Category Archives: Yoga

The Circus in my Head

A few years ago, I was asking each of my yoga students how they were feeling before I started class. Most people told me something about their body: “my neck is stiff”, “my hips are tight”, “I hurt my knee but I don’t know how (or I know exactly how)”!

This is quite useful, because as a teacher it helped me decide which movements or poses to incorporate, which modifications to offer and to whom, etc.

But I’ll never forget the first time a woman decked out in colorful yoga leggings answered the question in a different way: “I have a circus in my head,” she said in her fabulous Italian accent. So true, my friend, so true.

To me, the goal of yoga isn’t really standing on your head or achieving ultimate pretzel state. Although it’s nice, it’s not even getting stronger or increasing flexibility or balance. The ultimate goal of yoga is to take all the activities my mind is capable of: perceiving, imagining, remembering, etc., directing this mind to a place of my CHOOSING, and holding my attention there as long as I want.

The circus often has other ideas about where attention should be placed.

I recently relocated back to the Boston area from Austin. Talk about chaos, and the need to multi-task. Three days prior to this writing, I was playing “mover delivery bingo”, crossing 188 numbers (in random order) off a sheet while 3 different guys brought things into my apartment, calling out numbers. All while trying to instruct them on which room to put things in, and where. Needless to say, this was all my mind was being instructed to do.

I’ve only been gone 3 years, and some things have changed. I can *sort of* drive on autopilot, but when I do, I often realize that no, this wasn’t the best way to go. I have to be a little more active in my attention when I want to get from point A to point B.

In the new Market Basket the other day, I had a pretty surreal experience. I was unfamiliar with the store — and quite frankly the layout is pretty hokey — but as I was walking through I would “tune in” to a single thing. For example, I was first captured by the woman hollering into her cell phone: “I don’t understand how they found out! They must have overheard me talking or something!!” The irony of that made me smile. An aisle later: listening to the cadence of some produce workers speaking Spanish.

It was as if I had a laser beam of attention that I focused on one particular situation, and everything else got a little hazy. I was feeling a little weird about it until a friend reminded me of what it really was: mindful attention. We’re so not used to it!

Even though I’m no longer in the corporate world, I consider myself a go-go-go kind of person. I’ll always be busy. So I know that sometimes health recommendations are just too.freaking.hard. I don’t sit in meditation — in fact health issues prevent me from being physically able to. My mindfulness, my meditation, my practices have had to be more IN the world than removed from it. And that’s taught me a lot.

In fact, all these upheavals in my life helped me rediscover a practical, easy-to-remember technique I learned years ago in a different context. When practicing it, I’ve greatly increased my ability to be present, especially when the circus wants to play. What’s even better is that each step in the 5-step technique is also independently do-able and useful in and of itself.

I want to share this with more people; while it’s not new, it’s likely a different combination and a new “take” on something that may just change your life.

So my hope is that, regardless of where you are located (and where your mind is) right now, I hope you’ll join me Wednesday evenings starting June 14. Learn more here.


How to fall out of the self-improvement trap

I love words that seem to sing what they’re about. I often find these words in other languages, including Sanskrit, the language of yoga. One of my favorite Sanskrit words is svādhyāya. Svādhyāya is translated into “self-study”, or “self-inquiry”.

Perhaps I like this word because I ROCK at self-improvement.

One of my former company’s core values was “continuous self-improvement” and boy, did I get it. I eagerly attended training and participated in programs, with a pure intention to hear people’s ideas about how I could improve myself. I was told—especially at performance review time—where I wasn’t up to snuff, where I could grow (hopefully as kindly as possible). As a manager, I delivered this feedback (hopefully as kindly as possible) too.

It shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve been a self-help book fanatic.

That’s not to say that I took what I read lock, stock, and barrel: certain ideas made me cringe, or didn’t seem to apply to me. I chose a few things that resonated with me, and let the rest go. This, I believed, was a healthy way to create my own system of self-improvement: one that fit my particular goals, strengths and weaknesses, and limitations like, say, the number of hours in the day I had left to do this work!

I’ve also seen a few therapists, and have even participated in a therapy group about Self.

I joined the group because I connected with the therapist’s initial presentation: I felt like he accurately described some of my struggles. I learned a lot from others in the group too; by the time I left, I had a well-organized, tab-delimited and labeled blue binder filled with tools and techniques to use in various challenging mental and emotional circumstances.

If there was a technique I could use to improve myself, it was at my fingertips.

If something I tried helped me, I’d continue to use it (sometimes after an ample trial period, but not always). If I’m honest, I’d often get overwhelmed with all the possibilities–which would leave me scrapping it all, because choosing added more stress and I had other shit to get done. Even if you take away ONE thing per book, training, or appointment, if you’re addicted to such things like I was, you’ll quickly develop quite a repertoire.

