, or in a higher power, is your choice.

Rolf Gates, in his book Meditations From the Mat, says it well:

” An Alcoholics Anonymous text says, ‘Either God is or he is not.’ Each theft, each time we ‘forget’ to return something we’ve borrowed, each moment we give in to the impulse to covet or to be jealous, we are saying, ‘My God is not.’ To practice asteya, we must abandon ourselves to the care of the universe. We must be willing to give up all we have for the one true thing. We must say in each moment, with each thought, word, and deed, ‘My God is.’”

Answer Code: Who’s the victim?

  1. Parking in the “15 minute parking” when you know you’re going to be there for more than 15 minutes- steals the space from someone who needs it
  2. Downloading music without paying for it- steals from the artist and anyone else who would benefit.
  3. Borrowing software from a friend and installing it- or using pirated software (listen to the rationalization in your head on this one)- steals from the manufacturer, from the employees of the manufacturer, and from anyone else who would benefit.
  4. Telling someone else’s joke or using their quote without giving them credit- steals their opportunity to be respected, promoted, etc.
  5. Tipping the server less than usual because you spent more than you planned elsewhere that week- steals from the server.
  6. Calling a friend and keeping them on the phone while you drive home because you’re bored- I’m guilty of this. It steals their TIME.
  7. Getting in the 10 items-or-less lane with more than 10 items- steals the time (and sometimes, the sanity :)) of the others in line.
  8. Taking more than you can eat from the buffet – steals the food from anyone else who could eat it.
  9. Calling a meeting and arriving unprepared- steals the time of those who are attending.
  10. Teaching a yoga class and 1) starting late or 2) ending late- steals students’ time. Steals from yourself- takes the students’ respect away.
  11. Attending a yoga class and 1) arriving late or 2) leaving early- steals from the time of the class, if others are waiting, or if the instructor has to repeat. Leaving early- steals from yourself by not taking savasana; steals from others as it is distracting and causes them to have a harder time relaxing.
  12. Telling a story about another person that shows them in a less-than-favorable light- steals their reputation.

*This is a serial crime in my house, sad to say. Thankfully Danny is not a cookie fiend as I am. I could say, in fact, that he is a thief in the sense that he will let cookies sit for so long that they get old and moldy and we throw them away. He is depriving someone else the joy of eating that cookie. There, now I feel better. 

 

Opportunity For Honesty- Politics, Satya, and Yoga (Follow-up to Satya Post 1)

This week’s post on Satya (seen here) was really hard to write. I actually had to take a nap in the middle of writing it. Not because I was tired- but because my body put up a defense mechanism: sleepiness in the face of stress!

The fact is that I’m experiencing a problem with honesty in my life. Not that I’m a big horrible liar. But when I’ve identified a truth in my life, I feel that I need to share that, wear that, on the outside of my skin as much as I do on the inside. And when I don’t, I’m uncomfortable.

There’s something big going on that made me feel really hypocritical when writing the Satya post. It’s so big in fact, that you can’t help but hear about it, see it, be inundated with it everywhere you go.

I’m talking about the 2012 Presidential Election.

Have you seen this picture on Facebook?

Do I have to hide from your opinion in order to be your friend?

This is the post that really called me out. Because I completely agree with the sentiment- and in my case, it’s cowardice.

Here’s the truth: I have a strong (Democratic) political opinion. I very much do NOT want a President Romney in the House. I have given money to the Democratic party this year and I’d give more if I could.

But I’m a chicken, because you haven’t heard me say anything about it. There are two reasons, and neither of them are good ones.

The first is that I dislike conflict, and because (I say to myself) I do not feel that I am well-enough educated in the issues and platforms of the parties to intelligently argue my side. This is nonsense.  I am certainly as educated as many of the other folks out there spewing facts. I’ve just wanted to avoid the conversation- it’s much easier to be cozy and comfortable in my quiet little opinion.

The second issue is that I’ve been afraid of alienating people that I love and care for (and who, shockingly, don’t agree with my political views! What an educational month it’s been in that regard). Students. Fellow teachers. Friends. Politically (I’ve rationalized to myself), it’s best that I just remain quiet on the topic unless directly asked. In truth, again, I just don’t want to put us in that uncomfortable position.

So why get my yoga panties in a twist over the whole situation? Why does the concept of truth cause me to hide under the covers? Well, If I’m truly living yoga-  which I aspire to do- then don’t I have a responsibility to shine not only my truth from the inside out, but to actively work to create (what I believe is a) better society for all of us?

