Five Reasons to Add Yin/Restorative to Your Power Practice

Hey, Yoga Stud. Yeah, you, the one who’s doing the extra chaturangas during our child’s pose break. Handstanding your way into Tadasana on our first Surya A. Binding every posture, every chance you get. Doing three Wheel Poses while the rest of the class does Supported Bridge.

No judgies here.  I know you’ve got a totally sweet practice, and I love how strong and flexible you are. But I want to introduce you to something that can really change your practice, maybe even your life: A quieter practice of Yin or Restorative Yoga.

HEY! Hang on, don’t start backing away yet. Yes, we will be very quiet and very still for long stretches of time. No… no, there are no inversions or arm balances. Hear me out! There are a few things you need to know.

Yin and Restorative Yoga Practices are two separate systems that are often taught together. Here’s a really simplistic definition of each:

Yin Yoga postures are designed to stretch the connective tissue of the body. The focus is on long, slow holds. Props may be added for comfort, but relaxation is not the primary goal.

Restorative postures are designed to invite relaxation by supporting the body completely through the use of props (blankets, bolsters, blocks, straps, maybe a cat if you have a lazy one). Stretching is not the primary focus, although it can be part of the experience.

Many classes offered will combine aspects of the two disciplines. It is possible to experience the Yin postures in a Restorative way, and by adding soothing music, dim lighting, and perhaps aromatherapy or inspirational readings, it can be a really wonderful experience that will KNOCK YOUR TOESOX right off.

Five Top Reasons to Add Yin/Restorative to Your Power Yoga Practice! 

1. Yin Yoga increases flexibility in a whole different way. In your traditional “Flow” class,  you’re stretching the muscles through active movements. Yin postures- held as they are for longer periods of time- stretch the connective tissue of the body. See, your muscles and bones and internal organs are all shrink-wrapped with special tissues that don’t respond to the active stretching we do in other types of yoga (not even hot!). Longer holds will help you to open more deeply, cultivating stronger and more flexible joints.

 2. A quiet practice will quiet your mind. I have news for you. You are not the only person on the planet whose mind is veryveryverybusy with lots of chatter. This is the normal human condition. It may seem like only vigorous physical activity (perhaps coupled with loud pop music) can drown out the critical auctioneer in your head, but you can do better than muffling. You can find peace. Through a quiet practice of yin/restorative yoga, you’ll learn to tune in to the breath and the subtle currents of your body, and gradually, the commentary in your head will become less obnoxious.

3. Ancient Eastern medicine Yin postures stimulate the same meridian lines of the body that are worked through acupuncture and massage. Our chi (or prana, or energy, depending on your point of view) runs through the connective tissue in a complex organic communication network. By opening and clearing these passages, we can help ourselves to maintain healthier bodies.

4. Release competition. I know, you might really like competition. Sure, it is fun to work toward a goal, and to measure your progress and effort against your own previous results (or, perhaps, others’, although that’s really sort of a yoga no-no).  It is exhausting to compete. It is often narrated negatively (Why can’t you balance today, you should be able to reach the floor with that hand, that other girl is doing it, why can’t you?) and it just drains the joy out of the moment-to-moment practice that yoga is intended to be. By releasing competition and comparison through a quiet, slow practice (often done in a dark room- I find it helps not to see what your neighbor is up to), you can access the practice, and the joy of moving and breathing in your body in a whole new way.

5. Let Go of Chronic Stress. Do you have any stress in your life? How about headache, heartburn, or a tight neck, back? In her classic volume, Relax and RenewJudith Lasater explains that, physiologically, our bodies have not changed much in the last few thousand years. Our lifestyles, however, have altered dramatically. We experience stress today in ways that our ancestors never would have imagined- and yet our bodies are reacting as though there were a tiger chasing us. When faced with stress (a missed deadline, a missed opportunity, a missed mortgage payment) our heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension are elevated, and “non-essential” systems (digestion, elimination, growth and repair!) are partially shut down. For some of us, this is an almost daily occurrence. Research shows that we can counteract the effects of chronic stress by relaxing deeply.

