Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pigeon, Triangle...is there a connection?

Last week we did hip-openers, which meant one of my more advanced evening classes worked on Eka Pada Rajakapostasana (Pigeon...technically, One-Foot King Pigeon Pose). It's pretty hit or miss because of the level of flexibility it requires in the hips and thighs. I try to get students to start in a lunge position (out of Down Dog), so as not to screw up hips or knee joints and then we settle onto a blanket to keep the pelvis balanced. Some students are respectful of their level of (in)flexibility in this pose, some need a gentle reminder not to corkscrew the spine trying to get the hips down.

Whatever...we did Warrior I and Hero to lengthen the front thighs, Down Dog to open the back thighs, Up Dog and Cow's Head to open the chest and Bound Angle to open up the hips. And then Pigeon. After all that, we stood up and released into an easy Triangle, not fussing too much about alignment, and just letting arms and legs extend and lengthening the spine. Hmmm, Triangle seemed so easy, so effortless and many of my students slid their hands farther down their legs than usual without losing the line up of the pelvis and spine. What up?

I looked back to an old post I wrote about the mechanics of Triangle. I'm guessing the extreme opening of the thighs and hips that happens in Pigeon, translates to a much looser pelvis area. This means you can keep the thighs rolled out more easily, while tipping the pelvis and torso to the side more deeply in Trikonasana. Who knew.

I always love learning new links between asana. It's a way to keep sequencing interesting, but also reveals the architecture of each pose. Do you have any surprising pose connections you'd care to share? Worms to Spice?
(Apologies to Frank Herbert...)

Monday, December 08, 2008

There's even a name for it...

It's tough staying caught up, and it's even tougher not beating yourself up about it. I'm talking about posting, of course (altho the same could be said about my personal yoga practice, these days). I've been thinking about this ever since I read an article about "slow blogging" in the NYT a few weeks ago, and I was reminded when I read that our dear Nadine is taking a break.

The article compares the many-posts-a-day model of blogging to eating at McDonald's (fast, fun, full of fat and salt), while the rest of us who choose to spend quality time crafting posts are more like Slow Food aficionados--lovingly creating delicious salads from the heirloom tomatoes we grew ourselves
(yeah, that's what it is). This may be changing, since the update-every-hour crowd can now join Twitter, while the rest of us muse in fully-realized paragraphs on Blogger and Wordpress.

Whatever...it's nice to hear that I'm not the only once procrastinating until I have a full hour to think and write (which seems to be about--oh, once every 8 days). I've tried some quickies, but they just don't feel right. I like to come up with an idea, tumble it around in the hopper for a few days and then write. Guess I'll keep doing that and visualize delicately shaved parmesan nestled on a bed of organic greens, etc etc.

I'll get back to the Asana Project..meanwhile, let's hear it for Slow Blogging--and support good, clean, fair blog! (apologies to Slow Food USA)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A bit more about Yoga at the Gym

First of all, I hope everyone in the US had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday. We got back from St. Paul,MN yesterday to a couple of grateful cats and a chill in the air. Today the snow is swirling down and we are on the way to our first Winter Weather Emergency here in Wisconsin. 6-10 inches by tomorrow. Hello, December 1.

The YJ article is safely in San Francisco now, but I wanted to share one of Jason Crandell's thoughts from our interview. He is a regular YJ contributor, but also teaches and is the yoga director at the Bay Club in S. F. I think most teachers that continue to teach at gyms feel strongly about the experience and their role in introducing yoga to the masses (didya see all the comments?!); Crandell is no exception. I ended the article with this quote, and I've been reminding myself of it in class all week:

"It's important that, as yoga teachers, we don't buy into the whole gym yoga thing. It's important that we teach the essence of yoga as we understand it to the people that are in front of us. That really should not be different regardless of where one goes."

I love the concept of teaching the essence of yoga as you understand it. You train and practice in a particular style with its particular rules, but you will teach yoga as an individual in the way that makes sense to you. This allows for difference and variety in all their shades, good and bad, but it is what makes yoga such an interesting discipline. It's a language full of accents and slang, newly coined-phrases and old fashioned words; but, no matter how it is "spoken," there are benefits to be had and awareness to be created.

It's such an honest way to approach the practice and keeps you focused on your own technique, rather than worrying about what is better or more authentic or whether a new student will like it. It encourages confidence in your teaching skills, but also fidelity to your training. No showing off. Teach what you know. Keep it simple.

In these days of myriad certifications, hot yoga bods and "my yoga's better than yours," this is a nice reminder. I'm not saying there isn't always something new to be learned, but, as with any teacher, you should strive to teach the subject to the best of your ability/to the best of your understanding. That's why your students are there and why they stay.

Although, please, no Iron Yoga.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Yoga at the Gym

I'm in the midst of my next YJ article, so I've been a bit quiet (not to mention, lax in my daily Up Dog). I've enjoyed my interviews, tho, as this is a subject near and dear to my heart: Teaching Yoga at a Gym.

There is often the implication (from YJ, among other places), that the ideal place to teach and practice yoga is at a studio. That was even my attitude, back in DC, where the studios I went to were much more dedicated to the practice than the gyms (not that the gym experiences were bad, but they were a lot more generic). I wanted to write a piece that would show the benefits of teaching at a gym (variety of students, steady income), drawbacks to avoid (loud practice spaces, workout mentality) and suggest ways to make it pleasant employment.

I've been teaching at the Y for almost five years now, and I like to think that the yoga experience my students get is very similar to one they would get at most studios. I've found us a quiet space in the unused dance studio (lovely wooden floors) and I have a nice stash of props. The Y is very accomodating when I wanted to add new classes or try new themes; it's been a wonderful steady gig.

And, as several of my interviewees have stressed, at the start of every session there is at least one student new to yoga. Being some one's first yoga teacher is such an honor, with such great responsibility--you could make them fall in love, or you could drive them away forever. But it's so cool to be the yoga ambassador to these students and there is nothing more satisfying that watching some one become a "true-believer" during the course of a class. Usually with shoulder-openers (at least, that's what won me over).

So, I wanted show new teachers that all the wonderful enlightening they are ready to do upon completing a training could happen at a gym. Yoga is yoga, wherever it happens--as long as the intention is good, it will be a worthwhile experience for both student and instructor. Plus, the locker rooms are usually bigger...hello sauna.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Putting PJS to rest

As I've thought about it, I'm not sure I have anything else to say about Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose. There isn't much in the way of modifications...either you stretch down to your foot, or you use a belt. What I've found to be the most interesting about it this week is how variable it is. For me, the more straightforward poses (Tree, Triangle, Down Dog) are pretty easy to assume without a lot of warm up--altho check out Nadine's discussion of Dog to see what a difference a warm up can make. Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, on the other hand, is all over the place depending on the time of day, muscle temperature, mood...

Of course, all poses benefit from being done in the context of an extended, focused practice--but some (most) days I have very little time to actually stop and do a hour of yoga.
Excuses, excuses. So PJS can be clunky and frustrating, or smooth and elongating--even within the same 24 hours. Humbling. It works the best for me after exercising, with a careful progression into the twist and forward bend and then holding it while using the exhalations to lengthen the spine and deepen the twist.