I’m fortunate enough to be a member of a society that allows us to choose how the country is run. My vote is as important as any of the other choices I make- and in fact, my vote will determine whether or not I am ABLE to make any of these choices in the next four years.

So yeah, there’s been a hypocrisy to my silence up to this point- maybe I wouldn’t have been saying much of anything, but my reasons for saying nothing have not been aligned with my morals.

Please note that I am not condemning anyone else for keeping their silence, on this or any other topic. We all find ourselves at different places on our journey and the step that is right for me today may not be right for you. This post is simply about my experience.

Do yoga teachers have a responsibility to act politically? Or would you rather not know? If you like, leave a comment below- please keep it respectful- temper your Satya with Ahimsa, please!

Satya Will Set Ya Free!

Have you ever told a white lie for what seemed like a good reason- and then got caught up in layer after layer of complication?

Or found yourself talking with some friends about an acquaintance in a way that you knew was unkind- and then felt bad, after, when you saw that person?

Have you ever indulged in a habit that you knew was a bad idea for you- and then felt awful afterward?

Yeah, me too.

“That which is false troubles the heart, but truth brings joyous tranquility” -Rumi 

Right on, Rumi. It doesn’t feel good when we’re false in thought, word or deed. As always, yoga has a solution. This week in class I’m exploring the second of Patanjali’s Yamas, which is satya, or truth.

A nice way to get started is through your practice on the mat. Begin to listen to your internal narrative, and question what it says. You’ll know it’s time to tune in when your emotions start to act up. If you’re feeling stressed, irritable, or unhappy, during a challenging posture, there’s a good chance you’re experiencing one of these common thoughts:

  1. “This pose sucks. Why would I even want to balance on one foot while holding my big toe?” 
  2. “This teacher doesn’t know what she’s doing. It’s her fault. She didn’t give us the right information to get us into the posture.” 
  3. “Everyone else can do it. There must be something wrong with me.” 

Other variations can include, Blaming Society, Blaming Parents, Blaming Your Job, Blaming the Guy Who Cut You Off in the Pickup Truck and Made You Late So You Had To Put Your Mat Too Close to the Wall, etc.

If you find yourself thinking any of these things, congratulations! You’ve identified a place to work. Now it’s time to decide- is your thought true? What is the reality behind this thought? What could you accurately say instead? Perhaps, “I am finding this pose challenging today” might be enough for today.

Gradually, it becomes easier to trace thoughts back to their truthful origins, and you can take the practice off the mat. In your day-to-day life, when you are feeling a strong, unpleasant emotion, stop and listen to the internal talk. What are you saying to yourself? What truth are you filtering? How do you feel when you get down to the truth?

Once you’ve learned to identify truth, you may even wish you could put the genie back in the bottle. It’s a life-changer. Now, as you talk to friends, and experience daily interactions, you’ll notice that you often say all kinds of things that you know aren’t really true. That don’t represent the true you.

Before you know it, you’ll begin to change how you speak to others, and after that, how you act, as well.

You’ll have to, you see, because by then you’ll have found that it feels so much better when you 1) think the truth and 2) speak the truth and 3) live your truth.

Or that’s where we’re headed, anyway. As always, go easy and be gentle with yourself as you practice. There’s a reason that ahimsa (non-violence) is the first of the yamas. We want to always temper our truth with the sweet touch of kindness.

How do you practice satya? What have your challenges been? Please leave a comment below- I’d love to hear from you!

Dynamic Peacefulness: Ahimsa

One of the fun bonuses of class planning is that by theming my classes, I have the opportunity to expand my own knowledge and awareness. I’m really excited about my latest cycle of themes- the Yamas, or “Restraints” of Yoga.

The Yamas, or Moral Restraints, comprise the first of the eight-limbed path of yoga (see more about the path here). This week, we’re starting with ahimsa, the first of the restraints. Ahimsa is “non-violence.”

Of course this is open to interpretation. Ahimsa might mean not murdering people, so most of us are okay on that count. But does it mean non-violence to all sentient beings? In that case, perhaps you’ve decided to avoid meat, or products that cause harm to animals. For you, the non-violence may take the form of avoiding gossip, or purchasing fair-trade coffee. You may let ahimsa decide where you spend your money, cast your vote, or invest your 401k.

