I hope you’ve enjoyed our 31 Days/ 31 Poses journey. It has been an honor to share and talk with you about this handful of asanas. Your feedback and enthusiasm touched my heart. I’ve never seen or heard a name for the version of a side crow pose pictured here, so it’s all up to you – Name that pose!
This week was Fashion Week in NYC. A city full of people took a break from their normal lives to focus on what their style statement is, and to determine if their style is representing them the way they want it to. Personally, I love the creativity and artistry of fashion. I also believe in the impact of a style statement. However, our style statement isn’t the only announcement we make when we walk out into the world.
Our thoughts, our presence, and our emotions make an energetic statement about who we are that is felt by everyone around us. This statement makes an impact that is much less transient than our style statement. It affects the way others interact with us, it influences the way we feel about ourselves, and the events we draw into our lives. However, it is more difficult to remain conscious of our energetic statement than it is to choose the color of our jeans.
Bringing your best self into everything you do is a steep challenge. It’s something that you will naturally fall out of and have to consistently re-check. For example, when you find yourself: in a conversation where your body is present, but you’ve mentally checked out; waiting in a long line becoming angry and agitated; maintaining a relationship while simultaneously keeping an eye out for the exit door. At these times the statement you’re making is not an accurate reflection of you really are, or want to be. The results that are created, the energy and reactions that will be reflected back to you, will not be what you want either. Consistently reconnecting inward to consider if the statement you’re making in the moment is your best self, transforms your life from a discovery process into a creation that you can control. In his book Conversations with God, Neal Walsh wrote “There is only one reason to do anything, as a statement to the universe of who you are.”
Yoga has changed a lot about how I interact with the people around me and how I react to situations. It’s very fulfilling to realize I’m not taken off balance in a moment when I might have become fearful or angry in that past. However, there are other times when I find myself to be decidedly un-yogic. Hurricane Irene gave me a week without lights, air-conditioning, internet access or hot water. Living in a town with huge, old, oak trees that loose branches in wind, rain and snow storms; we’ve had plenty of power failures. In the past we’ve been dark for 10 minutes to 2 days. A week is a record.
My immediate reaction when the lights went out was to sit and wait for my world to re-illuminate. Any minute now. Ten minutes later, resignation set in and I followed through on the preparations I’d made: grab the flashlights, light the candles, pretend to read Yoga Journal…..but my real focus was on waiting for the lights to come on. Surprised that the lights were still out when I went to bed, my first cogent thought the next morning was, “I HAVE to have power today.” The next two days became a pregnant pause of tension. A void of waiting, and thinking “I HAVE to get power this morning.” “ I’m sure I’ll get power this afternoon.” “ Pleeeease let me get power tonight.” “It’s not possible that I’d have to take another ice cold shower today.” As each deadline passed without success, I felt my non-yogi nerves fray. Finally, on the third day I stopped resisting. The fact that the power was not coming on in my timeframe, and that I had no control over when it would come on, sunk in and I accepted it. Immediately, the tension melted and I could get on with the details of life without lights and hot water.
It occurred to me after the fact that I had just re-experienced an old lesson. It wasn’t the lack of electricity that had caused me to feel frazzled and frustrated. The tension was the result of my resistance. Every moment spent wishing things were different caused anxiety, discomfort and suffering. When I finally settled in, and accepted the situation, I could move through each day, making whatever adjustments were necessary, and still feel centered. Another opportunity to break-through.
I was sent a link to a blog submitted to the Toronto Body Mind website by an author listed as “Gary Empty Book Justice”. The blog, titled Using Silence in Yoga Classes, http://torontobodymind.ca/blogs/gary-empty-book-justice/using-silence-yoga-classes, expressed Gary’s opinion that music is a distraction to the mindfulness practice of a yoga class.
While Gary makes some excellent points, and I agree that silence can be one means of finding a sense of presence during yoga class, I am also an avid proponent for the use of other tools – including music. Mindfulness and presence are beautiful components of a practice. However, as a yoga teacher, I also strive to create an environment, and a catalyst, for each student to find something new. Sometimes they discover they have been holding a limited view of their capabilites. Sometimes they uncover a new understanding of how they think and react. Sometimes they tap into a personal power that had been buried and forgotten. Sometimes they find a new stillness and balance. Whatever it is that they discover, it will make a change and, for me, it doesn’t matter if that transformation is sparked from my words, energy, the sequencing of asanas, silence, or a resonance with the music. I’m happy to use whatever entry is available to facilitate that growth.