Years later, I put some of these tools and techniques to work helping others.

I left my corporate job and became a Mind-body Wellness Consultant. I started using the tools I’d amassed for myself to help my clients with many conditions. The conditions I most I love working with are ones I’d had some personal experience with, such as: stress, poor sleep, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and body image. I also found that like me, many of my clients have access to too many tools, or too many similar tools, which either don’t work for them, or which they fail to use. Then I noticed something else that was true both me and my clients:

Our best-intentioned health pursuits can actually be unhealthy.

If someone has lots of tools they like, the inclination I’ve seen is to try and throw all of them at “the problem.” Thus, people become more stressed out because of all the health-related activities they have to do every day.

  • “I have to get myself through rush hour to squeak into my yoga class with a minute to spare!”
  • “I need to find time to make these recipes for the week, so I can eat healthy!”
  • “I should fit in X days of cardio, X days of strength-training, and I have to meditate for 30 minutes too.”
  • “I’m tracking every ounce of food I ingest, regardless of where I am.”

The truth is, I used to be that person driving like a madwoman to get to the 6:30 pm power yoga class, because I left work later than I wanted to and traffic sucked. Nothing like rushing around, cursing other drivers and then…. “OMMMMMMM…!”

It just doesn’t happen like this, folks.

In fact this is the very kind of behavior that increases stress, anxiety, insomnia and tension in all of the hours that you’re not “doing” your health & wellness routine (and let’s face it, that’s a lot of time). And if you haven’t noticed by now, health-related “self-improvement” techniques like these don’t tend to become sustainable routines, either!

That’s because even though the mind thinks it is, the body knows that this kind of behavior isn’t healthy. No matter how smart you are, your body is smarter than your mind.

This is also the reason you can skip breakfast, eat a great salad for lunch, followed by a healthy dinner, and then binge your whole pantry empty in the evening. Your body knows deep down that it wanted that breakfast, and that the tasteless salad you multi-tasked while working at your desk at 2 pm isn’t really nourishing you because truthfully, you find salad 90% disgusting (the 10% dressing of course, is another matter!). You didn’t take any breaks through your day. Heck, you barely took full breath, and you didn’t notice that the posture you assumed at your desk was garbage; so now add a chiropractor to your list of “to do’s” to help your aching back.

As I saw more clients and studied myself more, I realized I’d made a crucial error:

Svādhyāya and “self-study” does NOT mean automatically leaping on the “self-improvement” train.

Of course you have to recognize areas for improvement before you can make any changes. But I certainly got waylaid by our culture’s ideas about GETTING.BETTER.FASTER. It’s no wonder, since these ideas are reinforced not only in workplaces but also in typical routes to improve health. These were two environments I lived and breathed, and dare I say, thrived in. Living in the question isn’t a place of comfort; not like DOING something is.

Svādhyāya isn’t about adding anything, per se. It’s about NOTICING what’s happening in your mind-body system, so that you can discover who you are. How you get triggered. How you behave when under stress. What you do, what you don’t do. How you think. How you feel. Only when you spend some time here, in this realm of curiosity, can you learn to start making timely decisions that are more aligned with your best interest. It’s mindfulness of the Self.

Although I had been exposed in my initial yoga teacher training, I’d forgotten the most important component of true svādhyāya, which is CURIOSITY. Curiosity is no easy task. It’s what remains when we temporarily let go of that addiction called JUDGMENT. That’s where the real challenge is. But when we can put judgement aside, when we can say things like “huh, I didn’t realize that!”, or “isn’t that interesting?” about what comes up in our thoughts, about how we feel, or how we behave, it can be quite educational.

Svādhyāya itself IS the best technique for living. No fixing required.


Staying AWARE; the eye of the storm

I must say I was pretty surprised not to find “moving” on the list of the 10 most stressful life events. And when you factor in a cross-country move with a significant other and an animal, I’d expect it to at least be in there!

When I moved to Austin at the end of 2013, I was lucky. I was by myself, felt I had nothing to lose, and had someone there ready to accept me (and my stuff) with open arms and empty drawers. Although I loved the weather, my teaching gigs, my students and my clients, the energy and atmosphere of the South just doesn’t work for me, and it’s almost immediately noticeable when I’m back in Boston. So last week, I flew home with 2 big and 2 small suitcases, received by a gracious friend and her equally gracious beau, and hit the ground running on the apartment-hunt front. I can feel the almost 24-like timer in the corner of my screen, counting down the days I have to find something that’s do-able for my family for a year.

I’d love to say that being a Mind-body Wellness Consultant means I’ve taken GREAT care of myself. But honestly, it’s been quite hard.

