Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Free Falling: The Upside to Upside-Down

In the dozen or more years since my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer and doused with radiation, it’s pretty much been a downward slide for her cognitive function and balance.  She also requires hearing aids, has no hair or eyebrows, has had two cataract surgeries, and teeth that are, as she says, “falling out.” 

In fact, most of her days are spent in fear of things falling out and down, predominantly her falling down.  There is cause for this fear because with limited balance and jello-like muscles, she falls with some frequency, and according to her, “for no reason.” And each time she falls, the fear of falling again cements her to the chair, frozen in place, death grip on the walker.  Sadly, she is the same age as John McCain (ran for president) and the age-defying Jane Fonda.

Studies show that “fear of falling” is a “phenomenon now interpreted as a significant risk factor of its own for the elderly.” Why?  Because fear lives mostly in the mind, growing as we feed it.   And then becomes the obstacle itself.

This spiral of fear can be present at any age.  Facing our fears, especially through physical challenges, can prove a way out of this circular mental process.  In yoga, it’s inversions that help confront and conquer fear.  But our instinct is to avoid and flee them.  That’s why everyone suddenly has to go to the bathroom in a yoga class when “let’s do headstand” is announced.  While I usually stayed and stuck it out, it was near torture to struggle with my own demons while attempting this pose. 

Inversions require core strength, balance, strong arms, neck and shoulders, to name just a few.  Many people for various health reasons shouldn’t attempt headstand or other full inversions.  For the rest of us, it’s about getting physically stronger so that we can meet the challenge while staring down fear again and again in some kind of “come to Jesus meeting.”

When achieved, however, there is elation.  That’s why, today, I’m addicted to headstand—and other inversions—and make them part of my daily practice.  Headstand (sirsasana) is a powerful pose that allows you to feel light and weightless, calm and energized.  Like free-falling.  Science supports this description:  “Technically, an object is in free fall even when moving upwards or instantaneously at rest at the top of its motion.”  Properly inverted, there is this kind of “rest” just at the point where the body is fully balanced upside down. 

And inversions offer innumerable benefits, all of which help to reverse nearly every symptom of aging: 
  • Increase blood flow to the brain, nourishing cells with oxygen and nutrients to improve concentration, memory, awareness, and thinking.
  • Help to raise levels of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, which regulates “fight or flight” response, dopamine needed to control movement, and serotonin, which regulates a healthy emotional state.
  • Improve digestion and relieve constipation, which makes everyone feel better.
  • Relieve anxiety, tension, and insomnia.
  • Make you look beautiful, a result of improved circulation and skin tone.  Who doesn’t want that?
So, perhaps stop running, find a knowledgeable teacher you trust, and give inversions a try.  If you’re not quite ready for headstand, shoulder stand or a handstand, get stronger with downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) or any pose where the heart is above the head—all inversions.  If it’s just not right for your body, treat yourself to “legs up the wall” (viparita karani), also considered an inverted pose.  Here’s Yoga Journal’s guidance for getting into the pose.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Are you awake?

My personal mantra for about a year now has been to start the day by recalling Henry David Thoreau’s dictum, “only that day dawns to which we are awake,” and then ask myself:  Am I awake?    

Most behaviors are automatic—and anticipate the next thing.  We don’t think much about showering and brushing our teeth, many work activities are completely routine, and we’re largely on automatic pilot when driving, freeing us to talk on mobile devices and perform other activities often with unintended consequences.  Yoga poses we execute frequently are often practiced while creating grocery lists or ruminating on relationships. 

While automatic behavior is good, and frees us to perform multiple tasks with little thinking, it’s also mindless. While we may get burst of inspiration at any time, being awake allows for a kind of consistent attendance in the moment.  This intentional, or wakeful, mind nourishes clear seeing, behavior, and decision-making.

A Buddha is the title given to one who has become awakened or enlightened, and Buddhism is the philosophy of awakening.  In this frame, enlightenment is compared to waking up because there is an experience of transformation of body and mind.  So, how do mere mortals begin to wake up? 