As with any tool in the toolbox, the use of restraint can add value. I always try to remember that the class is about the yoga, not the music. Through my mistakes and my successes in using music as an enhancement to class, there are some lessons I’ve learned. Following are a few that might be of interest:
- The flow of the class, the intention, and the asanas all dictate the music that I play. Rethink Yoga is a form of Power Vinyasa, which has a very distinct arc that ascends fairly early in the class, holds on a plateau until it peaks and then descends slowly. The music compliments that arc, but doesn’t dictate it
- By the same token, I am the only teacher in the class, the music doesn’t teach.
- The music that I play is specific to the class I’m teaching. I am personally a big fan of classical, heavy metal, rock and roll, and hip-hop music. However, the tunes I choose to play in a class are not what I happen to be listening to on my iPod that day.
- I don’t play music straight through class from beginning to end. It’s on when it will add something and it’s off when it won’t.
I think to use music effectively you have to love music and be willing to spend a fair amount of time preparing class mixes. To effectively hit the points above, it’s not possible to throw a CD into the stereo, hit play, and call it a day. If that were the only option, I might agree with Gary’s position that no music is better. Since that’s not the case, I think the lesson here is to learn how to use your tools well – as many, varied tools as you can.
On a recent sunny afternoon I was driving with the top down in my car, enjoying the fresh air and sense of freedom. The radio blasted a Darius Rucker song titled “This” and I found myself paying close attention to the lyrics. The song portrays a man grateful for where he is in life. Darius sings his acknowledgment that the twists and turns of his life’s path, while not always pleasant in the moment, have landed him in a place of happiness. As I seat danced and sang my way down the highway, I felt completely in tune with Mr. Rucker – not vocally – but definitely emotionally. In that moment I was deeply content, and filled with the warmth of gratitude. I realize I’m sounding uncharacteristically “Woo-Woo”, but the sensation of being hardwired directly to the universe, connected to everyone and everything, is powerful and possible.
A gratitude practice is a simple, although not always easy, endeavor to implement. It offers tremendous benefits including an overwhelming sense of well being. Unfortunately, a gratitude practice can seem irrelevant when you are continually in problem-solving mode. As parents, householders and employees, we are trained to notice what isn’t working and devise ways to resolve it. On the surface, this can seem like a positive attribute. The truth is there will always be something going wrong. Reducing your day to a series of identifying and responding to problems is not everything you want out of life. Your life doesn’t start at some point in the future when nothing is going wrong, you have money in the bank, you’ve located your soul mate and you are at your ideal weight.
One of the challenges to a implementing a gratitude practice is what your center of attention is. Your mind doesn’t know the difference between what you want and what you don’t want. It only knows what you focus on, and it assumes you want more of whatever you are focusing on. This presents a conundrum for most people whose attention is drawn to what goes wrong in their day, rather than what goes right. Your attention gravitates to the people and events that fall short of what you think they should be. Unfortunately, by focusing on your let downs, not only do you attract more of the same, but you become prone to overlooking your blessings. Mindfully shifting your attention to what is, rather than what is not, is a great starting point for breaking this pattern.
Next you’ll want to look at your expectations. You expect your alarm clock and your car to work. You expect that your lights will go on when you flip the switch. You expect your loved ones will care about you. Once you come to expect something, you take it for granted. You are not grateful for the things you take for granted.
Another challenge to a gratitude practice is feeling entitled. When the gas station attendant fills your tank, the mailman delivers your mail, or the cashier bags your groceries you probably don’t feel grateful. These people are paid to deliver a service. It’s their job. But the fact is, regardless of their motivation, you are benefiting from their efforts. Developing gratitude in these types of situations is part of the practice.
Finally, make sure that you have created a distinction between a gratitude practice and the feeling of helplessness generated by your mother telling you to eat your brussel sprouts because there were children starving in India. A gratitude practice is not an excuse to become self defeating, passive or accepting of those things that you know should be changed. There is a potential danger in messages such as: “These things are wrong, but we should be grateful for what we have,” and “Compared to these people, look how much better off we are.” These statements can become excuses for not taking action to change social injustice, or stand up against unfair situations. A gratitude practice is not a justification for being submissive. On the contrary, as you become more adept at acknowledging your blessings and developing a mindful approach to gratitude, you will likely find that you have a heightened sense of caring for, and connection to, other human beings.