I was up way too late the night of arrival, busy catching up, socializing, and then wound so tight sleep eluded me. The following 2-3 days were a frantic pile of running around–renting a car until mine arrived, looking at places I’d already lined up, texting / emailing / calling multiple people trying to show me places, etc. I ran around from mid-morning to early evening, and then last night had an agonizing decision to make over two “doable” but “not quite right” places I finally turned down, when 3 tosses of the coin came up tails and that was clearly the answer from the Universe. Talk about stress.

But I will recognize and even give myself some “kudos” (wow, that word hasn’t come up in a few years ;-)! Even as I was driving around–which BTW is SO SO much easier here than in Austin!–I became AWARE that I wasn’t hydrated; that I was hungry; that I was tired. When I NOTICED these things, I ACTED to make better choices in the next moments. I stopped at Whole Foods for a lunch break. I got a quinoa salad thing (at Starbucks of all places!) in the morning and put it in my lunch sack for later…I bought bottles of water and healthy GF nutrition bars. I even took my pile of supplements with me in a little plastic baggie–and I haven’t yet missed a dose. I also haven’t missed a day of my morning yoga practice, because I KNOW how much I need it.

This morning was more of the same, but after I turned in the rental car, I’m in, no where to go and nothing to do. In some ways, having this self-care day is exactly what I needed. I’m ensconced in tea and “Tuesdays with Morrie” (which I started on the plane and just finished). I had my first “meal” this morning around 11 o’clock: rotisserie chicken, basmati rice, and green beans, all smothered in olive oil. Ah…so soothing. When realtors text me, “I’m sorry, I can’t see anything until tomorrow.” And that’s true. For today, I’m hanging out in the eye of the storm. Trying to find some bit of stability, peace, and comfort with everything whirling around me.

What have you done to find some peace and stillness when everything around you is in upheaval? Do you NOTICE and CHANGE your behavior before it’s too late and you’re completely spent? I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts and advice!


“Dig One Well”

I’ve been studying the Yoga Sūtras with a mentor / teacher for 46 weeks now. Along the way I have learned a lot about what I’ll call “advice for living” that’s packed into each neatly stated line. There have been some weeks where I was SO ready to move on; there have been other weeks where I couldn’t seem to get enough about what Patañjali was communicating, because I could relate so much.

What’s a Sūtra?

In case you’re not familiar with Patañjali and the Yoga Sūtras: essentially the Sūtras are the documented curriculum of yoga practice. (“Yoga” here meaning a system for living, not just the physical practice we in the West tend to obsess over. In fact, this yoga is much more about the mind than anything else!)

Before the Sūtras, yoga was passed along from teacher to student orally. Sūtra means thread, which is appropriate–each line in the Yoga Sūtras has multiple meanings and levels of depth that (I believe) can only really be grasped from that connection with a trained teacher. If you pick up different translations of the Sūtras, and put them side-by-side (as I’ve seen many people do), it is potentially pretty confusing. So what we’re doing in my class is studying “one way”–or one interpretation. The idea being that after we have an understanding like this, then we can look at others because we’ll have a consistent context on which to base the additional insights.

A Sūtra That Hits Home

Today I’d like to share a bit about a Sūtra that has really spoken to me. It’s Chapter 1 Sūtra 32:

tat-pratiṣedha-artham-eka-tattva-abhyāsaḥ

Here are some translations:

  • “If one can select an appropriate means to steady the mind and practice this, whatever the provocations, the interruptions cannot take root.” (T.K.V. Desikachar)
  • “To avoid them, [we must] commit to the practice of a single principle.” (Frans Moors)
  • “For that purpose of counteracting them practice one principle.” (Paul Harvey)
  • “The practice of concentration on a single subject [or the use of one technique] is the best way to prevent the obstacles and their accompaniments.” (Sri Swami Satchidananda)

Sūtra 1.32 refers to the prior Sūtra, in which life’s inevitable difficulties may become obstacles (that’s the “them” part in the definitions above). I’ll digress a little here: to know whether a difficulty has become an obstacle (in other words, that one is “stuck”), we would observe these symptoms:

  • “mental discomfort
  • negative thinking
  • the inability to be at ease in different body postures, and
  • difficulty in controlling one’s breath” (T.K.V. Desikachar)

I don’t know about you, but yeah, I’ve experienced those!

The way my teacher explains Sūtra 1.32 is to “dig one well”. In other words, focus on one thing. In this context it’s about a yoga practice, but it also has a wider implication for “doing life”.