Still not sure? Listen, I get you. Sitting still for an hour, or more might sound like absolute torture to you. I struggled with the concept for some time- swore I could never do it. But I tried it, and after a few classes, the chatter in my mind started to subside. I felt the benefits of slowing down and letting go. I saw how my joints loosened and my postures opened. And I want this for you, too!

If you’re looking for more on Yin Yoga and its fascinating benefits, here’s a nice article by Paul Grilley that sums it up nicely. Or check out Bernie Clark’s amazing site over at 

Photo credit: myyogaonline / Foter

Hey, Up Dog: Your Cobra is Showing

Friend and fellow teacher Kirsten practices Up Dog in an unlikely locale

Last month, in a sort of boot-campy mood, I challenged one of my classes to do some “Up Dog  push-ups.” I demonstrated first by showing them they could start with Cobra- lifting and lowering- and, if they felt pretty stable, they could lift all the way up into Upward Facing Dog, supporting themselves with the strength of their arms, resting on the tops of their feet, and then take the “push-ups” from there.

One of the students interrupted me (no worries, not in a rude way, it was the kind of class where questions were good). “What do you mean?” she said. “Isn’t the first one Upward-Facing Dog?” I showed her the difference again, and she tried it. “That’s hard!” she said. “I think people don’t know this.”

Well, she might be right. She’s not the first person I’ve met who had never learned the distinction.  This student is not new to yoga. She’s intelligent, she has a strong practice and is more than capable of doing upward facing dog- but she had never been properly introduced.

I heard a teacher say recently (I’m pretty sure it was the awesome Jodi Blumstein on YogaGlo, but it might have been someone else) that “Up Dog is a pose we drive through, not one we stop and visit.” It’s often done so quickly (and is so fatiguing to hold for newer students) that teachers may not stop and explain the mechanics properly. Later on, when students have the strength to hold the posture, teachers might assume that students are already comfortable/knowledgeable about it. And, let’s face it- there’s nothing very flow-y about stopping class to break down a posture, so a teacher may choose to sacrifice mechanics to art.

So, let’s correct this now with a look at Up Dog (Upward Facing Dog, aka Urdvha Mukha Svanasana), especially as it compares to Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana).

Either of these poses may be done as part of a Sun Salutation or what is called a vinyasa (the transition postures that we take as part of a flow class- typically, Chaturanga -> Up Dog/Cobra -> Down Dog.

Both Cobra and Up Dog act as a backbend. The simple difference is that in Cobra Pose, you are supporting yourself with the hips, thighs, and perhaps the belly on the floor. You may still be supporting some weight in your arms, but it is much more distributed.

In Up Dog only the very tops of the feet are touching the ground- toes are extended behind you, not curled under- and the weight of the body is supported by the strength of the arms, shoulders, and back. It also requires core strength to be able to hold the pose with integrity (so that the low back does not take an unfair share of the strain).

Before racing to your mat to try out your new understanding of Up Dog, let’s practice the upper body mechanics from a seated position.

  1. Start by sitting comfortably in your chair (enjoy it, it won’t be comfortable for long!). Now, we want to tuck the tailbone, just a tiny bit. You can find this most easily by experiencing the opposite: stick your tush out behind you like you’re showing off your cute yoga booty. Now, we want to find the opposite action- tuck the tailbone so that the tush pulls IN. There you go! Don’t go crazy with this, it’s just a slight action that will help to keep the lower back elongated as you move through the posture.
  2. Now, pull the belly up and in, creating a bit of tension there- just as though you were starting to think about doing a crunch. Imagine you’re pulling the belly tight against your spine.
  3. Next, bring your arms tight along your side body. Keeping the elbows glued to the ribs, bend the elbows 90 degrees and extend your forearms in front of you. Flex the wrists as though you were pushing something away.
  4. Keeping all of the above actions, begin to curl and open the upper back. To do this, broaden the upper chest- imagine that you wanted to draw shoulder heads back and away from the other. The center of your sternum presses forward and upward. Keep pulling your belly in and tucking the tailbone as you do this- you will notice that the low back wants to “help out” by curling for you. Instead, lift the chest and broaden the collarbone even more.
  5. Relax your face, and jaw, and smile slightly (it helps tremendously) as you breathe fully and completely. Gaze ever so slightly upward so that the neck curves naturally along with the upper back. Stay with these actions long enough to let the muscles begin to “learn” the pose, and then release.