How big can your ahimsa be? Where do you draw the line? I think it can almost never be big enough. It’s not just non-violence: it is the opposite of violence. It is kindness, generosity, compassion, open-hearted love. Here, read this definition:

“Ahimsa is a dynamic peacefulness that is prepared to meet all situations with a loving openness. It is the state of living free from fear.” -Alistair Shearer

Yes! Ahimsa goes beyond the neutrality of “non-violence” to suggest that we actively live in a way that embodies peace, love, and kindness. It reaches out and embraces others. It is living love.

Sounds pretty good, right? So why aren’t we doing it?

If you’re like me, maybe that’s a little scary. You’ve cultivated a careful shell to protect yourself from the outside world. You can remember 1,000 times that you were hurt by others, or by extending a kindness, and you may even feel that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

This is where the first limb of yoga (yamas) works so beautifully with the third limb of yoga- the asana practice, or the work that we do on the mat. There is a powerful, invisible connection between your physical body and the soul. Every time you learned a negative lesson, the body stored it away, an emotional pain stored in the physical body.

Through the postures, whether a slow and dreamy yin practice, or a hot and sweaty vinyasa flow, the body begins to open. It unlearns life’s sad lessons. The inner, vulnerable, bright and beautiful self is revealed. Now you can build again- learning a new openness in the shoulders, so your heart can shine brightly. You can lift the corners of your lips, and laugh a little more easily. You can move more lightly and easily in the hips and the back as you lose some of the stored tension there.

And as the body opens, the heart opens too.

You’ll find yourself more willing to talk to and share with others- more understanding of their pains- more tolerant of their needs. You’ll find that ahimsa becomes the way you want to live. The way you have to live.

Am I living love? Do I exhibit a dynamic peacefulness?* Not so much!  In fact, I often find myself in the judge’s seat, criticizing my own behavior or a perceived lack of ahimsa. This is where it’s time to turn ahimsa inward and lay off the judgement. Kindness and compassion aren’t just for others, but must be practiced internally as well.

What does ahimsa mean to you? How do you practice ahimsa?

*Typing this thought made me LOL actually 🙂 

Beyond the Mat: Patanjali, the Sutras, and the “R” word.

A long, long time ago (maybe around the third century BC), a learned guy (unless he was a girl, or more than one guy) named Patanjali (unless that’s not really the name of the dude/s who wrote it) gathered some of his culture’s wisdom into a little set of writings that we call “The Yoga Sutras.”

I feel it’s important to be a bit vague about this, as with many ancient texts: we don’t know too much about how it actually came to be, and sometimes, we even interpret things wrongly. This doesn’t mean that the Sutras aren’t really wise teachings. In fact, it’s a pretty amazing read. I just want to be clear here that there may not necessarily be anything sacred about the book itself.

If you like, you can think of the Yoga Sutras as an early self-help book. It outlines a path through which humans can achieve wholeness, enlightenment, and freedom from suffering. The path is called Yoga- which means “unity.”*

Patanjali’s Proven Path To Unified Yoga Bliss (as he might have called it, if he had a better publicist) encompasses a lot more than the physical practice. It includes the “Eight Limbs” of Yoga:

  • The Yamas- Moral Restraints (Nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, moderation, nonhoarding)
  • The Niyamas- Observances (Purity, contentment, zeal, self-study, devotion to higher power)
  • Asana- Physical Postures
  • Pranayama- Mindful Breathing
  • Pratyahara- Turning Inward 
  • Dharana- Concentration
  • Dhyana- Meditation
  • Samadhi- Union of the Self with Object of Meditation 

You can see why some of this might make folks nervous. Sounds a lot like a religion, right? Ancient texts, an ethical code, devotion to a higher power, and what the heck is this union with an object of meditation?!

Look more closely. Yoga is nondiscriminatory. Your “higher power” can be your God, Allah, Nature, Humankind. Your Object of meditation can be your deity.

Yoga is a system for purifying the body and mind to become a more whole person.  It can (and often is!) practiced concurrent with a great variety of religions. I can’t say it better than  Alistair Shearer in his introduction to The Sutras: 

“Whether we choose to practice yoga, and interpret its benefits, within the framework of a conventional set of religious beliefs is up to us… Yoga itself is neutral. It is a catalyst that allows us to grow in whichever direction is natural and life-supporting. Its methods work on the physical seat of consciousness, the nervous system, and as far as yoga is concerned, a Hindu nervous system is no different from an Islamic or agnostic one.”

Yet for many, it’s not so clear-cut, and their religion may even specifically prohibit the practice of yoga. I suggest you Google “Yoga and Christians” and settle in with a cup of tea, there’s quite a lot to read.

