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.

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.