Mostly, though, it made me think about how it's high time to let myself be taught. I'm dying for an outside class, but still haven't cleared a space in my life of freelance and little boys (I should take note of Heather's experience). There's my assignment for the next week, I guess. Go take a class.

And...since I've been doing chest openers all week with my students, let's do Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-facing Dog) next. Hello shoulder blades!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose

We did twists and spine lengthening this week in class. When I have a class that is a bit more advanced, I have them try Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, for an intense arm/torso/hip/inner thigh stretch. Everyone tried it, but most of them groaned...especially when I demo-ed stretching the upraised arm towards the foot. "Oh, right," was the exact quote.

Once I had everyone stand up and move into Trikonasana (Triangle), though, I got to thinking about how similar these two poses are. Legs are spread, spine is lengthened and then twisted, arms reach down and overhead. The knee cap has to keep lifting so that the thigh engages and keeps the extended foot pointing up, tailbone stays pointed towards the floor.

So let's try Revolved Head-to-Knee this week. After a workshop a couple of years ago, I posted a long discussion of this pose, if you need some instructions. Since we did Triangle recently, see how this one compares. I actually prefer to do it at the end of my gym workout; I find that having exercised for 30 mins. beforehand really helps my ability to lengthen and twist.

If reaching overhead makes you groan, try wrapping your belt around the extended foot and holding on to both ends in the position. You can still twist and extend, but the torso won't be folded as much. And think about the actions of Triangle...it makes this pose less intimidating.

See what you think!

Saturday, October 25, 2008


One of my favorite vacation poses is Vrksasana or Tree Pose. When you're out in the wilds camping, on a lanai overlooking a Hawaiian sunrise, or even just visiting your parents for the weekend, popping into Tree for a spell is a nice way to realign, get your daily yoga fix and find some balance in your new environment. It's fun, it's pretty easy (except for the balancing part) and it just feels so yoga.

I teach it early, even to complete beginners, because it is easy to assume (modifications next post) and it gets people thinking about alignment. Plus, it's sort of the "international sign of yoga" (every time advertisers want to make a wellness connection with their product, inevitably they pair it with some cute chick doing Tree). Once you've tried it, you know you're in a yoga class.

Some things to think about:
-Yeah, it's a balance pose and is great for ankle strength, but it's also a hip opener. Try to keep your hips square, while still pressing the knee out to the side. There's a tendency to start twisting towards the bent knee, so keep the standing leg strong.

-If you approach it as a hip opener, you don't really need to have your bent knee foot at the top of the thigh. Even with it pressed to the calf or ankle, with the toes on the floor, allows you to square the hips and open the knee to the side. See if that helps with balance issues. When you feel grounded, you can always place the foot higher on the standing leg.

-Find something very still or, even better, nothing to focus on. You are looking, but not seeing, so your awareness is in the standing foot and the spine. My students can hold the pose for quite some time, if I make them turn around and stare at the wall. Try it.

It's week three...how's everybody doing?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

House-breaking the Dog

Whoops, got a little side-tracked this week helping the husb. put together his tenure package. By Monday nite he was pretty fried and needed some help organizing about a million student evaluations and making everything look pretty. Those of you who are academics, or love an academic, know how lively things have been around our house. Now the waiting begins...

So, I've been hearing about the Dog, and thinking about my own Dogs. I've got some modifications for you to try that I often do, anyway, because it shifts things around in the pose and keeps it interesting:

Hands around a block at the wall
-try placing a block between the thumbs and index fingers (the fingers will make an "L" around the bottom and side edge) and press the front edge of the block at the wall. Measure out your dog from Child's Pose, so your arms are stretched straight out from the shoulders before you come up. Lift up into Dog, letting the pressure of the hands against the block help stabilize the arms. Straighten the arms and torso first, keeping the knees soft and then open the backs of the legs as you straighten them.

Belt around the upper arms-make a loop with your belt and tighten it, so that it is about the width of your shoulders. Then slip this loop around the arms and above the elbows. When you come into Dog this also stabilizes the arms, by helping keep them straight. It is good for people with weaker arms. You have to fuss around with the placement, tho, because it can get in the way of your head.

Heels to the wall-This is a good shoulder opener, but is also nice for students whose heels don't reach the floor. Position yourself against the wall, so that as you come up the heels rest against the wall about 3 inches off the floor. This will create greater rotation in the shoulders, and give you more support in your legs. If the rotation is too much, walk the hands forwards to open up the "V" of the body, and lower the heels slightly.

Soften knees-I suggest this to students all the time, because if they have tight shoulders they tend to do a modified Plank, rather than Dog, making the pose much more difficult for the arms. As you come up, keep the knees bent until the upper body is in a straight line, then start unbending the knees (never think about forcing the heels down...better to visualize the legs lengthening). If the head starts to pop up between the arms, bend the knees again. I think it is better to keep the upper body aligned in this pose, rather than fixate on whether your feet are flat on the floor.

Whadaya think? Does any of this help? Give you ideas?

P.S. I got a massage on Monday (trading classes with a student...how excellent is that?!?), and was told that the tightness in my left shoulder extends diagonally across my back to the right hip. Totally logical, since I thrust the left hip out to support the baby, thus fouling up my alignment completely. That would explain why a long-held, twisting standing pose was not all that enjoyable...should we do Vrksasana (Tree Pose) next?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dog, Baby, Dog

For starters, I'm going to revise that 5 minute nonsense. Anne-Marie was right when she commented, "ha ha ha ha." If you can hold these babies for 2-3 minutes, you're in the club (which means, I'm barely in the club). Whatever. Five minutes is an awfully long time to do anything except Supta (Reclined) poses. Even BKS Iyengar agrees...he suggests one-and-a-half, to two minutes for most standing asana.

So, Down Dog. Adho Mukha Svanasana. I've got to say, it's still my favorite. Everything get stretched; arms lengthen, shoulders rotate, chest opens, calfs/hamstring stretch, lower back gets released.

After about a minute or so, my arms start to get a bit tired and I find myself constantly having to remind my elbows and neck to lengthen. But they do, and the pose gets renewed energy and I can stay up.

How's your Dog doing?

(Here are some other Dog posts--I'm going to refrain from posting my Dog picture...I've obviously recycled it many times, already)
Ode to a Dog
Dog, Plank, Dog, Plank
Learning to Love the Dog (the toddler in this post is now 4 yr.s old, btw)
The Magnificent Wrist

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What I learned from a Triangle

Well, the shoulder-neck thing is getting worse, not better. I did some research and there is a lot of discussion of hip and thigh tightness, stiff necks and weak abdominals, but not much about the trapezius muscle.

Julie Gudmestad has a thorough YJ discussion about Trikonasana and recommends working on scapula placement before folding (she also suggests spending some time in Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe)beforehand to open up the hamstrings and hip flexors...maybe that would help your hip soreness, Ivete). She suggests, before folding, extending the arms and rotating the palms of the hands and elbow creases towards the ceiling, which engages the shoulder blades and draws them down--opening the chest. Then turn the palms back over, but keep the elbow crease rotated up.