Lyrics to Darius Rucker’s song “This” (seat dancing optional)
Every stoplight I didn’t make,
Every chance I did or I didn’t take,
All the nights I went too far,
All the girls that broke my heart,
All the doors that I had to close,
All the things I knew but I didn’t know,
Thank God for all I missed,
‘Cause it led me here to this…
August nights in NJ are my favorite. The warm weather often draws my family outside after dinner. Last night I was hanging out in my backyard watching fireflies. Although I no longer think they’re fairies, I still find the same enjoyment in fireflies that I did as a kid. Their burst of energy is inspiring. Fireflies use their light to attract their mate. In other words, their burst of energy draws what they what to them.
Typically, we think of turning our attention inward during our yoga practice in an effort to find balance and create change. However, our inner and outer worlds are connected. We can also create the life we want by looking outside of ourselves.
During your mat practice, in each asana, you send out a burst of energy. If your mental dialogue turns to “I hate this pose. I can’t do this pose”, a negative energy is created which will not only impact your present moment, but can continue to echo around you when you step off the mat. On the other hand, when you bring your best self, your best energy, into your poses the reverberation will be felt immediately and will continue long after your mat practice ends for the day. Every time you come to the mat, the opportunity exists to impact change in what is happening inside of you as well as what happens outside. While yogis are frequently thought of as turtles, drawing energy and focus within. The expansiveness and reach of the firefly’s energy offers a beautiful alternative approach. Challenge yourself to shine your best light – to grow, expand and to draw the positive energy you want toward you.
Half of the people who start a new exercise program will drop out before they hit the 6 week mark. This statistic is particularly concerning for people suffering from the pain and immobility brought on with arthritis. The less an arthritic joint is used, the more immobile it becomes. The more immobile the joint becomes, the less it is used. I had a very frustrating front row seat to this downward spiral as I watched my aunt’s world shrink to the periphery of her living room chair as the arthritis in her spine stole her physical freedom. Yoga is strong medicine for people facing a future similar to my aunt’s. In large part due to its holistic approach to improving not only the body but also the mind, practitioners tend to stay with their yoga practice over their lifetime. It is this potential that gives yoga the greatest possibility for improving and preventing chronic disease.
When I started teaching yoga for seniors, I fully expected I would be working with people facing conditions similar to my aunt’s. However, over my years of teaching, I’ve been surprised by the number of students in their 30s and 40s that have approached me after being diagnosed with arthritis. Yoga, in general, is one stop shopping for people with chronic health issues such as arthritis. A regular yoga practice offers patients an improved quality of life, increased strength, flexibility and balance, enhanced immune system, cardiovascular conditioning, emotional and mental steadiness.
There are four different styles of yoga that I have found particularly helpful in improving the state of affected joints, enabling patients to reduce and sometimes eliminate their dependence on drugs, often avoid surgery, and in general improve their outlook. Where surgery is a medical necessity, these yoga styles offer a comprehensive recovery plan and a holistic approach to the prevention of future decline. In addition many patients, in an unconscious reaction to arthritic pain, will start to hold their bodies in ways that create imbalance, muscle tension and compound future problems. A yoga practice of any style enhances your awareness of how you sit, stand and move your body so that your joints are properly aligned and muscle strain is corrected. Combining three or four of these styles can offer the greatest physical and emotional benefits.
B.K.S. Iyengar initially came to yoga because he suffered from numerous chronic ailments. After studying yoga, and significantly improving his own health, Iyengar developed a self named style of practice that uses blocks, blankets, pillows and straps to modify poses. The ample use of props, and the slower pace of an Iyengar practice, make this style very accessible for students with restricted mobility and limited flexibility. Emphasis is placed on the very specific alignment of muscles and bones in each pose. This is especially useful where misalignment, poor posture and damaging movement habits have exacerbated the erosion of the cartilage that cushions joints.
Gentle Vinyasa Yoga strings poses together so they flow from one to the other. Vinyasa, meaning flow, offers continuous slow movement that is especially friendly to people who have a hard time keeping their minds still unless they are “doing” something. Each pose can still be modified to accommodate individual students’ current abilities, and props are used occasionally. Over time, the emphasis on breath work that comes from coordinating every movement with an inhale or an exhale strengthens mental concentration and lowers blood pressure. Although there is less attention paid to the precise alignment of each pose, vinyasa offers the added benefit of cardiovascular work.
During times when you are particularly weakened, tired, stressed or run down Yin Yoga is a ideal restorative solution. Yin Yoga is a Chinese style of practice in which poses are held for extended periods to invite a meditative state of mind and a deepening into the posture. Yin Yoga’s long static stretches are particularly useful in lubricating, strengthening and lengthening connective tissue, ligaments and tendons. Also, because a pose can be held for as much as 20 minutes, the physical and mental emphasis of Yin is on releasing and relaxing.