How this shows up in my life

Prioritizing (Even Positive) “To Do’s”

Many people come to me wanting to “fix” everything that’s wrong about their health or their habits at once. What I see happen in these cases is that the person becomes quite overwhelmed. I fondly recall a client who was feeling stressed out about all the things she had to do in a day. She was very determined to be a healthier, brighter being. We listed out the ~15 things that she had on her daily “to do” list. (Please note that like many of us, she had a full time job that required at least 8 hours of her daily time, excluding a commute each way in Austin traffic!) No wonder she was overwhelmed. Focusing on one thing from her initial list immediately made things much lighter and easier.

Dealing with Chronic Pain

As some of you know, starting in December 2014 I started having pain in my sacrum and right hip. It was relentless, and it would change from day to day. As you might expect, I went on a quest to find out what was wrong with me. In other words, I was eager to get a diagnosis that I might then be able to work with to address the cause of the problem. My mentor at the time observed that I was doing all sorts of things, and for sure, I did many of them at once to try and alleviate the (now) chronic pain that seemed to be affecting every area of my life. It seemed reasonable, and I went almost 2 whole years before that “diagnosis” came. The diagnosis made it easier to focus on treatments for sure, but I wonder now: what if I were to have listened to her? What would have happened if, instead of running around to all sorts of Western doctors and Eastern healers, I had stuck with one practice? I would have saved lots of time and money and energy for sure…and maybe had more peace of mind while dealing with the pain. Would I still have narrowed down what the cause was? I’m still up in the air on this. 🙂

Growing a Successful Business

I’m currently enjoying a read of The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. At the same time, I’ve started working with a business coach to redefine (or rather, to define!) my business model. The business coach talks a lot about “being in alignment”, and what this (and the book) has highlighted for me is that I’ve moved from a corporate job in technology to entrepreneurship in health & wellness (I can finally say that I am in fact, an entrepreneur!). But–I have not clearly defined my business model, and thus I cannot accurately determine whether an opportunity, option, or idea that presents itself is in my (and my business’) best interest / in alignment. As a result, I’m teaching public classes at 3 gym locations, a studio, doing privates, giving workshops / talks (both in multiple locations), offering online programs, seeing clients in my own practice for coaching and Reiki and yoga, trying to get a corporate health gig, etc. As a result my days are very scattered, I’m driving all over the place, and I’m putting energy into all sorts of “random” things! I have not “dug one well” in my business; I’m tired and am not feeling like I’m living up to my full potential.

A related business example is the pretty famous “ONE Thing“. They ask, “what ONE thing (could I do that) would make all other things (on my list) unnecessary?”. Sounds like one well to me!

Final Thoughts

At least since I’ve been free to set my own schedule, I’ve not done especially well with focus. And I’m seeing how this particular Sūtra is so relevant to various aspects of my life. I feel as though I’m in a period of transition: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I believe wholeheartedly that my new mantra of “dig one well” will help me create a life of more ease and joy!

Where in your life do you need to “dig one well?”


What You Need to Know About Bone Health

Guest blogger:  Dr. Angela Wicker-Ramos PT, DPT, CLT-LANA. Angela is the owner and lead physical therapist at Cancer Rehab Austin.

A person’s bone mass peaks during the third decade of life. But do not let this information get you down, because there are ways to strengthen your bones at any age. Bones become stronger with exercise by stimulating your bones to form new tissue.

There are three ways exercise helps improve your bone density:

  1. Strengthening exercises such as weights cause your muscles to pull on the bone that they are attached to. This stimulates bone growth.
  2. Weight-bearing exercises stimulate bone growth through impact. This brings in new bone cells and strengthens the bone.
  3. Exercise also helps decrease risk for falls by improving strength, coordination and balance.

Exercise and Bone Health

The best exercises to promote bone health are weight-bearing exercises, which are exercises that work against gravity.

Bone health can be improved by either high impact or low impact exercise. If you have osteopenia, osteoporosis or pain it is recommended you perform LOW impact exercises.
Examples of LOW impact exercises include:

  • Elliptical machines
  • Low-impact aerobics
  • Stair-step machines
  • Fast walking on a treadmill or outside
  • Yoga*

If you do not have any precautions or health concerns that prevent HIGH impact exercise, then these are some you can try:

  • Dancing
  • Doing high-impact aerobics
  • Hiking
  • Jogging/running
  • Jumping Rope
  • Stair climbing
  • Tennis

How often should you perform weight-bearing exercises in order to improve your bone density?

A study by Kemmler in 2014 reports that weight-bearing exercises should be performed 3x per week to impact bone growth. However, remember that any amount of exercise you perform is beneficial for your health. So start gentle and work your way up. Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body, mind and spirit.

*If you have osteopenia, osteoporosis or pain, be sure to inform your yoga instructor of your condition prior to practicing.