When I tried this, I noticed the action in the upper back, but the same old pain started after about a minute. It is very interesting how spending serious time in a pose can be so instructive. I knew I had tightness, but I was surprised at how insistent it is. Luckily, I have a student who is a masseuse and I think we're going to work out some sort of trade of services (score!).

As far as modifications go, I did a couple Triangles with a chair, that would be helpful for people with tight hips, who can't fold as sharply at the pelvis. My upper arm did start to fall asleep during the long hold, which is probably due to the changed angle of arm to torso. Neck was the same.

I also tried with my back heel against the wall, which helps stabilize the back leg. It also reminds you to keep your back thigh rolled out and your hips square. I like this for students who have trouble keeping the pose narrow. Doing Triangle against the wall serves the same purpose.

Sooo, what did everybody else discover? Is it still your favorite pose? Do you have some tightness lurking? Any suggestions for my neck?

Next week: my personal fave (at least until now) Adho Mukha Svanasana...Downward-facing Dog!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A pain in the neck...

Okay, so holding a pose for 5 min.s is no easy feat. I can only stay in Trikonasana for about 2 1/2 minutes. It's not the leg strength or knees locking or holding the torso parallel to the floor. My neck can't take it. At about 1 1/2 minutes it gets very tight and even if I look forwards or down it continues to tighten until I have to stop. I tried the legs wider so I could touch the floor and I tried a block. No difference. What's that all about? (Actually, my left back shoulder has been giving me trouble for about 13 months and 2 weeks...hmm, that's the same age as a certain baby...)

It's interesting what you learn as you hold a pose for awhile. I'm so used to 5 breaths and then up, or just a demo in class, that I haven't been in a position (ha) to observe what is going on in my body for some time. So this is a good exercise to see what is up. And work on it.

How did you do?

(Next post, the modifications)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Asana Project

I've been doing a lot of research lately, for my second blog, My Pig, My Cornfield. Goodness, the food blog world is huge: chefs, activisits, farmers, mom/pastry chefs, organ-eaters, art directors, etc etc. I thought the yoga bloggers were prolific, but I had no idea. Sifting through many of these, has given me some ideas for GTTSB...here's one of them:

I tried something like this a few years ago, but was waaay too ambitious (a pose/post per day--I lasted about four days), so I've scaled it back. I'm going to focus on a pose every week to ten days. Do it for a few days, report on my impressions and then do several modifications and report on those. I teach with an Iynegar-influence, so I'm big on finding a version of a pose--often using props--that everyone can do. But, I've never really tested my versions beyond just the demonstration: do they really offer the same benefits? do they open something else in addition? Are there better modifications that I'm not considering?

Obviously, the food crowd isn't doing poses, but they're sharing recipes--"Let's all bake this together and then compare notes." So I'm thinking, maybe we can make this a group project. We can all handle 3 poses (one pose, two modifications) a week for about 5-10 min.s (if doing 2 sides) right? I want to hear what you think of the initial pose (whether you teach it, or practice it); how you change it for yourself or students; if my modifications work or not; suggestions for other poses to try.

I'm writing way more about yoga thoughts than practice, lately, and I thought this might be a fun way to get back onto the mat.

SO, first pose for the Asana Project: Utittha Trikonasa (Triangle Pose). Do it, 5 min.s (or so) each side, for the next three days, see what you notice, and report back! Here is a thorough discussion of the pose from Namaste From Duluth.

Here are some older posts, for sequencing ideas:
-Yoga is a Language
-Hip to be Triangular
-Our Friend the Spine

Monday, September 29, 2008

Ambiently aware

Last week the "Build a Yoga Community" article came out on My Yoga Mentor. It is about the bricks-and-mortar relationships that come from belonging to a studio and/or practicing with other yogis. There are some useful tips (if I do say so myself), but I had to leave out any discussion of online communities because of space.

This is despite the fact that my online yoga community is the one I
am actually more involved in as a yoga practitioner. Sadly, I really only have time for asana in the classes I teach and there isn't another studio in town (the only other Iyengar teacher in Beloit teaches at the same time I do). So the yoga student in me has to be satisfied with the occasional jaunt to Madison--which is great--but not regular. I certainly miss the regular contact with a teacher and being able to lose myself in some one else's instruction.

I am exceedingly grateful for the interaction I do have with the yoga bloggers out there. There seems to be a number of us practicing and teaching in smaller towns with few yoga resources, and it's nice to keep up and compare notes--heck, it's nice to keep up with those in big towns with tons of studios. The online yoga crowd is not alone...apparently, this "ambient awareness" is a byproduct of all the social networking sites, and has become a subject of study among digital communication experts

Ambient Awareness is the "weak ties" you have between other people through the internet. These are not the face-to-face, more emotional connections you have with family and close friends. You probably haven't even met most of these people, but you still engage in their lives and how things are going by keeping track of them through their blogs, Twitter, Facebook pages, etc. And they keep track of you.

Many of the scholars studying these relationships suggest that they are actually quite healthy, and help you develop a sense of belonging and connection (as long as they don't replace your strong-tie relationships). In the NYT article, a number of people mentioned that keeping a running log of their day-to-day activities was actually very calming. They were able to step out of emotional situations and evaluate their behavior in a way that lowered the temperature and gave them perspective.

I think that's how this blog has become a major part of my yoga practice. It is not so physical, but by thinking about how to describe poses and clarifying thoughts for my essays is a way of getting inside my head and quieting the "monkey brain." Not exactly pranayama, but some of the same end results. And, as I mentioned, it's great to be able to check on other yogis out there every few days and see how the baby is doing/what's going on in Melbourne/how the trip to India went/who's being taken to task/has it snowed in Duluth,yet etc etc etc.

I almost want to get a Twitter account...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Come one, come all, right?

Last Sunday, I taught a yoga class at Bushel and Peck's, the new organic/local food grocery store in Beloit. [And here's another blog I've started about that whole endeavor--too much free time, yeah, right!]

It was a really nice group, the "art gallery" wasn't too echo-y and dinner was delish. We'll do it again in October.

Every time I do a new class, for a different group, I get a little bit nervous, because I'm not sure who's going to show up and what their expectations are. There are usually a few familiar faces, and I always appreciate having regulars out there (so encouraging in their peaceful expressions), but I find myself watching the new people very closely--do they get it? are they enjoying themselves? is something bothering them physically?

Probably, there are times, that a student's bad experience has nothing to do with me--having a bad day, running late, trouble parking--but usually that kind of stuff gets ironed out in class. However, I feel
strongly that a teacher is mostly responsible for a students' experience, and should make sure people are being reached--if they want to be reached. Even a gentle adjustment, can make some one feel like they have been noticed and cared about.

That's why something like this, astounds me. I love Suzi's insight and thoughts about yoga on her blog, and I imagine she projects that kind of energy in her practice. Why would a teacher single her out for such a pointless and ego-driven lecture. (I'm sure she's moved on and I should "put that lady down", but this drives me nuts). When I wrote about yoga and community a few months ago, I also got quite a few comments from people who had been made to feel completely out-of-place in a yoga class. I don't get it...how can you be standing in front of a group of people--your students, for pete's sake--and not notice that some one is having an awful time. Or not feel like you should reach out to them.