Now we’re ready to come to the mat. Let’s start in Cobra pose- legs extend long behind you, top of the feet on the ground, toes are extended (not tucked). Initially, the hips are down. Let’s address the steps again, with just a few additions:

  1. Find the slight tuck in the tailbone. Imagine that the tailbone is pointing down to the floor.
  2. Pull the belly up and in.
  3. Squeeze elbows into ribs and look down at your hands. The pose is often taught with the hands directly under the shoulders. Do start there, and make sure that the wrists are not behind the shoulders.
  4. Press down firmly through the palms and the base of the fingers. The hands should look like they do in Down Dog. We want an external rotation of the shoulders, which you will find by squeezing the elbows tight to the ribs (Note- if you’re finding this challenging, try rotating your hands outward slightly).
  5. Find lift-off! Float the hips and belly up into the air as you begin to straighten the arms, pressing down firmly into the full palm. Be mindful that you are not rolling more onto one side of the hand than another- commonly, we roll onto the outer edge of the hand. Press down a bit more between the thumb and first finger. If you are one of those crazy noodly folks who can straighten the arms completely, be mindful not to lock them- keep a microbend in the elbow, and above all, keep the elbows squeezing to the ribs!
  6. Broaden the upper chest. Find the same actions you practiced while seated, driving the shoulder heads back with gentle persistence, at the same time drawing the tips of the shoulder blades down your back (imagine that each shoulder blade is a triangle on your back, with a point facing down. We want to squeeze those triangles down and towards each other). Keep pulling your belly in and tucking the tailbone as you do this. 
  7. Find length through each of the legs and squeeze them in toward each other- and then relax your glutes. You can find this action by tucking the tailbone even more and by trying to click the pinky toenail of each foot down to the floor.
  8. Your drishti– gazing point- will vary, depending on the style of yoga you are practicing. In some schools it is said that you must look waaaaaay up to the ceiling. Because that causes strain in my neck, I prefer to keep a more natural curve, just gazing slightly upward.
  9. Finally, it’s time to exit the posture. You could simply lie down (ahhhh!!!) or make the vinyasa transition. To do so, engage your core strongly- squeeze the belly in!- and push the hips up and back into Down Dog.

Here are some more thoughts on Up Dog.

In case of low back pain: More core strength may be needed. I would recommend sticking with Cobra as you continue to strengthen, but be sure that you are approaching it with integrity- engage the belly, tuck the tailbone, and roll the shoulders back in the same way that I suggest here for Up Dog. You should be working, not just hanging out, even in Cobra pose. And please don’t give up on Up Dog- continue to try it from time to time, especially when you are warmed up but not completely fatigued.

You might also find that toward the end of practice, the body fatigues and can no longer engage the muscles as strongly as needed to keep this pose safe (you’ll know- you’ll start to feel like you can’t pull the belly in, or the arms want to collapse). In that case, it is always preferable to take Cobra rather than run the risk of injury.

Wrist/Palm Pain/Fatigue Not every teacher might agree, but I will suggest if you are following all of the other cues in this list and you are still finding strain in the wrists or hands, that you should experiment with walking your hands forward a bit so that the weight of your body is not directly on those delicate bones.

Entering/Exiting the Pose in a Vinyasa Wondering how to achieve the graceful fluidity some yogis demonstrate as they roll over their toes through Chaturanga -> Up Dog -> Down Dog in a vinyasa? It’s all about the core (and the bandhas- more on those in a later post). As you grow stronger, you’ll find that you are able to use your core to carry you so that your toes and other body parts are merely along for the ride. Here’s a mini-guide:

  1. From Chaturanga (note- your elbows are bent at 90 degrees, not any lower, which means that your elbows and your hips are the same distance away from the floor!), keeping the hands just where they are, engage the core even more strongly and pull your torso and legs forward through your hands as you activate the key actions of Up Dog- shoulders back, heart forward, tailbone tucked, legs squeezing together. The last thing to happen is the toes roll over so the toenails click down.
  2. From Up Dog, as you engage your core and lift the hips up and back, imagine that the hips are LIFTING the legs up so that you can roll lightly up and back onto your toe tips. Keep in mind that doing this repeatedly this will ruin a good pedicure and can even cause your toenails to break, so make your choices accordingly.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Cobra. It’s an awesome backbend and sometimes it makes a lot more sense than using all of the muscular energy required by Up Dog. I think it’s important, however, to be clear that the two poses are not one and the same.