Paying Close Attention to Communication: A Tried & True Way

Whether I’m teaching a yoga class or coaching someone about their eating concerns, what I’m really doing is teaching people to pay attention. This is a simple instruction but it’s not an easy one; it requires us to slow down, and to do some self-reflection too. It’s not generally in-line or easy to do in our fast-paced culture.

But I think it’s needed more than ever.

In the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, I believe I saw a higher-than-usual level of what I’ll call snark. In other words, people being “cranky and irritable” with one another, especially on Facebook (which is my primary social media outlet). I’m not judging anyone here; in fact, I’m prone to snark myself, and for much smaller things than the future of our country! Once the results were in, well…even with the “Unfriend” button people were/are getting into it in all kinds of interesting ways.

What a great time to turn to the Yoga Sutras! No, I’m not kidding.

Sutra 1.6 talks about the five vrittis, which are the capacities that our minds have. I think of these as categories of potential. Doesn’t that sound neat?

  • The first one, pramāṇa, is something I think we all want to have: in Frans Moors’ translation, “correct functioning of the mind leading to accurate knowledge”. It basically means that one has accurately assessed a situation, so that they could respond to it.
  • Of course there’s also the opposite, viparyaya, defined as “poor functioning of the mind leading to false knowledge, altered or tainted by ill-founded beliefs or presumptions.” So the assessment has been incorrect, yet one reacted.
  • Then there’s vikalpa–the fun capacity for creation, problem solving, and using language to communicate about intangible concepts and material objects or people that are not currently present. As you may have experienced, such a capacity for imagination can be used for true communication and great fun; alternatively, it can drive one to depression via consistent negative thinking and worst-case scenarios.
  • Next is nidrā, but we’ll skip that one for now because it’s not as relevant to the topic.
  • So that makes the last one smṛti. Smṛti is our memory, our own personal record of all our experiences–conscious or unconscious–because they leave a lasting impression on us. (p. 30-31).

All right, cool.

So how can we get some more of the good stuff, that pramāṇa?

Patanjali, the person(s) attributed with writing the Yoga Sutras, helps us with that in Sutra 1.7. He says there are three ways, and in the order implies a priority:

  1. pratyakṣa: this is defined as “direct perception”. It means we saw, heard, tasted, touched, etc. something–i.e. we directly experienced it ourselves through our senses. An example adapted from Moors’ translation: I open the door for my client, seeing that they are wet and that it’s raining hard outside.
  2. anumāna: when pratyakṣa isn’t possible, we use “well-constructed” logic or deductive reasoning. E.g. my client arrives soaking wet. I have not been in the rain, I may even be in a room that doesn’t offer a view of the outdoors. Yet because the person has arrived soaking wet, it must be the case that it’s raining. (Note the use of vikalpa (imagination) and smṛti (memory) as described above. Note also that it may or may not be correct: e.g. if there was a bucket of water up on a building scaffolding that emptied on the client as they walked to my door!)
  3. āgamā: this is defined as “testimony from a reliable source.” Traditionally these were texts or teachings of a master, but it could be any source of information that’s valid. For example, this morning I checked the weather forecast for Belize. (Which also may or may not be accurate!) Some would say there was a lot of āgamā being relied on during the election. Which web site, news channel, etc. was reliable? How do we know? This is why this one’s #3.

 

Here’s a recent example that these Sutras can help us with.

Caveat: with so many posts and the fact that the group moderator shut this one down, I can’t find it again. So I’ll be writing up the situation from my perspective (which as you probably already surmised), may be a flawed starting point. If you were part of this conversation and I’ve gotten it all wrong, please understand I’m not intending to misrepresent you or paint you or anyone else to be a bad person. We ALL do this ALL THE TIME. My intent is to bring it to our (collective) attention.

In one of the groups I joined since the election, a man posted a statement noting that people

49297398 - woman working in home office hand on keyboard close up.

 

were getting a lot of support from the group, and then asked what specific actions the group was going to take as a result of its existence.

  1. One person responded with links or references to other posts and events that had been created (if you’re on some of these you know it’s VERY hard to keep up with everything!).
  2. Another responded with something akin to “hey, support is important, you just don’t understand…”.