Even if it's other students that are creating the bad vibes, a teacher ought to figure out how to cool the temperature and get everyone to focus on the practice. I know I can't reach everyone or that my teaching method doesn't always resonate (which also drives me crazy--but that's my problem), but I want to feel like I tried to connect.

I dunno, maybe other teachers' classes are too big or over too quickly for them to reach out. Maybe there are bunch of cranky students out there, looking for a fight. But, surely, you can see my point...

Whadaya think?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Warrior Arms

We had a nice group at the store yesterday. A few regulars, a few new people. And the eats were great; I got my fave, the half-and-half (grilled cheese and soup), and tried the Black Angus stew.

I decided to teach the various Warrior poses: Virabhasdrasana I, II, and III. They are good for creating a little heat, and getting the blood moving. As I explained how they flow together (II into I into III), I made a joke about how the numbering system was off. This later got me to thinking: why are these poses tied together, anyway?

When you look at them, they don't really have all that much in common. The feet are in different positions, the hips and shoulders line up differently, the work of the legs is completely different, and one is a tricky balance pose, while the other two used firmly-planted feet. Not at all like Trikonasana-Parsvakonasana-Ardha Chandrasana (Triangle-Lateral Angle-Half Moon).

I think it's the arms. Altho they don't look exactly alike, they are all at shoulder-height or higher (thus raising the heart rate) and require shoulder flexibility to stretch the arms out and overhead without hunching. The chest should be open and the shoulder blades slightly drawn together and down. The thighs and belly do all the grunt work of lunging, bending and keeping the side body long, but the arms are what make them Warriors--rather than Lateral Angle or Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch) or a standing lunge.

When teaching them, we usually focus on the work of the lower body, but what really makes a Warrior look beautiful and effortless is if the arms and chest are in the correct position. Then they look calm and powerful.

But that's just me...maybe somebody knows what the (not so) ancients were thinking when they named these poses. Any insight?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Healthy Sunday Supper...

If you haven't decided, and need tempting, here is the "prix fixe" menu for tomorrow's Yoga and Dinner at Bushel and Peck's Local Grocery, from 3-5pm. Choose one of these items and a beverage (coffee, iced tea, cider, soda and, of course, water).
-Caprese Salad - Thick local tomato slices topped with fresh mozzarella slices, fresh basil, then drizzled in an herbed balsamic, olive oil. Served with a slice of bread.
-Bruschetta -
An herb toasted hunk of crusty bread topped with seasonal veggies drizzled in herbed balsalmic oil and sprinkled with fresh Parmesan.
-Half A Simply Grilled Cheese and a Cup of Soup - Select one of the day's soups (Tomato Basil and whatever Sunday's soup is--Saturday was Potato, Ham and Bean). Half a grilled cheese made with Silver Lewis Edam.
-Black Angus Jo – Black Angus ground beef simmered in house made smoky barbeque sauce, chopped onions, peppers and topped with a slice of raw milk cheddar. Served with a choice of side salad from the deli case (potato, macaroni, tabbouleh, refrigerator pickles, corn/black bean salad, etc. etc.).

I'm thinking of doing a Warrior-based class, so that there's some strength work but it's not too challenging. I want everyone to feel energized and released at the end of class.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Is it Just Me?

...or is this whole combining motherhood and work thing getting out of hand?

I'm all for women doing fulfilling work and, lord knows, mothers need something for themselves--especially when kids are young (why do you think I started GTTSB?). But do we really want to encourage pregnant women to jet set around to meetings while their amniotic fluid is leaking? Or zipping back to work, only three days post-partum? It's bad enough that the womens' magazines trumpet losing baby-fat in a month...as if cellulite should be your biggest concern when the baby is 3 weeks old.

Give the body a rest, y'all. We don't expect Teddy Kennedy back in the Senate three days after his brain surgery... Does Sarah Palin really believe that the Alaska electorate is so heartless, that they wouldn't let her lie down for a couple of days? Are they? What's wrong with this country that it can't accept that pregnacy and delivery is one of the most traumatic things that will happen to a woman's body. Why do women (want to) pretend that it's just a quick in-and-out of the hospital and then, back-to-business.

Dirty-footprints had a nice post, cautioning about too much multi-tasking. You can't avoid some multi-tasking with a family--if you want everyone to eat and still get to bed in time for Mama to do some blogging--but it shouldn't drive you into a frenzy. I can almost hear the health insurance crowd foaming at the mouth to get new mothers out of the hospital in 24 hours. ("Still bleeding? Well, here's an adult diaper. Good luck!")

I practiced, and taught yoga, through my own two pregnancies and I think part of the reason everything went so well was that I cleared space for myself and listened to my body. I practiced pranayama every nite for the last two trimesters and stayed home for 6 weeks after both boys were born (very grateful for that opportunity, of course). I slowed it down, because my body had to slow down--shouldn't every mother allow herself to do that? Shouldn't every mother be able to?

Jeez, Sweden is looking better all the time...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Satisfaction of Sneering

The other night my mom asked me what I thought about the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. I won't go into my full answer here--not really appropriate for a yoga blog--but I did say that she is some one who my crowd would have sneered at at our 20th High School reunion, three years ago. Being the know-it-all-journalism types, we wouldn't have approved of some one our age who tries to have library books banned.

But it got me to thinking about the act of sneering and how satisfying it is. And how often it is practiced (especially in the anonymity of the blogosphere). And, also, how it really says more about the sneer-er than the sneer-ee.

Boy, there's a lot of it in yoga-land. Which yoga style is better/more effective/more sustainable; Yoga Journal's cover m
odels; the yoga supers stars' overexposure; the fact that there are yoga super stars at all; studying in India or not; etc etc etc.

Even the gurus themselves aren't above a mighty rant about their "competitors." This was something I found extremely distasteful at a conference last year, when just about every presenter at a teachers' workshop felt inclined to point how much better "their" yoga was than the others. Only David Swenson and Ana Forrest skipped the Sneer--hmmm.

I won't pretend for a minute that I am above commenting on a scrawny model butchering natarajasana (Dancer Pose)in
an ad for HardTail yoga pants (what kind of a name is that?) or online teacher-training certifications. Some stuff deserves a skeptical eye. Even so, it says more about my Ego and its need to establish superiority than it does about the things I find fault with. Sigh.

BTW, apparently a sneer is also a freshly poured beer (?), which is something we can all find satisfaction in.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Yoga at the Store

If you're local to the Stateline area, this post if for you. I'm offering Yoga and Supper at Bushel and Peck's Local Grocery on Sunday, September 14 from 3-5. I'll teach class (haven't decided the theme yet) for an hour and then we will enjoy a meal from the cafe, featuring locally-grown ingredients. We haven't decided the menu yet, either, but everything I've eaten there is delicious--any requests? I'll bring all the props, you bring your mat.

The class will be limited to 15 people and the cost will be $20. You can sign up on the BP's website or at the store at 328 State Street, Beloit or call 608/363-3911. Let me know if you have any questions!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

All of us are in the gutter...but some of us are looking at the stars

An interesting discussion is afoot on Linda's Yoga Journey, concerning the wages of yoga teachers. Are we paid too much? (hardly) not enough? (often) the same as aerobic instructors? (sometimes...but maybe we shouldn't). I've thought about it often, since I teach at the Y, where there are a variety of fitness classes offered alongside my yoga classes.