I’m grateful and appreciative of my student for asking me this important question. I hope all of you feel free to do the same in your own classes.  All the teachers that I know LOVE to talk about yoga, and answer questions about postures. Please don’t be shy to ask for clarification, or about any difficulty or challenge you’re experiencing with your own practice.

Poem: “Beannacht (Blessing)” by John O’Donohue

This week, just a little poem to share with you. It may be helpful to know that a “currach” is a type of Irish boat. The author (since deceased) wrote these lines for his mother. You can find more information on O’Donohue’s life and work at

Beannacht – For Josie

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

Learning to Let Go: Aparigraha in Action

Her only crime? That she loved (the hippo) too much.

What are you attached to?

Family, and your friends. What about possessions- your car, your house- shoes, jewelry? Yoga pants? Perhaps you’re attached to your ideas- as a Democrat, or a Republican. Or your defined image of yourself as a certain person- yogi, Christian, vegetarian.

What happens when the attachment is severed or threatened? A loved one dies. Your possessions are stolen, or broken- or you can no longer afford them. Your ideas are challenged as you discover new truths. Or you find that you can no longer sustain the image of yourself that defined you.

This, according to Buddhism,* is the cause of all human sorrow. Attachment causes us to suffer. If we become un-attached, we will cease to suffer. It’s simple. And yet so hard to do.

Aparigraha, the fifth of the yamas, is “non-grasping.” At its simplest, it invites us to let go of those possessions that we cling to. And it has a lot in common with asteya, (non-stealing), in that it asks us to trust in the abundance of the universe.

It gets a little trickier when we start dealing with non-material things. ‘What about my family,’ you may think. ‘I don’t ever want to not love people.’ Right. Aparigraha is not about becoming DE-tached, or cold. It means that you accept things as they are in the present moment- to enjoy them, to love them with a whole-hearted generosity, and then be willing to let go when you have to.

No, it’s not easy. Let’s face it, it’s not always easy to let go of material possessions, let alone a loved one.That’s why (as with any moral law) it is best to start small. We can build up to the big stuff.

So, if you’re just starting to work with the concept of non-attachment, or if you’d like to refresh yourself, here’s an exercise for you.

Find a drawer or a closet, or (if that is too overwhelming), a box that needs to be cleaned up. Look at each item with fresh eyes. Do you need it? Can someone else make better use of it? If you feel like you can’t bear to be rid of something, put it in a box and mark your calendar to revisit it in 6 months. At that point, if you haven’t used it, or thought about it during that time, you may be more willing to let it go.

You’ll find that you’re letting go of more than just stuff here. Your material possessions are symbols of the ideas and concepts that you’re clinging to, as well. Those jeans that are too small? They might represent an outdated image of yourself. If you’re reluctant to part with an item, close your eyes and look at the “suffering” that you are feeling. What are you really clinging to?

It feels good to clean up the clutter and junk in our lives. We’re freeing ourselves of things- which gives us more physical space- but we’re also cleaning up our attachments, so that we have more emotional and mental space.

This week, as I’ve talked about, written about, and examined my own relationship to aparigraha, I’ve had the opportunity to notice a few things about myself that might be true for you as well.