Many teachers- myself included- muddy the waters by incorporating bits and pieces of religion in our classes. It’s not uncommon to hear Hindu mantras in your studio (hey, 2000 years of being bedmates in India, it was bound to happen). I love kirtan music and I do incorporate aspects of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian thought regularly. While I never want to exclude anyone, or make them feel uncomfortable, my teaching stems from the filter of my own experience and beliefs. Although it would be nice if everyone loved me and my classes, I know I cannot be right teacher for everyone. That’s why there is an enormous variety of classes and teachers. Classes exist that are specifically designed to complement religions such as Christianity or Judaism. There’s even “The No Om Zone” DVD available from a teacher named Kimberly Fowler, who boasts “No chanting, no granola, and no Sanskrit.”**

I find it helpful to consider yoga as a (potentially) spiritual practice, rather than a religious one. Spirituality, to me, speaks more to the interior state of your soul and its place in the universe. One can be spiritual with, within, or without any religion.

So what if you’re not interested in spirituality with your yoga class? I’ve got no problem with you if you want to use your 6 PM Vinyasa class as a stretching practice or a place to get a good sweat on. I’m not sure you’re actually practicing Patanjali’s yoga in this case, but still, okay with me. If you come regularly, you may find that the practice begins to seep into other areas of your life. You may become curious about the morality of yoga, or want to begin a meditation practice. Before you know it, you’ve moved beyond asana into the other’s limbs.

And if you never do? There are many paths up the mountain (as they say), and Patanjali’s Eight Great Ways to Achieve Enlightenment doesn’t have to be the book that guides you there.

Thanks for reading- please feel free to share your thoughts below. I love to hear other points of view!

* (Isn’t it comforting to know that, even 2000 years ago, people felt the same uneasy aches and pains in their soul- that they didn’t feel quite whole?)

**I like all of these things. Granola is awesome and yes, I do make it myself. Sometimes I wear patchouli oil and listen to Sanskrit chants while I do it. Generally speaking though, my armpits are shaved, so I guess I‘m not really living that stereotype to its fullest. 

Even Yoga Teachers Get The Blues: A Happy Ending

When you’re feeling blue, you don’t want to move at all.

UGH.

If you’ve ever been down, depressed, unhappy for no real reason, you know how it feels: Sluggish. Heavy. Tired.  You might be snappy, cranky, irritable, annoyed, or maybe you’re crying, whining, or otherwise acting out. And the physical element is just exhausting.

I haven’t been down this particular road for a while, but today it hit me hard. At 2 PM I was sitting on the living room floor with my head on the coffee table.  There was very little in the world I wanted to do less than to drive my leaden, corpse-like body to a yoga class 45 minutes away. I wanted to get in bed and eat ice cream. I wanted to sleep until it was tomorrow. I certainly didn’t want to actively breathe and move and sweat.

I have been here before, oh so many times- I am an old hand at the pity party, the sad sack, the heavy-sighing-misery-loving-mopey-selfish behavior. Previously, I would have canceled my scheduled plans to stay home and wallow in my own emotional mud. Later, to complete the unpleasant cycle, I’d berate myself for acting this way, leading to more poor decisions, leading to more unhappiness.

But thank God, thank the Universe, thank everything, because today, this time, something was different. I remembered:

I am not my emotions.

I am not my thoughts.

This is not forever.

This is not even real. 

I am a happy person, and this unhappy feeling is impermanent.

This time, I remembered that if I could just get myself moving, I would feel better. That my mind, my soul, is like a lake: emotions and unhappy thoughts are just clouds in the water, stirred up by passing circumstances, and that until things settle, I could still dip my toes into the cool still bottom, that place of peace, calm, loving patience. That place where all the things that stirred me up are completely inconsequential.

This time, I moved. I changed my clothes. I put on makeup (yeah, I wore makeup to yoga class, I’m not that enlightened yet), I got in the car, I drove, I met my friends, we drove together, and the tightness in my chest broke up a little. By the time I was on the mat I was ready to fall into routine: knowing that if I put my feet here, and my block and blanket there, and inhale deeply, and roll my shoulders back to open my heart, there would be a medicinal effect in the breath. And yes, as always, there was.

It’s many hours later, and I’m so tired, but this post is just gratitude.

Thank you to tonight’s teacher, who spoke to my soul.

Thank you to my body, for treading the physical path with me, although I berate you and feed you poorly and don’t respect you and generally just heap anything but love on you.

Thank you to my community, my family, who show me love, support, respect and affection.

But most of all, thank you to my practice, for giving me the space to (finally) (maybe just finally begin to) learn that there is another way.