The fourth modality that I’ve found effective when working with arthritis is Chair Yoga. While not typically classified as a specific style of practice, chair yoga can be mixed into any of the other styles, or done on its own. Almost any pose can be modified and approached from a seated position. This is less intimidating for beginning students who worry about being asked to turn themselves into a pretzel. Chair yoga classes are growing in popularity in gyms, mixing a social ingredient into the yoga experience.
Unlike western medicine, yoga does not assume a lack of pain means you are healthy. Yogis define health by looking at the condition, and interaction, of every system in the body including circulation, digestion, respiration, and muscular/skeletal. In addition, yoga focuses a great deal on the condition of the mind and how the mind directly impacts the health of the body. I do not believe, however, that yoga is a substitute for all that western medicine has to offer. What I have seen is that yoga is a very effective collaborator with traditional medical regimens. For example, the breath work and mental focus practiced in yoga reduces anxiety, nervousness, and stress. This in turn decreases many patients’ dependence on medications normally prescribed for these conditions. Smaller doses of medicine equates to a lower incidence of side effects, which in turn improves physical and mental health.
While yoga, as a physical venue offers tremendous benefits to arthritic joints, the most dramatic value that I’ve witnessed in my students lies in the psychological areas of the practice. By taking an active role in the improvement of their condition, arthritis patients gain a sense of control, confidence and empowerment. Depression subsides as pain subsides and, because they feel less like victims, I often see dramatic and quick improvements to these people’s outlook toward the future. With these results it is not difficult for yogis to commit to a consistent practice that lasts, and enhances, a lifetime.
Santosa, the second of Patanjali’s five Niyamas, is the practice of finding contentment and acceptance in our lives and in ourselves. By cultivating santosa we increase our sense of balance, flow and peace on and off the mat. During asana practice we remind ourselves to accept where our bodies are today and work from there. We work with releasing judgements of poses, people and events and our attachments to any particular outcome. Through this effort we are better able to be completely in our now moment, acknowledging ourselves as we are, and each moment as it is.
Santosa can be a challenging practice, but in this area fathers are wise yogis. Dads are intrinsically great teachers of self acceptance. It’s Dads that do cannon balls into the pool with complete abandon. Fathers don’t care if they have hat hair after a round of golf. They have no concern if they’re wearing two different socks to go to the supermarket. It’s Dads who bring Popeye’s mantra “I yam who I yam” into everyday life.
The irony of transformation is that change is only possible when we have accepted no change. In the west we tend to put an emphasis on precision, performance and accomplishment in our yoga practice. It is a challenge to ensure that through our drive to be better than we are, we don’t lose our acceptance of who we are. Fathers have already figured this dilemma out. It makes no difference to a Father that he played 17 holes of terrible golf and lost 10 balls. If he plays one great hole, he’s thrilled. Exclamations of “Yea! I’m back. I am sooo good!” echoing through the fairway.
Here in the northeast we’ve had a long transition between spring and summer. After a long, cold, snow filled winter, we’ve lately endured months of grey, wet, cloudy days. I find myself waiting. Waiting for the rain to end. Waiting for summer to start. Waiting to be able to garden, to be outside, to break out my summer shorts…..Waiting. Once I’m deep within that mindset, the now moment no longer exists. It’s like time spent on the tarmac after the plane has pushed off from the gate, but hasn’t been cleared to take flight. It’s like the lame duck period between presidencies or senate sessions. The old hasn’t moved out. The new hasn’t moved in. At these times, being in transition starts to manifest as being stuck in neutral.
In yogic philosophy transition does not mean neutral. The concepts of being fully present, mindful, in the moment, has significance during the in-between times as well. Luckily, there’s plenty of opportunity to practice as there is a lot of life that’s spent in-between.
Transitions can be uncomfortable, especially when we don’t know what’s coming next. We can feel like we’re drifting and disoriented. We just want to get it over with and move on to the next thing. On the mat we learn to be present in the transitions between poses rather than rushing through to the next goal. Bringing awareness and energy to the in between moments of our asana practice significantly increases the balancing and centering benefits of our time on the mat. However, gaining those benefits requires that we not close our eyes and tune out. That we don’t hesitate or rush through. These practices serve us off the mat as well as they do on the mat.
We don’t always know where our path is leading us, especially when we are in between mile parkers. The poet David Whyte wrote “If we think life is always improving, we’re going to miss half of it.” There is opportunity to gain strength on the journey, rather than waiting until we find the man, get the money, or loose the five pounds. However, to gain the knowledge and strength that is available to us, it becomes necessary to not just be all in, all the time, but also in-between.