  1. Aparigraha in Language. “Hang on,” I say to my friend, who’s going through a tough time. “Hang in there.” Our language itself advises us to cling. Instead, if we can soften the grip and fall away a bit, the pain might be less. I am not going to start saying “Let go,” instead- but I think I’ll free myself of the clingy language.
  2. Emotion and Aparigraha– for me, defensiveness is a sign of clinging. For example: in the last few months my iPhone has been functioning less and less well, becoming frustratingly slow. Several people have suggested that I delete some of my music- do I really need to carry around 3000 + songs? I actually found myself feeling snappy and irritable toward these well-meaning folks. “NO, it’s not the music!” I said. That defensiveness even felt tight and “clingy” in my chest- a sign that something was not right.  I have since cut down on the music, and the phone does run faster again- but as I started to remove songs, I felt a bit concerned that someone might need to listen to something, like a Barry Manilow Christmas song, or the theme song to the cartoon show Hamtaro** and I won’t have it all queued up and ready to go. What’s my deal? See #3.
  3. Layers of Attachment– Why on earth do I need all of these songs?! It turns out that I  am attached to an idea of myself as someone who has an amusing or appropriate song at the ready. I hoard music, I think, because there was a time in my life where I didn’t have access to the popular stuff. At the dawn of the MTV era, cable TV was not a priority in my house, and so I always felt a bit uncool and out of the loop.

Aparigraha in action isn’t easy. None of the moral guidelines are. Perhaps that’s why we need them- doing the wrong thing is so often easier, at first, that we need rules, laws, to help us to do the thing that is temporarily harder, or at least less satisfying, so that we can experience a more permanent sense of happiness.

The last five weeks have been eye-opening as I researched and deepened my understanding of the yamas in order to share them with you. Thanks for your readership, friendship, and insightful comments throughout the process. I have to confess, I’m a bit attached to all of you.

*Wait, aren’t we talking about yoga? Yes, but Buddhism and Yoga share the same root system, and Buddhism says this awfully well. 

**An anime show featuring a wise pet hamster who loves sunflower seeds and helping out his schoolgirl owner. “Little Hamster, Big Adventures!” 

An Elegy For the Ants in my Car

I am murdering a colony of teeny tiny ants in my car.

I’m not sure how it started. We always have ants around the house (it is Florida)- but I’m surprised that I managed to bring in enough to start a whole civilization. It was probably beneficial that there must be enough Nature Valley granola bar crumbs under the driver’s seat to feed them for a year. (Why can’t Nature Valley get a handle on the crumbliness of their granola bars? But I digress).

For a little while it was not a big deal. I was willing to let the little guys crawl around the car. Occasionally one would climb on me and I would manage to not be too bothered by it. They don’t bite, or sting, or do anything except walk around, so although I wasn’t really thinking the whole thing through too clearly, I hoped we could manage some kind of peaceful co-existence.

Then, sometime in the last week, there was some sort of population explosion (I think it was around the time a Kong dog toy with some dog biscuit crumbs in it entered the car… long story). Suddenly, I had enough ants in my car (let’s call it “Antopia”) to populate the cars of most of my acquaintances. I could no longer ignore the fact that this was a problem. At some point, someone else was going to need to sit in my car with me, and it seemed a bit much to ask that they tolerate my pest problem in the name of non-violence.

…and frankly, the situation was becoming a bit of a nuisance. While I was still (mostly) willing to turn the other cheek, I occasionally found myself squashing one, almost idly, almost instinctually. No, I am not proud.

What the #%$ do you do in a situation like this? These poor ants didn’t have a choice about where they made their home- if anything, the fault was mine. I provided them with shelter and food, allowing them to blossom. Now, I was unwilling to tolerate their presence and so, they had to die.

It’s a ridiculous situation, but it’s been unpleasantly enlightening. When I inspect my earlier feelings on the ant situation, I realize that I had sort of hoped they’d die on their own, as it would be convenient for me not to have to murder them. My husband suggested that I clean out the car, which would (cue the ominous music) “take care of the problem.” At first glance, this seemed like a good idea. But wait: it’s still killing the ants, isn’t it? Whether I Windex them into oblivion or starve them by removing the Nature Valley crumb hoard, they’re going to die.

I came to the conclusion that I must face the task honestly. Before I drove to class this morning, I put some ant killer on cardboard and left it in a little cubbyhole under the radio. That tiny dab of clear poison glistened and winked at me all the way to St Lucie West, as though to say (in a smooth, oily voice), “Don’t worry, honey, I’ve got the situation under control.”

By the time my classes ended, and I returned to my car, the ants had discovered the poison and were forming mad lines to transport it back to their (condo? hive? lair?) living quarters.