It also feels a bit like… well, maturity. Sorry it’s taken so long. (If you are an ex-boyfriend, I’m extra sorry). Essentially, I’m okay with this, as I have plenty of good company. We’re all pretty immature emotionally for a good chunk of our lives. After all, as the Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche once said, the best mantra is “OM—grow up—svaha.”

And now I’m off to bed, minus the ice cream and self-pity. Thanks again, yoga.

PS. If you’re feeling a bit blue and you can’t quite get yourself to yoga, watch this interview on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah and Michael Singer. Inspiring!

Suggested soundtrack for this post- Barry Manilow “I Made It Through The Rain.” Love you, Barry!

Hey, Athletes: Five Reasons to Add Yoga to Your Training Plan

I was inspired to write this article while creating a “Yoga For Runners, Spinners, Cross-Fitters” type class that I’ll be teaching next week. Yes, all of this has been said before- but I felt it was worth saying again. If you or someone you love is an athlete- yoga is for you.*

Photo courtesy of www. running.competitor.com.

Strength + Flexibility: While not all classes are the same, many forms of yoga can be pretty physically challenging. You may discover muscles that were previously unknown to you (such as the intercostal muscles, between the ribs). Keep practicing and you’ll find a stronger core, too. Yoga has the potential to even out the imbalances in your body caused by years of training in one particular discipline. You won’t be surprised to hear that flexibility increases, too. You may not get your feet behind your head, but you will begin to enjoy a greater range of motion, and a more balanced body.

Breath Awareness:  The physical practice of yoga (asana), along with breath practice (pranayama) have been shown to increase the effectiveness of breath function. Properly oxygenating the tissues is vital for muscle recovery. Bonus: by returning the attention again and again to the breath, you learn to become more fully present. This is a good thing- keep reading.

Increased Body Awareness: Ever feel klutzy? Like you’re always tripping over something? Yoga can help teach the body to have a better sense of itself, so “it” knows where all of “its” parts are. The fancy term for this is proprioception- and this awesome article explains it really well. Even if you’re already super-graceful, your yoga practice (with its accompanying lessons of mindfulness and moment-to-moment presence) will allow you to tune in to the subtle nuances of the body. Endorphins are amazingly delicious things, but they can often mask important signals indicating imbalance or weakness.  By learning to listen carefully to the body’s messages, you can stop injuries before they happen.

Reduced Tension, Physical and Mental: Training leads to tight, strong, muscles, which are highly specialized to do repetitive motion. Through active stretching (like Sun Salutations) and passive stretching (longer holds, think more Yin-style)- the body begins to loosen and relax. When the joints are looser, not constricted by chronically tight muscles, the body can function more efficiently and economically. You’ll out-perform your previous results.

Even more important to some is the release of mental tension. For many spinners, runners, gym junkies, etc., there is a constant underlying goal to improve, to achieve a new record, to win a race. Motivation is awesome- but when the mind is fixated on results 100% of the time, it is using valuable resources to analyze, examine, and judge each moment. In other words, the mind itself becomes like a strong, tight muscle. Yoga is a non-competitive, moment-by-moment experience that allows the practitioner to release the chronic tension that can accompany the competitive state. Regardless of the activity, we perform best when we are at ease and relaxed.

The Practice Goes With You: While I’ve used the word throughout this article to refer to a physical practice, “yoga” is not just something that we do on a mat. It means  “to yoke”, or “to join.” When you practice yoga, you’re joining together mind, body, breath and spirit. Many of my favorite yogis never enter a yoga studio- their yoga lies elsewhere, in a meditation practice, in their morning jog, painting or writing.  As an athlete, a regular on-the-mat yoga practice can be the springboard to turning your sport into your yoga.

That’s Five Reasons, So Get Out And Do It Already: Just a few things to keep in mind. Really, this is the same thing, said three different ways, but please read it anyway:

  • Save your competitive edge for your sport or physical discipline. Treat your yoga practice as therapeutic (’cause it is).
  • Check your ego at the door. Don’t worry about making the pose look a certain way.  Listen to the instructor, and listen to your body. Find a sense of bringing the “pose into your body, rather than your body into the pose” (thanks to George for this one). If all else fails, and it’s just really killing you that other people are doing crazy flexible things, remind yourself that you are way better than these other people at (fill in the blank here).
  • Ease up. You’re probably used to pushing yourself really, really hard. But on the mat, pushing yourself into the deepest possible stretch is actually counter-productive. We want to teach the muscles to loosen and relax, not tighten up even more.