I think yoga teachers' fees ought to reflect their training. If you spend a year or two (or more) learning from a reputable source, your wage should be commeasurate. If you took an email test online and got "certified" in an afternoon--whatever that means--that lack of diligence should be acknowledged, too. Continued training ought to be rewarded, as well, but I suspect that is more rare. And, of course, there's the issue of market value...people pay more for yoga classes, so teachers can ask more (some chicken and egg at work).

The under-paid teacher complaint is an old one. Those that want to share their knowledge and expertise often have to take satisfaction in a job well-done as part of their renumeration, whether yoga instructors or college professors or kindergarden teachers. These are crucial positions, and vital to the improvement of a civilized population, but rarely is it rewarded as it should be. The world values lawyers, businessmen, movie stars and football players more.

As far as fitness goes, I'll bet it's the aerobic instructors that get the shaft, payment-wise, more than yoga teachers, tho. Maybe the training isn't as long, but the amount of prep that it takes to choreograph and learn the routines is time-consuming. A strong background in physiology isn't required, but there has to be some familiarity with how the body works and how you train it. And then there's the level of exersion necessary to serve up a useful, engaging class to a roomful of, perhaps, less-than enthusiastic participants. Cetainly worth more than minimum wage...

So, this is what I think about. I'm not sure I have an answer...life is not fair. I wish yoga teachers (most of them) made more money than than Lindsay Lohan. And people should want to invest in the instructors that help keep them hearty and hale. But they don't, so I suppose it's pointless to spend too much energy on it.

I read a quote that's pertinent: "Santosa (or contentment, one of the niyamas from the Yoga Sutras by Pantanjali) cannot be practiced; it has to come from within. We're all discontented. The trick is to be content with that."--B.K.S. Iyengar.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Mind Games

I haven't been able to watch much Olympics (just swimming, yawn), but I've been reading about them. The amount of training these athletes go through is crazy (I'm not even going to touch on the pharmaceutical aspect), but what I find particularly interesting is the mental work they do to get themselves ready to compete. They train and lift and run for years, but right before the event it all comes down to the voices in their heads--either listening to them, or turning them off. I think that's fascinating, although, as a yoga teacher, I shouldn't be all that surprised.

There was a really interesting article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about the brain chemistry behind inspiration and discoveries that come in an "aha" moment. Studies by several researchers found that a specific part of the brain in the right hemisphere becomes especially active about 30 seconds before the subjects had their moments, and that this fold of brain tissue communicates with the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that recognizes the problem has been solved); when a thought "just comes to you" the brain has actually been working on it for awhile. They found that this communication was especially efficient when they brain (and thinker) was relaxed and even thinking about something else when the connection was made. Think of all the times you figured something out or solved a problem when you were doing an unrelated task--that would be the relaxed mind at work.

I had an artist friend that used to put projects aside for a few days, when the creative juices stopped flowing--she called it "putting them on the back burner." She found that, upon returning to the projects after some time had passed, she was able to finish them to her satisfaction, as if the brain had unconsciously solved the problem while she was otherwise occupied. We used to joke about it, but now it sounds like that's exactly what was happening.

So, Pranayama. Calming the fluctuations of the mind. Make sure you spend some time breathing and releasing, in addition to your asana practice. I can't guarantee gold medals or masterpieces or (ahem) brilliant tenure packages, but the clarity and the focus that a quiet mind provides is fertile ground for all these achievements.

And you don't have to wear a goofy-looking wet suit...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Yoga on the Farm

Hectic Householderdom...and I have been neglectful. I hadn't realized it's been a whole 2 weeks since the last post, so my apologies. However, I've finished the YJ community article (more on that later), Eamonn's 4th birthday is out of the way and things have settled to a dull roar.

I also got a call from a local organic farm, Angelic Organics, with whom I've participated in their CSA shareholder program for several years. Eating locally-produced food is something I try very hard to do (not so easy in Wisconsin in the winter) and buying a "share" in a local farm means I write a check and, for most of the summer, I get a box of fresh, organic veg to get me through each week. Late summer is great when the box overflows with tomatoes, corn, squash, carrots, etc...early summer is nice, too, altho it gets hard to find things to do with lettuce. Still, it's fresh, it's from nearby and my pick-up is the farm itself so I get to see the fields up close.

As I was saying, they called and asked if I would be interested in teaching yoga to some of their staff. I agreed immediately because I am a big supporter of their cause, but I didn't realize what a treat it would be for me. We meet in the fixed-up, second floor of a small barn, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and practice with the full orchestra of early summer evenings (birds, bugs, frogs) filling the space. The whole enterprise seems so yoga-appropriate--healthy dirt, healthy produce, healthy farmers--and the Midwest in July and August is such a green, fecund backdrop for it all.

I'm having a great time doing it. Even the drive is a delight--all gently rolling hills, farm ponds, grazing cattle and willow trees. It's almost it's own yoga, if you can have driving yoga (seems a bit petro-chemically dependent, so a guilty please, I guess). I'm grateful for the opportunity and it's a nice change of pace.

Check out your own local CSA or farmers' market...there's a lot of delicious stuff and you make even hook up with a yoga class. Who knows?!?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Back at 'cha

I have been sadly remiss in the maintainance of this blog and owe a lot of delightful blog authors a shout-back. So please, go check these links out, if you don't already have them on your regular reading list. There's a lot of good (funny) writing out there...

Linda's Yoga Journey- if you like Yoga Dawg, you'll love Linda. Girlfriend does not mince words...
YogaMama- a very sweet blog following the yoga adventures of the newly mama-ed Rama
McSmithleyville-more motherhood and yoga, with a wry sense of humor by a fellow Iowan
Happy Daisy Yoga-some good, insightful thoughts on teaching
The Yogini from Manila-Jane has created a very newsy, informative blog with lots of links
Finding Atman-funny, sharp, more motherhood (I sense a trend), due any day now...
Your Yoga Infos-Oliver is keeping track of doings in the yoga world, very extensive
Shiny Yoga-yoga from Down Under (it took me awhile to figure out why she keeps writing about Winter...duh!)
Yoga Chick-a thorough discussion of yoga and other fitness training
Samadhi Rush-Kelly has taken the time to upload some really useful pix of sequences to follow

Sorry it's taken me so long, guys!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Community of Yoga

I got my next My Yoga Mentor assignment: creating community in a yoga class. Most of the story ideas I've pitched to them, so it was nice to be offered a subject. But, what a subject. I agreed, of course, but thought--I'm not sure what there is to be said about this: post some flyers? put a book store in the studio? sell tee shirts?

However, the more I think about the subject, the more intrigued I am. How do we humans create communities around anything...similar tastes, experiences, backgrounds? And what is a community anyway...do you have to be physically present? Wikipedia suggests community originally implied "a group of interacting people living in a common location," but the definition has now expanded to simply describe "individuals who share characteristics." Pretty broad. So it's interesting to think of yoga as something to build community around; partially because it's such an individual, internal practice, but also because it seems like something you should do rather than talk about.