I feel lousy. Yeah, it’s just ants. But HARMLESS ants. And a brilliantly big metaphor for the difficulties of really living a non-violent life. It was easy to hope they’d die alone. It would have been easier to look the other way as I vacuumed the car (which, don’t worry, I’ll do anyway). Life, and compassionate choices, are a lot harder when they are crawling all over your car.

I’m not a total sappy idiot. I know one can’t live a completely innocent life, devoid of harm to others. We have to find a line that we are willing to draw for ourselves, and sometimes it’s pretty arbitrary. The decisions that we make are often contradictory, and confusing. Maybe you buy organic to be kinder to the earth- but what about the local farmer whose business is suffering? You eat vegan, but the clothes you wear are manufactured in a third-world country by underpaid laborers in poor condition. I’m not starting a fight, or even a discussion, really- just saying, it’s damn HARD to make kind decisions day to day.

And some days, the decisions make me sad. Some days, the best thing you can do is face the decision head on and say, at least I didn’t look away from it. I lived with the ants, I killed the ants, and soon, I vacuum up dead ants.

Thanks for reading, friends.

Brahamacharya (Gesundheit!)

Brahmacharya, the fourth of the Yamas, is also the one that sounds most like a sneeze. ‘Bless You!’, you might think. Appropriate, I guess, since this term is sometimes translated as “Walking with God.” Bless you indeed!

This is a tricky Yama. It is often (mis?)interpreted as celibacy (see this article “Life Without Sex?” on Others (myself included) interpret it as mindful use of energy. I like the word “moderation,” although that may over-simplify it somewhat. Another phrase you might hear is “continence,” although this brings to mind adult diapers, so I tend to avoid it.*

Okay, back on track. Brahmacharya! Using energy mindfully means not wasting your resources. BKS Iyengar says, “When one is established in brahmacharya, one develops a fund of vitality and energy, a courageous mind and a powerful intellect so that one can fight any type of injustice… Brahmacharya is the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom.”

What a great metaphor! By using our mental and physical resources intelligently, not draining the battery but recharging it as needed, we will be better able to shine our light in the world. Whether your goal is to make it through your next Power Yoga class without modifying a posture, or to act in service to those who need it, brahmacharya makes us a better-run machine.

Where do you squander your resources? Do  you…

  • Overeat?
  • Overindulge in alcohol/other substances?
  • Oversleep?
  • Undersleep, because you were doing something else instead?
  • Over-exert, physically?
  • Spend time worrying about the future, or
  • Spend time living in the past?

All of these can quickly become evident on your mat. If you’ve ever eaten a big pancake breakfast and then gone to a vigorous hot yoga class (as I did, one regrettable morning) an hour later, you know that the body isn’t going to live up to your demands! A commitment to the physical practice of yoga will eventually demand brahmacharya of you- there isn’t energy enough in your body to both squander your resources AND cultivate an effective practice.

And, as always, the physical practice (asana) is just one place for this to show up in your life. The same thing is going on, obviously, in all other areas- once we open our eyes to see.

Brahmacharya! I raise my battery-operated torch to you.

See you next week, when we conclude the yamas with a discussion on Aparigraha, non-hoarding. Get ready to clean out the closet!

*Although this is a really ridiculously silly thing for me to have said, it raises a pertinent point. Through use of mula bandha, the root lock engagement of the pelvic floor, which is used to prevent energy leakage in our practice, we females can strengthen the pelvic floor, which sags as we age, and thus, perhaps, avoid the need for adult diapers. I’d hoped to use this post as a discussion for mula bandha, but it’s gotten a bit too long and the bandhas really deserve a big discussion of their own. Stay tuned, I’ll get it out there.

Yoga Poem: “Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton

Part of the pleasure of being a teacher is getting to share concepts, readings, bits and pieces of essays and poetry that echo something I feel in my soul. I ran across this poem recently and have been inspired to share it with some classes. 

Although I don’t know that the author considered herself a yogi, I do know that these lines may ring true for many of my yogi friends. I won’t trivialize her words by attempting to add more of my own. Please enjoy:

Now I Become Myself, by May Sarton 

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–“
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

(“Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton, 1993.)

For more on May Sarton’s life, and a few more lovely, haunting poems, please see the good folks at this site. 

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!