Start with the breath (it’s almost always the answer).  Complete focus on the intricacies and beauty of one’s own unique breath let you know you are alive in the most basic sense.  When my oldest niece was perhaps three or four years old, I went off on some rant about who knows what, voice raised and limbs flailing, and she cupped her hands around my face, turned me to look her in the eyes and said, “Aunt Conni, take a deep breath.”   This is the command we give to bring someone back to themselves, to their body, and to the present.  Wake them up. 

Another wake-up tool is recognition of our connectedness.  I had a profound experience of this after swimming in the Pacific Ocean off the shores of Costa Rica (that's the beach below).  When I got in, I didn’t expect to stay long, but the ocean water was warm and the bottom sandy for a long ways out so it invited lingering.  While large waves reigned at other points along the shoreline, where I swam, they mostly proved enduring and soothing.  So I stayed in the water while others came and went.  When it was time to go and I finally walked out, it was like reemerging from the womb.  I seemed to carry the entire ocean, the universe, inside of me, the rhythmic movement of the waves continuing inside my own water body.  

It’s simply an illusion that we are separate.  There are often only glimpsed awakenings to the reality that we are part and parcel of all things, rock and sky, moon and blade of grass.  Thich Nhat Hahn has said, “Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean, is the moment the wave realizes it is water.”

When awake, you recognize the sacred in yourself and all others.  There is space to listen, time to ask yourself what is the right action, what is needed in that moment.  To not forget your umbrella.  Our path becomes intentional rather than automatic.  To be awake is to allow our true nature to unfold, to recollect our divinity. 

A final thought on the subject from civil rights activist Howard Thurman:  "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Practice the Art of Showing Up

Occasionally people ask me, “Do you really practice yoga every day?”  This is followed by, “How do you do that?”
 Like many people, I got hooked on yoga because of how I felt after a class.  It wasn’t the same as after a good gym workout or a long walk.  It was a feeling of being energized, but also calmed and reclaimed.  Like coming home to myself.   And I still feel that way 17 years later.  So on good days, practice returns me to a still and centered heart and mind, and a place where my body feels light, mobile, and expansive.   On other days, well, it’s a bit of going through the motions.
Woody Allen is credited with saying that “90 percent of life is just showing up.”  That means being present again and again, without consideration of mood or inclination, or weather, or what kind of a hair day you’re having.  Yoga, like any practice, is like that.  But a slow, steady practice can yield a fruitful harvest.  
Here are a few gleanings:      
  • A practice doesn’t need to be long.  Just bring to it intention, presence, and your breath.   Iyengar teacher John Schumacher said on an ihanuman podcast, “If we practice just one pose a day, we have a yoga practice.”  And often what happens is that one pose leads to another, and 10 or 15 minutes later you’re well in to a longer practice—or not. 
  • Practice establishes routine.  And the body responds to routine.  In Ayurveda, the yogic science of self-healing, dinacharya, or the daily routine, forms the bedrock of health.  According to Vansant Lad, “A daily routine is absolutely necessary to bring radical change in body, mind, and consciousness.”
  • Practice teaches awareness.  Yoga is a practice of learning to go inside and listen to what might be best on that day, in that moment.  It facilitates the gift of being present with the body, emotions, griefs, fears, and any other myriad of mental states.  No judgment.   
  • Practice prepares us for the “big” moments in life.  Mark Nepo in The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life says, “All the practice in the world can’t instigate enlightenment or revelation.  It can only make us ready vessels for when those moments occur.”  But they tend to occur more often when we practice.
  • Practice is being present with the process rather than a particular outcome.  This is not a satisfying notion for a Western culture dedicated to productivity and immediate gratification.  But practice is a tool for finding joy in the process.  And then being surprised by often unexpected results.
  • Practice is about evolution.  A yoga practice changes according to circumstances, emotional setting, and the body’s inclination.  Allowing it to evolve according to what is needed in the moment removes stagnation and depletion.  Change simply unfolds, allowing a new present to manifest.
Still not convinced?  Then sit back and make a routine of this Ayurvedic tea, considered a Rasyayana, or rejuvenative.  It’s especially beneficial before bed to help with restful sleep.  Enjoy.

 Soft boil the following:

4-6 oz. whole milk
3 threads saffron
¼ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. ginger (powdered)
¼ tsp. nutmeg

Remove from heat and add raw honey to taste. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Give It A Rest

One of my yoga students just returned from a long vacation to Central and South America and realized that after not “doing” anything—the gym, weights, yoga, etc.—her shoulders, which are in an almost constant ache, were pain free and supple.  A near miracle for her, to which she remarked, “Look at that, you don’t do anything and they get better.” 