Do you believe that everything that happens to you, no matter how inconvenient or painful it may be, happens for your own good? Most communication including our personal conversations, news on the internet, Sirius, and TV focuses on what is wrong and what is bad. These external messages reinforce an internal belief system in which everything gets categorized as good or bad, right or wrong.
One area of our thinking that can get particularly mired in polarized views is our thoughts about our past. Our past is an anchor until we decide to let go of our negative beliefs and memories of it. The events and relationships we wish we’d handled better; the people and situations that hurt us and let us down are frozen in time. Every day we grow and evolve, but our negative memories of the past stand still. As a result, for most people, our emotional selves stay much younger than our spiritual and intellectual selves.
Is it possible to change the way we think and feel about our past? Can we step outside of our present self and view our lives holistically rather than a string of separate positive and negative incidents?
Everytime a bad memory gives us a negative picture of ourselves, makes us feel sorry for ourselves, or see ourselves as victims, we are overlooking the good that was created from the experience – and there is always good. Perhaps we learned so much from the situation that we never allowed that behavior back into our lives. Maybe the event caused us to change our path. Even in the worst situation, with the most hurtful person, we develop new personality traits that are beneficial. Sometimes we need an obstacle to push against to create a new muscle or inner strength.
The more we hate something, or someone, the more solid our connection to it. When we appreciate (even love) our past for its contribution to where we are now, it can be released. By re-framing our negative memories of our childhood, our parents, our careers or our relationships into positive contributions to our path, we can move faster, and significantly lighter, into a new future.
Early in my corporate career, I had a title, an office and responsibilities that were just slightly oversized for my age, my skills and my experience. On one memorable afternoon I sat across from my boss over lunch as he informed me that a portion of my staff would be laid off immediately.
“You told me 2 weeks ago that my staff was safe and I relayed those assurances to them!” I said with the surprise that comes from naiveté.
“I told you the truth as I saw it at the time. “ He responded. “Now I’m telling you the truth as it is today. “
While I was still trying to make sense of that statement, he delivered the final blow that sealed the lesson for me. “The truth changes,” he said.
It was a lesson I would face a few different times before realizing that many factors, including an individual’s perspective and foresight, impact whether or not their truth is reliable.
In yoga we call truth Satya. Satya is a truth that never changes. We are born with a right to love, equanimity and happiness. This is our intrinsic Satya. When we stand in our Satya, the power of external circumstances to impact our happiness is significantly reduced.
At the same time, our perspective of the situations and circumstances around us, our “reality, will always be changing. However, we can choose how we want to look at anything. We make a choice to use the energy of any situation in either a constructive or destructive way. Once we learn this skill, we never have to be the victim of another person’s choices or the shifting landscape of their truth.
I made a mistake while teaching a Power Yoga class last night. A rookie mistake. I thought I knew better.
Halfway through the 75 minute class, we were holding tree pose to let the energy quiet down. As I observed the students it seemed they were well focused and the vibrations in the room were mellowing. Nice. And then I said it. It slipped off my tongue unchecked. The dreaded “R” word. I told them to “ relax”. The word every yoga student hates to hear. The word relax can easily send a room of otherwise composed yogis into a tail spin of self doubt and recrimination. “I thought I was relaxed!” “How can I relax anymore than this, while standing on one foot and trying to breath?” “I thought I was doing so well, what does she see?” “OMG, I must be the worst student in this room, I don’t even know how to relax!”
Of course, yogis are not alone in their contrary reaction to the word. Try telling your spouse to relax when they’re intently pushing their side of a disagreement will not diffuse the situation. When your best friend is hiccupping through a puddle of tears over a failed relationship, she does not want to hear that she’ll feel better if she relaxes. Who hasn’t witnessed the failed attempts of a mother telling her overly tired toddler to relax as he spirals into a public temper tantrum? And weren’t you secretly tempted to give the mother the same advice?
There’s no question that relaxing would improve the tenor of each of these situations, just as the broad concept of relaxing through your asana practice is worthwhile. By lightening up and loosening up, you let the poses breathe themselves to life rather than forcing them into being. The benefit of relaxing when confronted with stress, on and off the mat, is that you learn to let go of, rather than adding, tension. Which then dissolves the stress. However, the bottom line is that telling someone to relax engenders the exact opposite effect. Even in a yoga class.
As soon as the word slipped off my tongue I regretted it. The best I could do was shrug it off (relax) and move on. But it was a humbling reminder that a diligent mindfulness practice is as important while teaching as it is while practicing.
Have you ever had a yoga teacher say or do something that threw you off, took you out of your zen, or just really annoyed you?