The man responded to response #2, (in my view) trying to clarify that he agreed with the importance of emotional support, AND that he only wanted stay posted about any events or activities the group was advocating or sponsoring. I don’t know whether it was the same few people, but as I scrolled through the thread I watched this aspect of the conversation continue. The last post I saw from the man was that he apologized for being direct, but that was just his way of speaking. The moderator closed this discussion down. Personally, and for the record, I didn’t see the big deal. (But that’s ME. I’m also a direct kind of person. 🙂 )

With that as the stage, let’s break it down a bit:

  • What he originally wrote in the group is pratyakṣa. We could read his post, his words, with our own eyes. Since it has to do with language, it involves some vikalpa and smṛti. This is how we know how to read!
  • Whether they were in response group 1 or 2, those who responded had some anumāna–which also involved vikalpa and smṛti. In other words, they deduced what his meaning was based on their past memory and their imagination.
  • None of those who responded (that I saw) asked anything like, “are you intending to chastise us for talking through our feelings…?” or “are you feeling like if you don’t do something specific you’re not helpful?” or even “did you miss the post about event Y?” In other words, they didn’t notice when they were assigning their own meaning to his words. (E.g. none of these assumptions were not directly readable). We ALL do this ALL the time.
  • To his credit (I think) he still answered those unasked questions in his follow up posts. This is āgamā–the original poster clarifying what he really meant. Of course only he knows what he meant, so he’s the reliable source.

So who had pramāṇa and who had viparyaya? We may never know. The conversation didn’t continue because we clearly didn’t know how to talk to each other, even in a closed group of like-minded people all trying to help.

This is troubling.

I’ve been fortunate to have been playing with these concepts for all of a month–and it’s already saved me from unnecessary suffering. I know that to many of you these are strange, foreign, Sanskrit words, but use the English if it’s easier. The point is, being able to see where there is pratyakṣa, anumāna, and āgamā is, as my teacher puts it: “so useful”.

But like many things, this requires us to slow down and pay closer attention.

Ideally at that point where we’ve made a leap we would recognize it, pause, and ask for clarification. This way we are more likely to have pramāṇa (correct perception) and can respond accordingly. Remember that Patanjali didn’t say pramāṇa is something we agree with or would like. It just means we are very clear about what we’re dealing with.

Now’s not a time to alienate people, especially ones who support you, because of a misunderstanding. So take some time today to notice any anumāna your mind is doing and double-check!


In addition to Frans Moors’ Liberating Isolation, I also referenced YogaStudies.org and used my interpretation of the teachings of Chase Bossart.


Know Thyself, & Keep Practicing Anyway

One of the “benefits” of consistent yoga practice is that you begin to know yourself. And I mean, really up close and all personal-like.

It might be that you notice some physical thing you’ve done unconsciously before–such as standing with all the weight on one leg, hip jutted out to the side while you’re standing in the line at the grocery store, or how you sit hunched over your laptop, working for hours without taking a break for posture, pee, water or food.

Recognizing such physical habits is useful and good, because it increases the likelihood that you’ll make adjustments throughout your day so you’re less sore or tired at the end of it. In fact, this is one of the things I help my private therapeutic yoga clients and beginner students pay attention to as part of starting a yoga practice. And it is certainly a practice, because no one is perfect at this, and certainly not right away. It takes time, but eventually our patterns show themselves, we notice them, we can change, and then we feel better.

In yoga we call these patterns samskaras, and I think of them as super-industrial strength habits, or such well-worn paths that it’s almost impossible at first to believe there’s even another road or that we can do things differently.

I put “benefit” in quotes above because, at least for me, what’s more challenging is when I notice more subtle mental and emotional patterns in myself. A week or so ago one of my mental/emotional samskaras showed up in two different situations: enough that I was able to finally see it. And of course I didn’t like it!!

The first was–somewhat ironically–in a course where I’m learning to chant the Yoga Sutras. Before I enrolled in this course, I’d been listening to CDs in my car, and had almost completed all 4 chapters. Still, I don’t know much about why I’m making a particular sound beyond whether the note is low or high; I don’t know what’s a syllable or what letters are long sounds and which are short or aspirated. In this class, our teacher chants the particular Sutra in question and then we each (individually!) have to chant it back to him, and he corrects us.

Fortunately, these classes are recorded. And what I notice when I go back to the recordings is that when I’m live on the class, I don’t seem to actually hear the corrections that are given to me in a way that I understand, process, and integrate them. I’m too focused on making whatever change is being asked of me and “getting it right” in that very moment. When I do that, I have a very hard time remembering the change later, and can’t apply it well to new instances. Hearing him and me on the recorded version, I realize I didn’t take in what was said. It seems to click in my brain in an altogether different way when I have more time and am feeling more at ease.

The second example came to me in a more pronounced way within a few days. I have been trying to learn Spanish for what feels like a really long time, and I struggle a lot with it. I’m fine “studying” on my own. I’ve used all the nice online apps and videos and I have a grammar book that kicks my ass (pardon my language but it’s true) almost every week. Recently I found a lovely woman from Spain (one of my favorite countries!) who tutors people in Spanish, and so I meet her at a coffee shop sometimes on Fridays.