There is great power in taking a break.  Even the breath has a natural “pause” at the top the inhale and bottom of the exhale.  In fact, this is perhaps the most important part of the breath.  This space, the moment of stillness, is the breath’s musical rest.

In religious traditions the Sabbath is the pause.  And as it turns out, there is a reason for a Sabbath, or Shabbat, as the Hebrew day of rest is called. The word "Shabbat" comes from the root Shin-Beit-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest. It is to be a day of celebration and joy, a time to set aside weekday concerns and focus on higher pursuits.

It is not easy to set aside time when everything around us insists that we respond on demand to a constant drum beat of activity.  In fact, many people seem afraid to stop “doing,” as if the sheer motion of activity gives meaning, focus, or identity.  In Hamlet’s Blackberry the author William Powers describes how his family takes an “internet Sabbath.”  The positive effect of these technology breaks he describes as having an impact long after the weekend is over.  Taking a break from activity, from technology, from our daily automatic behaviors can often prove to be the real path to finding the true self.   To realizing that we are already more than enough.

One place to practice learning to rest is on the yoga mat.  There is space there to listen.  It’s a place you can ask, “Do I need to push harder, or do I need to rest?”  If the answer is rest, consider a long savasana.  It’s also called “corpse pose,” but as a yoga teacher once told our class, “we won’t be staying there that long.”   Its benefits are many, including calming the brain to reduce stress and mild depression, reducing headaches, fatigue and insomnia, and helping to lower blood pressure.  Yoga Journal has five steps for savasana but mostly it involves doing nothing in a reclined position.  This can be frightening to many people, but give it a try.  Here’s how to establish a supported savasana:

Another practice is Yoga Nidra, also called yogic sleep.  It’s a systematic, progressive guided meditation while in savasana that provides total rejuvenation and healing.  It is said that practicing yoga nidra for 10 minutes is equivalent to three to four hours of sleep.  Use Rod Stryker’s “Relax into Greatness” CD to guide you through it.  According to Stryker as told to Yoga Journal, “We live in a chronically exhausted, over-stimulated world. Yoga Nidra is a systematic method of complete relaxation, holistically addressing our physiological, neurological, and subconscious needs."

Finally, if you want to learn more, read Chrystle Fiedler’s article from the Kripalu web site, “The Power of Rest: The Upside of Downtime”.  Now go and do nothing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

With Props, All Things Are Possible

The use of props in yoga is all about feeling supported. They can ease both physical strains and emotional fears—real or imagined. 

Props include blocks (sometimes called bricks) to help reach the floor, for example, in triangle or side angle poses.  Also straps, bolster, blankets, a chair, the wall, a fellow yogi, family member or friend, and anything else that provides stability and support. I’m also partial to the kitchen counter. 

In many styles of yoga, especially Iyengar, props help achieve various yoga postures, especially as the body is learning to find its way into the shape of an asana or when there are physical limitations.  For more advanced yoga practitioners, they may assist going deeper in a pose or facilitate a longer hold.  

And props are often the key to proper alignment, ensuring all the benefits of a pose are enjoyed.  Once there, the breath is unlabored and the aim of a pose, according to the Yoga Sutras (Verse II-46), can be realized: a steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha) in one’s seat or situation, as well as in the mind (asanam).   

Here’s how props can make a yoga pose that might be inaccessible easily doable.  Sukasana, a simple crossed-leg seated position, can be challenging if your hips are tight (and that would be most of us).  If they are, when you sit on the floor in this pose the lower back tends to round and the knees pop up toward the ears.  Essentially, the pelvis is tilted back (which rounds the lower spine) rather than forward to achieve a more neutral spine.  It doesn’t look comfortable, and it’s not:

A simple remedy is blankets, a block, or even sitting on the edge of a chair.  To use blankets, stack them high enough until the pelvis begins to tilt forward and the inner thighs release allowing the knees to drop below the waist.  The spine is now in a neutral position where it is evenly balanced, and the top of the pelvis is neither tipped too far forward (arching the low back) or tilted back creating a rounded lower spine.  Here’s what it looks like:

Props can also provide emotional support in this same pose.  In a recent yoga class, the instructor suggested that we take sukasana at the wall and put a block between the wall and wherever on our back it would assist in holding the pose for several minutes.  I “assumed the position” and was sort of figuring out where to put the block when I found the Goldilocks spot. Then I closed my eyes.  After several breaths, I suddenly felt a wonderful lightness.  It was both grounding and liberating, as if someone “had my back.”  It was such an immense relief and release, I began to cry. 