And yet, create communities we do. Maybe because the classroom is automatically a group experience; or maybe the intensity of the internal experience is such that we want to externalize it to make it more understandable. Or maybe we just love yoga so much, we want to share. To me, that's what the online community is, certainly, since we aren't practicing in the same studio, or even the same country!

So, can you decide to "create" such a community, or does it just happen? I guess if you're off in an ashram somewhere, you're keeping your experience pretty private, but--judging by the online traffic and yoga classes all over the place--yogis want to keep in touch and discuss.

I'm collecting interview subjects and can't wait to hear what they say...I'll let you know. In the meantime, my dear online community, what do y'all think...

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Yoga by the Fire

When I'm on vacation, I always try to fit some yoga in, preferably in front of some lovely scene that I wouldn't normally get back home--a bright, sandy beach; a cool, shady forest; volcano-top; etc. We were in New Harbor, Maine two weeks ago for a family reunion of sorts, so I had an opportunity to "down-east" it up yoga-wise. I was thinking Vrksasana (Tree Pose) on a lichen-y rock, Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) in front of a brisk, blue-grey Atlantic, or Virabhasdrasana II (Warrior 2) in front of the Pemaquid Point lighthouse.

Well, Ma Nature was not going to play. It was grey most of the time and rainy part of the time, so our outdoor activities were a bit limited. Which was okay, because in early-summer Maine the fog and mist make sense and are actually quite beautiful. And there were enough dry days to still explore tidal pools, pre-revolutionary forts and eat steamers and lobster on the dock. But yoga outside--not so much.

Every evening, we had a fire in our cabin to warm it up and dry things out, so I decided to try my practice in front of the hearth. There might be some Ayurvedic proscriptions against my dosha (Pitta-Kapha) doing yoga by the flames, but I found it very centering and relaxing. If you've ever sat in front of a campfire and been mesmerized by its shape and color, you can imagine how soothing doing yoga would be.

I did a few chest openers and stretched out my thighs: Gomuhkasana (Cow's Head Pose), Garudasana (Eagle--arms only), Hastasana (Overhead Arm Pose), Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero's Pose), Supta Padangusthasana (Reclined Hand-to-Big-Toe). At the end I simply sat in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) with my hands in the Apan Mudra (See Yoga, Dogs and Chocolate for a nice description) and stared into the fireplace, enjoying the warmth on my face and the pop and crack rhythm of the damp birch logs.

It wasn't what I had planned for, but whodathunk, the fire is a great centering focal point. Crustaceans + Kaizen= great Maine yoga!

(More images of Pemaquid, here)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Letting Wink Go

The return trip from New Harbor, Maine (the reason for my recent silence) this past weekend was surprisingly easy, considering everything you hear about air travel these days. We were flying Sunday morning, so the airport was empty; a quick baggage check-in, no lines at security, and empty gates to run three-year-olds around. However, this was not a painless trip. During the aforementioned running, Eamonn (the aforementioned three-year-old) lost track of his security blanket--a fact neither of his parents realized until it was time to board the plane.

"Where's Wink?" is a common refrain in our house, as a quick search commences to find the ratty, grey fabric square that used to be a scarf. It is usually behind a chair in the living room, or under a stool in the kitchen, but it was always found and snatched up by E, to be stroked by his un-sucked hand. Well, not anymore. We frantically searched the concourse and restrooms, looked under chairs and around service desks, but Wink remained unfound. We were the last people to board the plane, with stricken looks on all our faces, as the realization set in that Wink was staying at Boston's Logan International.

Eamonn has been surprising stoic during all of this. He was a bit sad when we landed in Chicago and no one stepped forward with the blanket (as we were taking off, he suggested that some one "might find my Winkie and bring it on the plane for us"). He mentions Wink daily, and how we are "sad, but not crying" that Wink was lost. But, he has transfered his routine to a couple of back-up blankets he used in day care and they seem to be enough at night, or when he's being read to. Wow, what a cool practicer of vairagya (non-attachment).

I, on the other hand, am taking this a lot harder. The idea of that powerful little scrap of fabric, wadded up in the bottom of a trash bag with half-eaten doughnuts, soaking up tossed-out Starbucks is more than I can bear. I guess it's a symbol of E's child/babyhood that I'm not ready to see go, yet. So many little rituals surrounded that blanket, that I get sick to my stomach thinking they are a thing of the past. And yet, Eamonn has accepted Wink's disappearance and has moved on.

So I'm trying to let Wink go...I have a sappy movie montage going through my head of various Wink moments that makes me wistful (playing peek-a-boo with Alec, playing keep-away with his grandfather, carrying Hot Wheels around in it, balling it up under his head while watching TV)...but, I guess it's not really my blanket to mourn. As usual, the child becomes the guru. His ability to self-soothe is transferable; if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with. It's not the blanket, itself, that matters; it's being able to calm and comfort yourself with what you have at hand.

However, I found a strand of Wink this morning under the dresser (Wink's fringe was constantly shedding) that I might bag up and stick in a scrapbook. Eamonn has detached, but I'm still clinging...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Wheel Thing

No class for a few weeks, during the break before summer sessions. While I miss teaching, I finally get a chance to have a full yoga practice for myself. All the Householder responsiblities these days have left me unable to fit anything but the odd Down Dog or Tree into the mix. So this morning, after checking the lads into drop-in daycare (what a godsend) I went down to my room at the Y and began to work on Urdhva Danurasana (Upward-facing Bow Pose or Wheel--or a plain-ole backbend).

Wheel has not been seen on my yoga mat for more than a year. It is so completely pre-and post-natally contraindicated, that I dropped it last December. I'm not great at it, but I always enjoyed the power and opening that comes with lifting up in that position; it was missed. I've been a little hesitant to reincorporate it, tho, because my mother-of-an-infant back is completely hunched and bunched these days. So actually, as the King of All Chest Openers, it should be a good one to work on.

I started with lots of slow chest- and shoulder-openers: Hastasana (Overhead Shoulder Stretch), Garudasana (Eagle), Gomukhasana (Cow's Head), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog), Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (Up Dog) and Viparita Namaskara (Namaste to the back). A few Dandasana (Staff), Virasana (Hero) and Upvistha Konasana (Wide-legged Forward Bend) stretched out the legs. After a thigh stretch at the wall and Ustrasana (Camel), I lay on my back and hoped for the best.

To come into Wheel, I like to start on my back with knees bent, hip-distance apart, with my feet behind my buttocks and the heels of my hands a bit wider than my shoulders at about ear level. I start with a half-lift, so that I can gently (gently!) rest on the crown of my head to prepare to lift. From here, pressing into the feet and hands, I extend the arms so that the legs stay stationary and the arch comes from pressing up with the chest and down into the palms of the hands. Kind of like an upside down (upside up?) push up. It is a very strong move, that also feels very controlled. The legs basically take care of themselves.

I managed it twice for just a few breaths, but I managed it, so I was very happy and relieved when I came back down to rest. My shoulders and chest were humming with the flow of blood and the muscles felt opened and energized. The following Savasana was deep and satisfying...I guess letting go of some up that upper back tension will do that for you

So...Wheel is back on the menu. I hope to keep working on it and, ala Yoga Like Salt incrementalism, maybe even teach myself to drop-back by the end of the summer. Ah, such ambition.