Toward the end of my last lesson, we took a detour to talk about which letters are accented vs. not. “It’s easy,” she said, while quickly saying and illegibly scribbling down three Spanish words I’d never heard before and the rules associated with them. First as a teacher you never want to tell someone that something is easy, because odds are it isn’t easy for them, but anyway…I tried to ignore the category names even though I felt myself being pulled to wondering what they were…and did seem to understand the first rule (even if I couldn’t write/say what the category of words were called. For the curious, they are here.)

When she got to the second rule though, I heard it incorrectly and thus the example she was using didn’t make any sense to me. (In yoga we call this viparyaya–wrong perception.) And instead of assuming my understanding was incorrect, I kept incredulously repeating my incorrect view to her, assuming that she must have said something inconsistent and not realized it. This went on for some time, with me increasingly feeling stupid and hopeless over this “easy” thing, until something happened where I realized my mistake (which was really a stupid mistake). Then everything suddenly became clear. (In yoga we call this pramana–correct perception.) I can’t tell you what happened to make me suddenly “get it”. I think I might have just stopped fighting her!

These two circumstances were not only exhausting but were not pleasant to notice about myself. So what happened? First, I felt overwhelmed. Too much information was coming at me too quickly (especially in the case of the Spanish lesson). I’d felt this before while working in high-tech. We used to call it a “fire-hose” of information. I was tired because my brain couldn’t keep up. I was also frustrated because my brain couldn’t keep up. (Forget about the fact that I’m studying Sanskrit and Spanish on back-to-back days for the moment. 😉 )

Second, I’m too worried about pleasing my teachers. I’m too worried about being right: or more appropriately, about being wrong. This has a lot of ties to my childhood experiences that I won’t go into here, but it’s sufficient to say that it feels dangerous and unsafe for me to be wrong.

Now in the case of the Spanish lesson I can certainly ask my teacher to go slower. In the case of the Sutras class (where I’m on a call with other people), that’s not feasible. And it’s certainly possible that even if I asked my Spanish tutor nicely, she’d forget and go back to teaching the way she teaches. So, the only way I can see to change this is to change ME.

How do I change me? Consistent yoga practice.

This is frustrating and fascinating and motivating all at the same time!


Short Yoga Practices for Your Chakras

ChakrasA big thank you to all the students who attended my themed chakra yoga classes a few months ago, as well as to those students and workshop attendees who have more recently attended my “crash course” workshop on the chakras.

After doing themed classes each week and putting things all together for the workshop, I decided to record short videos of some yoga postures and breathing practices that everyone could try if they were interested in balancing their chakras. This post is a summary of all those videos, which are now available on my YouTube Channel. (Please subscribe to be notified of new, future videos!)

Root Chakra (Muladhara)

Sacral Chakra (Svadhisthana)

Solar Plexus Chakra (Manipura)

Heart Chakra (Anahata)

Throat Chakra (Vishuddha)

Brow / Third-eye Chakra (Anja)

Crown Chakra (Sahasrara)

This breathing practice is good for MANY other reasons, but is also a great way to balance the crown chakra.


When sattva takes over

34664951_sThis morning a strange thing happened to me. It’s happened to me a few times before, and I thought I would share, because I think it highlights some important principles of yoga (that aren’t all about the physical postures).

Most of my life, I’d describe myself as being too rajasic (this is yoga speak for “too much energy”). Always busy, always moving, and therefore often anxious, on high alert, and stressed. When I started having problems physically in 2014, I would sometimes notice that my mind was still in this state but my body simply couldn’t be. As I continue to have these physical issues, I’ve given up a lot of activities that I used to love, which historically would always help me feel…well, better. This includes many yoga postures. And as the chronic pain started to wear me down, there would be some days when I felt tamasic (this is yoga speak for “too little energy”). I’d be fatigued, lethargic, and just not feeling like I wanted to do anything. “Binge watching Netflix” became something I understood!

We often talk about finding “balance” in life. And so if we’re neither too rajasic or too tamasic, what are we? The yogic term is sattvic. We are alert yet relaxed in body and mind.

This morning I taught three yoga classes in two different locations. In two of the three, I recognized that I was in a sattvic state. I recognized this because when I’m in it, I feel like a different person, like I don’t know who I am, and like something else has taken over (but I’m still aware). For me, the signs of this while teaching are:

  • I have the class plan loosely in my mind, but I’m not exactly thinking about it. I cue the movements as I planned and in a way that adjusts to the abilities and energies of the class, but my “thinking”, overly-active and anxious mind isn’t playing a role. It just sort of happens. Now if during this I become consciously aware that I’ve been sort of gone for a time, I’m likely to stammer in my words or even feel like I’ve lost my place! (So, I’ve learned to stay in this flow and trust that it comes out all right.)
  • My voice changes. It becomes smoother and (to me) almost hypnotic. I’ve called this my “yoga voice.” This is how I first knew I could be a different person as a yoga teacher than I was as a design manager–I sounded different. Calm, centered, present. But even while I feel present, if I happen to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror while teaching, it’s almost like I’m watching myself. There have been times when this has bled into my normal day–catching a glimpse of me in the ladies room mirror while at a restaurant for example–and having a (positive) thought about the person I saw, only a second later realizing that OMG, I’m looking at ME. Witness consciousness?
  • The class seems to go at a steady, even pace. Not too slow, not too fast. (It can feel these ways to teachers too!) There’s a synergy of all the students in the room. Distractions are minimal. When it’s over, I feel this sense of, dare I say, awe? Like I’ve just seen something beautiful. Like I’ve just taken the best class ever as a student. My body feels a little better, even if there’s still pain present. I feel awake and yet relaxed and peaceful. Sattva.

If you’ve ever been deeply immersed in a project at work, or a creative project at home, you may know what it feels like to be “in flow”. It’s like there’s very little effort, and everything just works. Maybe we just get out of our own way (i.e. the ego part of us steps aside, we trust, and the mind-body is animated by that divine part of us that just knows exactly what to do).

It would be nice if we could be there all the time right? But sooner or later, the balance will change, and either rajas or tamas will dominate, so it’s important that we don’t become attached to that state of balance. A teacher once said to me, “balance isn’t being still; it’s constant adjustment” (think of a tight-rope walker: tiny movements from side to side help maintain the balance and appearance of complete steadiness). However, I think it’s useful to recognize when sattva arrives; to feel it, acknowledge it, thank it for its presence. Which is exactly my intention here.

In gratitude for all my students today (may you experience sattva),
Kali


My Yoga Origin Story*

34664951_s1. How did you start yoga? Why do you still practice? How has your practice changed?

I started yoga with my “Journey into Power” Baron Baptiste DVD, and by going to a small group class with my colleague Renee. At the time (1999 or so), I worked at a start up software company as a Technical Writer. Like most beginners, yoga was exercise to me: it was about my body becoming more flexible. (I didn’t even have the “strength” bit in mind back then!) I still remember the first time the instructor led “eagle arms”. I remember looking at Renee in horror and her putting her thumb to her nose and waving her other fingers at me, while all twisted up, a smile on her face. I still practice because I feel better when I do. (One of my teachers passed along what her teacher used to say: “practice yoga on the days you want to feel good.”) My practice is much less intensely physical, and much more breath- and mentally-focused—I practice movements and breathing patterns that hold my attention, help me stay out of (a newly developed chronic pain condition), and feel more at ease.

2. Why do you teach yoga? Why did you start and why do you stay? How has your teaching evolved?

I teach yoga because it makes me feel good, and I love making other people feel better too. I started teaching because I discovered a different person underneath the one I thought I was (in the corporate world), and I liked her much better! She seemed much less uptight, a little more relaxed, a little more confident and dare I say “goofy”.  I have also always loved movement (I used to dance a lot), and when I added the breath it was just so calming. Why I stay is a good question, because in many ways yoga systematically dismantled my life, and has made some things harder. I stay because I can’t imagine going back to that other world. I feel like I’m doing something meaningful with my life now. I know something I didn’t know before, and there’s no going back! My teaching has evolved the way my personal practice and training have. Always compassionate but even more gentle, therapeutic, and mind-focused now. I study way more philosophy (e.g. Yoga Sutras, the Gita, etc.) now; these have captured my attention and interest and sometimes I feel better just reading about yogic concepts.

stretching_in_yoga_class3. What do you know to be true about yoga and what could this mean? How has yoga impacted your life in ways large and small?

What’s true about yoga is you get what you put into it. For years I had the tools (including a pain-free, mobile body!) but didn’t use them. I’m not sure whether it was laziness, forgetfulness, or simply a disbelief that they would work for me. I remember seeing all these healthy yogis and wondering why I didn’t “get it” (especially the spiritual stuff). I liked the physical aspect, but I knew there was something more and I suppose my mind/heart just weren’t ready for it. I think we all let things in on our own time. Yoga totally ruined my life. Said more positively it completely and utterly transformed it, and I’ve no doubt that it will continue to. Sometimes the uncertainty is what’s scary. Yoga has changed my location, career, name, mindset about health, eating habits, relationships, the ways I speak to myself, how I sleep, what “balance” looks like, what “health” means to me, and so on. It shows me daily where I fall short, giving me opportunities to be kinder to myself and/or make different decisions.

Note: This blog was prompted by a blog from Kate Connell Potts at You & The Yoga Mat, so props to her for making me consider these questions!