A simple prop allowed me to access a deep emotional surrender.  The minute the body knows and feels it has a strong base, the barriers and fears in the mind let go, and the body can ease.  This same principle applies in life.  When we feel supported and nurtured, we can let go, we can do great things, we can be.  

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Parable of the ruby slippers: come home to your breath

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Right before Christmas I was at Dick’s Sport looking for water shoes for a New Years trip to Costa Rica. I got the shoes and then saw that swimming suits were also significantly marked down, it being winter. When I got to the counter to make my purchase, we noticed that the swimming suit didn’t have a price tag.

While the sales clerk went to check the price, I set it down on the counter to wait. Immediately after he left, there began this horrible beeping sound like when you leave the store with that big white thing still attached to clothes you bought. And it just wouldn’t stop. I kept thinking, “Somebody, make it stop.” Several long and painful minutes later, the sales clerk at the other register finally said, “It’s your bathing suit.” I looked at him confused, and he said again, “It’s your bathing suit.” Turns out I had started the awful noise when I placed it on an electronic device that was flush with the counter.

I walked out of the store awakened, again, to the wisdom of Dorothy and her ruby slippers. I am usually the one creating the “horrible noise” or conversely, something lovely. I’m also the one who can “make it stop.” I have the power all along. To go home, or whatever it is I want to do. Unfortunately, like Dorothy, this realization usually doesn’t occur until the end of the journey.

On my own yellow-brick-road, I’m learning that recognizing and manifesting this power can be almost as easy as clicking my heels. One way it’s done is by harnessing the breath. How can the breath be empowering?

First, it’s what brings the mind in concert with the body. We live most of our lives like the proverbial “chicken with its head cut off,” the mind and body quite literally disconnected (and we know how THAT ends). We’re pretty much in our heads all day staring at screens or the car in front of us, while the body, and the breath, is put on automatic pilot.

Second, being in attendance with our breath, even for a few minutes, allows us to tap in to our personal energy or life force (prana in yoga terms). The unique spirit and essence of our being. This same energy animates the big wide world and unites us with the universe, providing a gateway to align with that greater power and potential. Like having the wind at your sails.

Finally, to be present with our breath bring us back to our self, and to our animating power. The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” which means to yoke or unite. It often refers to the process of uniting the individual soul with the Divine (capital D). So using the breath to get back to this source wakes us up to who we are. It’s this recognition that can rouse and animate us to manifest our desires.

So, spend a few minutes with your breath and come home to your divine self. It’s a powerful elixir. Want to give it a try?

Start with a yoga pose called crocodile (Makarasana in Sanskrit). According to Mastering the Basics (a book I highly recommend for yoga students of all levels), and from personal experience, this pose quickly establishes deep relaxed breathing as the belly must push into the floor with each inhale. It’s also an antidote to anxiety, and creates immediate breath awareness. Watch how it’s done and then enjoy:

Thursday, March 31, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution

I recently decided to change things up with the yoga class I take each week.  In the process, I inadvertently stumbled across a class where the instructor is taking a decidedly “Yin” approach.  While I was vaguely aware of Yin yoga, where poses are held for as long as several minutes, I was unaware of the effects of this approach on my body and mind after several consecutive weeks of practice.  

I recalled reading an article by Yin yoga guru Paul Grilley, who has written Yin Yoga: A Quiet Practice, but it’ an entirely different thing to experience it.  Unlike most Hatha yoga, which is more yang-like and comes out of an Indian tradition, Yin and Yang yoga come from the ancient tradition of Taoist yoga which is indigenous to China. 