If you’ve never done yoga before, check out this post about your first class. Have fun!

*This is a trick statement. Yoga is for everyone! 🙂 

There’s Nothing Wrong With You: or, How To Overcome Self-Limiting Thought Patterns

Robert Sturman's beautiful portrait of Tao Porchon-Lynch. At 93 years old, she is still practicing and teaching yoga.
Robert Sturman’s beautiful portrait of Tao Porchon-Lynch. At 93 years old, she is still practicing and teaching yoga. See more of Master Tao here: http://www.taoporchon-lynch.com or more of the amazing Robert Sturman here: http://robertsturmanstudio.com/home.html

Dear Friend, Student, Fellow Human:

There’s Nothing Wrong With You.

I mean it.

At the end of class, when I sit in the darkened room, looking out across the rows of paper-doll bodies, outwardly still and peaceful in their Savasana, I feel so much love for my fellow humans. I think:  I wish this person loved themselves as much as they deserve. I wish they didn’t feel a lack in their lives. I wish they knew how wonderful they really are.

I believe it so much that I don’t even care how hokey it sounds, or how cheesy or corny or new-age hippie you think I am. It’s true.

Why is it so hard for you to believe it? Why is it so hard for me to believe it about myself?

It’s not much of a mystery: we’re conditioned to believe that there is something wrong with us. That we need to change something in order to be good, or happy. It starts at childhood (“Don’t pick your nose”) and continues through adolescence (“You weigh 115 pounds? OMG that’s a lot”) and by the time we’re in our twenties we’re well established in the patterns of self-beratement that will follow us through our lives. Entire media empires are built on selling us products and services that will complete us, “fix” us, make us better: Tooth-whitening, breast implants, liposuction, seaweed wraps, self-help books.

Our parents, our loved ones, who started us down this path, didn’t mean to do us any harm- after all, in many cases, they love us more unconditionally than we love ourselves!- but they simply followed the formula that’s pre-programmed in the human brain:

“If I could change my circumstances, then I would be happy.”

Maybe this programming started as a survival instinct- certain things make us feel good so we want to do them. Caveman: Sex feels good, have sex, propagate species! (look, it’s my first R-rated post!). What this means to our chemical brains is that we’re always out shopping around for a better experience. Our species has internalized this so much that we’re not even happy with the body, mind, or life that we have- we think that there’s something better available, and if we could just get that something better, then we’d be happy.

Maybe you’re okay with this. You might enjoy shopping, dieting, working hard to change yourself so that you can become “better.” After all, Laura, you may be thinking, why do people do yoga? So they can become more flexible. Or more peaceful. Or happier. Isn’t this a contradiction?

Here’s the thing: yoga, and other meditative practices, can cut through the “bettering” and get down to this fact: essentially, you’re already okay. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re whole and perfect, just as you are. After a while, you can even begin to make friends with your silly mind and the little tricks it plays on you. ‘Really, mind? I’d be happier if I bought a new pair of yoga pants?’

And while there is a fun aspect to shopping, comparing, and even “self-improvement,” there’s also a whole lot of misery and drama, isn’t there? If we could break free of this cycle, how much more energy and time would we have to devote to things that really matter? Imagine that Martin Luther King Jr. thought he was too fat, or not articulate enough, to share his message with others. If he let these thoughts limit him- if he stayed home because he was having a bad hair day on August 28, 1963– what would the world have missed?

You can begin to move past your self-imposed “I’m not good enough” boundary by beginning first to gently notice:

  • Tune in to your internal dialogue. Listen for the words “should,” “if you…” and “I need to”. Don’t try to change it! Just notice.
  • When you do hear the voice of self-judgment, ask yourself two questions:
  • What is the truth behind this statement?
  • If I let go of this belief, what would that free up for me?

Be cautious, and compassionate with yourself. It’s important that as you begin to notice your “something is wrong with me” self-talk, that you not judge yourself for having these thoughts. If you do find this happening, see if you can bring a sense of humor to the situation-smile at your silly mind and its habitual tricks.

After a while of practicing “just noticing” in this way, without any conscious effort to change it, the dialogue will start to shift. You will see these thoughts as they arise, and know them as just a habit of your mind. You will find yourself more confident, happy, and radiant. You will have more to give to the people in your life- who never understood why you were limiting yourself anyway.

Because, really: there is nothing wrong with you. I know you don’t believe me today.  Someday, maybe we can make it true for ourselves.

Until then, we practice together.

With affection,

Laura

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.