I really ought to practice yoga more often!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

2 Years Old...and a week

Altho not exactly to the day, I can now celebrate the second anniversary of GTTSB! Two years of posting--almost--every week. I started the whole thing as sort of a bulletin board for my students--dissecting poses, listing practice sequences, a bit of observation. The early posts are extremely formal, as tried to find my blog "voice." I think I wanted to convery a sense of seriousness to the endeavor and not seem to casual and loosey-goosey. It mostly sounds stiff to me now (a bit of the "yoga is no laughing matter" ala YogaDawg).

Early on I set up a site meter with StatCounter and checked religiously to see if anyone was reading. I begged my sister and husband to post comments, even with pseudonyms, just so it would look like I had readers. But slowly, people started to find me--and I them. Also, the yoga blog community really started to take off in the early 2007s, so there was a lot more back-and-forth as more and more yogis began contributing to the discussion.

I love how the blog practice has affected my yoga practice. I find myself thinking actively about why a certain sequence works and how to explain it; reading the paper with an eye to subject matter that is worth commenting on; applying other bloggers' ideas to my own teaching to see how it helps students. My mind moves around the whole discipline of yoga for subject matter, rather than just concentrating on how do Trikonasana or ways to breathe.

Having an audience keeps a sense of obligation that motivates writing. I can blow off other stuff, but not my weekly post. Even if I won't get in trouble for missing a "deadline", the task weighs heavily until I can cross it off the to-do list. I encourage any friends who think about writing to start blogging; it's more public than a journal, but I think it feels more like a "real" writing gig. And certainly it has resulted in some real gigs, for me...specifically some Yoga Journal online assignments.

So, Happy Anniversary, Baby...got you on my mind!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Any idea of what I'm talking about?

I give up. I have been trying to find an article I read in the New York Times a few weeks ago and have google-d just about every combination I can think of, to no avail. Maybe some one saw it--it was about building new neural networks in the brain by training yourself to do new things. The article mentioned a Japanese practice of doing routine tasks differently every time so that you were aware of the process and not just "going thru the motions." Let me know if you recognize either this Japanese term, or the article.

Anyway, I can't post a link, but I still want to discuss the idea of creating awareness just by doing things differently. We do it all the time in yoga in subtle ways; recrossing legs, using different spacing, lifting heels, turning in toes, etc. All these little adjustments shift which muscles are working and draw your attention deeper into the body. My favorite way to "startle" students is to just have them re-cross their fingers in Hastasana (Overhead Arm Stretch), so that the other index finger is on top. It always feels massively wrong, and I always feel like I have an extra finger all of a sudden--and yet I'm simply interlacing fingers differently.

You can start to think of all sorts of ways to shake up a yoga routine...Down Dog with toes turned inward, using different mudras (check out Yoga Dogs and Chocolate for more on these hand positions) in Sukhasana, coming into standing poses differently (jumping instead of stepping the feet apart, or vice versa), doing a Sun Salute veerrryy slooowwwly or quickly, the list goes on and on.

I think the article was about how the brain will be more nimble if you force it to "think" about routine activities instead of just shuffling through them blindly. Developing muscle memory is good, but introducing new ways to stretch is also good for developing strength and flexibility. Especially if you want to keep the gray matter fresh...

Let me know if this rings any bells!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Pelvic Tip

We've been doing forward bends in class this past week. Some people love 'em, some people shudder. I've always liked forward bends, but I have pretty flexible hips and hamstrings. I always fret when I teach this class, because it can be very discouraging to those who are not so bendy below the the waist. I can see people shutting down when I announce the day's theme...

At that point, I guess, it becomes a class about a lot more than just lengthening the backs of the legs. It's hard to see a more flexible student bend completely in half and not be a bit envious. But, it's also a good reminder that a yoga practice is about your own body and its capabilities...not how it compares to somebody else's.

I started with a quick explanation and demo about the importance of concentrating on the pelvis. In forward bends the stretch comes from tipping the pelvis forwards and stretching the back of the legs by increasing the distance from sit bones to heels. Rounding the spine and hunching the shoulders gets the chest and face closer to the legs, but doesn't stretch the hamstrings and calves. Depending on the student's determination to get the face to the knees, it can be dangerous, because forcing the chest forwards like that is to compensate for the lack of flexiblity around the pelvis. It might look like a deeper stretch, but it isn't.

So, I encouraged everyone to realize that a deep stretch could be had just by a subtle folding at the hip crease ("lead with the belly button"). By keeping the spine long and the chest lifted, the fold happens at the hinge of the hip joint--where the stretch should be originating, instead of collapsing the upper body. It seemed to resonate with everyone, and I saw less hunching. By holding the fold for awhile and breathing deeply into the lower back and hips, I could see students "getting" the work of the poses and keeping their awareness in their own bodies.

What's your tip for forward bends?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Firsts and Re-firsts

The baby had his first swim class this morning. He is a Shrimp. Jim and I bounced him in the rather chilly pool at the YMCA and sang the old favorites from Eamonn's swim class: The Wheels on the Bus, the Goodmorning Song, etc etc. He was a good sport, altho he was a bit startled when he got splashed during some unfamiliar raindrop song. His chunky feet and hands were clenched tight, but he seemed to be enjoying himself.

One of the best things about having kids is getting to do everything for the first time, over again. I certainly don't remember my first time in a swimming pool, but I love to swim so it was probably a good experience. Nor do I remember my first bite of apple sauce or crawl across the dewy grass or feeling of sandy toes...but I get to see what it might have been like. Having been through all of this already with the three-year-old, I kind of have a head's up with Alec and can really watch how he responds. Most of the time he is delighted, altho the sand was not a big hit...which I suppose is understandable if you have soft, uncalloused little feet.

So I got thinking about my first yoga class. I still can't remember why I decided to sign up for a class at the University of Pennsylvania, during my first semester of grad school in Art History. This would have been fall, 1989 and yoga was not on my radar screen at all, aside from watching the "Lilias, Yoga and You" show that was on PBS in the 70s a few times. The teacher was Joan White, a long time Iyengar practitioner. I really liked the solemnity and rigor of her teaching; I was also pretty flexible, so a lot of it came easily--at least the asana part. Aside from the Oms at the beginning, there wasn't any chanting or heavy breathing or anything scary for this recent arrival from the Midwest.

I didn't have time--or money--after that first semester, but much of that early session stuck with me, and I incorporated what I could remember into my own practice until I started attending regular classes in Washington DC. I would love to go back to those first days and watch the young me practice and try and figure out what was going on. I just remember everything resonating and being really excited about each meeting. So funny to imagine what I would have thought if you would have told me how much a part of my life this exercise would become...

So pay attention to the new stuff in your life, because you never know where it will lead...(first rinse the sand off, please).

Friday, April 25, 2008

Moderation in all things...

Nadine of Just Breathe left a nice comment last week, in which she decried the dangers of "attainment yoga." I really like that term--attainment yoga--it's so evocative and describes exactly a practice that is all about results rather than process. It's such an easy trap to fall into; I hear it often from my students ("I really wish my head would touch my knee") and myself ("It would be so cool to be able to drop back into Urdhva Danurasana [Wheel Pose]"). In longing to achieve some difficult pose(or even impossible, depending on one's body), we force and strain and over-do and completely lose the whole point of a practice.

And yet, there's something to be said for developing your yoga skills. Suzi of Yoga Like Salt (I wish we'd see more of her posts--such a sensible, thougtful writer) has a really nice New Year's article about setting a yoga goal for the year and working to reach it: Yoga Incrementalism, she calls it. I think this is a good approach. Asana practice is a physical journey, after all, and asking a bit more of our bodies as we do the work makes sense. Breaking down a pose and figuring out what part requires strength, what part requires flexibility and how to achieve those ends is a reasonable way to deepen your understanding of the work of yoga.

So, I guess it boils down to moderation. Work to improve your practice physically, but make sure to be respectful of your body's ability. Just because it looks good or difficult in a picture, doesn't mean it's an appropriate action for you. And don't forget that there is as much work to be done mentally as there is physically--always practice vairagya (non-attachment) with the superficial stuff; the head on the knee is icing, tipping the pelvis and getting a good stretch in the backs of the legs is the cake.

Here's to increments; a dense, rich asana cake; and moderation in all things (especially, moderation--says the husband)!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stressed vs Un-stressed

Lately, I've been instructing students to "soften" their faces while practicing, especially during difficult poses (especially during Gomukhasana...which all my students seems to dislike. A lot. Judging by how much face-softening I have to remind them to do). I've found it a really useful reminder to myself, if I find myself straining during a pose; first I check my shoulders and then I check my face. Inevitably one, or both, places are tight and unnaturally tensed.

Thinking of unnaturally tensed, got me to thinking about the fight-or-flight response, and it's opposite the rest-and-restore repsonse. The Sympathetic Nervous System is what controls the body's response to danger or stressful situations; blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, breath gets more rapid and shallow, muscles tense. In theory, this is a good thing, especially if you need to outrun a predator, because the body is prepared to act quickly and intensely (more blood rushing to the muscles, muscles ready to work hard, mind focused). However, nowadays, this system is triggered by stressors that don't necessarily required a mighty jump or speedy run--deadlines, excessive responsibilities, irritating co-workers.

The Paraympathetic Nervous System is supposed to counteract the Sympathetic by slowing the heart rate, dropping blood pressure, calming the mind and relaxing muscles so the body can rest and be restored. Unfortunately, if the body is overloaded by stress, the Sympathetic mode never completely shuts down. The demands on the body become too great, and the results can include a compromised immune system, slow-to-heal muscles, high blood pressure, insomnia, etc etc.

Yoga, of course, is a great jump-starter of the Parasympathetic, but only if you let it. When I see yogis straining and grunting as rivers of sweat pour down their muscles, I pause. Of course, with enough work and sweat, yoga will give you a hard bod, but is that really the point? To me, yoga is slow and the work is very subtle and deep. The hardest exercise is keeping your thinking mind at bay so that you don't strain and overdo while trying to achieve some elusive, physical goal. The purpose is quieting and centering...that's what makes it yoga and not Pilates.

So, I Set That Woman Down and I tell myself to soften my jaw (or my tongue--such an evocative instruction). The pose doesn't become easier, but suddenly I can feel myself settle and open. Nobody is falling in love with Cow's Head, but, with the reminder about the face, I can see the elbows stretch away a little bit more, necks lengthen and the side ribs lift.

Let's save the Sympathetic response for when that saber-toothed tiger attacks...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sap alert...

Yesterday I had a new student in class. She was very apologetic about never having done yoga--she'd watched a DVD to try and figure it out--but was worried about doing something wrong or getting in some one's way. I assured her she would be fine (she is a runner, early 30s) and that we are a pretty forgiving bunch. She thanked me and explained that she'd always wanted to take a yoga class because "people who do yoga always seem so happy and fit."

I think she's mostly right. During the Yoga Journal conference in Lake Geneva, WI last May, the resort halls were filled with blissed-out yogis, smiling contently and standing up straight. It was kind of hilarious to watch the hotel staff watching us as we wandered around, laden with props and mats and dribbling granola bar crumbs in the corners. A bit goofy, but the vibe was definitely peaceful.

I'm glad she added the comment about being happy, because it seems like a lot of time people are either scared of yoga (making weird noises, sticking string up your nose, wearing turbans) or they want to get hot, hard yoga bods and sweat, sweat, sweat! (Some one emailed me last week asking me to plug a YouTube contest they were sponsoring to vote for the Hottest Yoga Celeb--uh, guy, didn't you read the blog at all? Not so much the Hot Yoga Celeb-type) At least she's got the right idea about why people ought to do yoga.

However, I'm all about identifying Yoga Body Parts ...

Looking out over the class, after the last Namaste, is always so satisfying. Everyone looks a little sleepy, very calm and has those quiet, little yoga smiles on their faces. I try not to talk too much, so as not to break the spell, and just let them roll their mats and collect their stuff while still in their post-yoga daze. It takes a few minutes to get back to Planet Earth, but those few minutes, to me, are what this stuff is all about.

A little sappy, I know, but it's just what I've been thinking about as the rain falls and falls...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Taking Comfort in Metaphor

Yeow, it's been two weeks since my last post. Well, chalk it up to motherhood and YJ deadlines eating up all my free time (oh yeah, and realizing I can download episodes of 30 Rock from NBC's website..."Hey Liz Lemon!").

In interviews for the YJ prenatal articles, I keep hearing about methods of teaching relaxation; describing words, stories, images to help a woman focus on her breathing and distract herself from the discomfort of pregnancy or the pain of labor. So I got to thinking about the power of metaphor, and how a "seemingly unrelated subject" can be so much more evocative than the subject currently at hand.

I use metaphor all the time during pranayama in my own practice, or leading breathing exercises when I'm teaching. I use it on myself when I start to stress over something stupid ("I set the woman down hours ago") or when I'm trying to help a friend get perspective on a problem. Somehow it seems so much more useful than just telling myself to relax or stop worrying.

Why is that? Why is it more effective to imagine Buddhist monk mice carrying around mice princesses, rather than just telling myself to "snap out of it"? Why do my students relax more when they imagine a glowing orb getting brighter and dimmer with each breath, rather than just thinking about inhaling and exhaling. Wikipedia says therapeutic metaphor is using a parallel story to help illuminate a situation. So I guess, not thinking about a thing but talking around a thing is the best way to examine it--which makes sense if the thing is sensitive or troubling. Seeing something in a different light, so to speak.

Plus, it's kind of fun to come up with ways to describe and explain that are especially affecting.

I look at my sons and am reminded about the power of self-soothing. For these two, a thumb or a pacifier or a soft scrap of fabric becomes a stand-in for all things comforting and warm (or, I guess, me). Later, we turn to words and imagery to help settle us and relax. I think we'd all be in pretty good shape, if all it took was a thread-bare old scarf (Eamonn's blanket, called "Wink") to make us feel better. But, for now, a really good metaphor can be enough to help get us through a rough spot and clear the mind.

So tell me, what is your best verbal "Wink"?