According to Grilley, “Taoists say, "All 'things' exist as a contrast of opposites. We call these opposites Yin and Yang. Bones are Yin, muscles are Yang and connective tissue lies between the two extremes.”  Yang exercises are rhythmic and repetitive.  Yin is “prolonged stasis or stillness for long periods of time.”  Yin activities have the effect of stressing the tissues of the body, particularly connective tissue, which includes the inner layers of skin, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, bone and fat tissue.  Connective tissue is the “cellular glue” that holds structures together.  Essentially, it’s what’s keeping you in one piece.

This is the Chinese Yin Yang symbol.  The moon is Yin.

So, what’s it like to practice Yin Yoga for several weeks?  In the first class, especially since this wasn’t the expectation, every cell cried out in resistance.  It all felt so slow and languid.  I craved vinyasa-like movement—anything Yang and muscular and more familiar.  I immediately decide that as soon as the class was over I would switch to another.  But when I got up to leave, I felt a kind of deep settling that was, well, quite pleasant.  

On the second and third weeks, I realized that this tortoise approach was proving some of the hardest yoga I’d encountered.  The long holds were taxing to my hips.  I had to dig deep for stamina.  And there was a kind of subterranean soreness I hadn’t felt after a yoga class in years.   It was glacial change—a slow, but monumental shifting in the body.  I was beginning to crave the unhurried practice.

Something was starting to happen inside my head as well.  All this sustained pressure on tendons, cartilage, and bone was pushing at my mind.  The rigid thinking was starting to slip, the careful control showing cracks, and the light starting to dawn.  This gentle, slow, holding practice was beginning to show me a new kind of balance.  And an understanding for the need of equipoise with all the opposites in my life, and in my yoga practice.

Perhaps you need to move something deep in you.  Or, perhaps you’re just looking to freshen your yoga practice (and your mind).  Or start a yoga practice. Here are a couple of web sites with descriptions of yoga styles and approaches.  I especially liked the one on WebMD. If you’re addicted to self-quizzes (and who isn’t) try the Yoga Journal yoga style quiz.  Here’s one more for good measure. Finally, for more on Yin yoga, visit Paulie Zink’s web pages.  He is credited as the founder of Yin Yoga and the Yin Yoga Institute. 

P.S.  And just for the fun of it, check out Yoga Dork. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sometimes the obstacle is the path

One of the most surprising (although I’m not sure why) things I learned when I began teaching yoga was that almost everyone has some kind of physical injury or pain going on—all the time.

A few months ago at an “all levels” yoga class I teach once a week, I noticed a man sitting on his mat who I had not seen before. So I went up to him, introduced myself, and asked if he had practiced yoga before and if he had any injuries that I should be aware of. He looked up at me and said, “Just a broken heart. Can you fix that?”

Having nursed my own broken heart, I know that the recovery process is not much different from a physical injury. It can be long and fraught with ups and downs. And physical injuries are sometimes a manifestation of a hidden emotional wound. I’ve had a deep-muscle hip injury (from doing yoga poses improperly and chronically in my early practice) for probably half a dozen years, and for many of those years it was a rollercoaster of pain. A pain in the butt to be exact.

When the injury was first diagnosed I went to physical therapy several times a week. With the help of stretchy bands, scary exercises involving big plastic balls, heat, ice, and painful elbow-jabbing massage, my hip and buttock muscles were worked to, what do they call it, “failure”? While there was initially a big improvement, it eventually slid back into a low-grade, nagging ache.

Sometime later at a yoga retreat, I saw a yoga therapy specialist to see if she could help. She quickly diagnosed the problem and gave me a handful of targeted exercises and yoga postures. More importantly, when I asked if I should stop my yoga practice or do these as part of that, she said, “For now, this is your practice.” That wisdom is what finally allowed me to rethink the way I was looking at my injury, ask myself just what was causing this “pain in the butt,” and over time emerge nearly fully recovered.

Sometimes the tendonitis in a knee, frozen shoulder, or lower back pain that we allow to sideline us is the very thing we need to bring our body to a stronger, more whole place. An injury may also signal an emotional hurt that needs attention and healing. For example, just what needs “thawing” with a frozen shoulder? Then, instead of avoiding movement because of an injury or its pain, it becomes the core of our daily practice. Letting that dictate our actions, our attention, our regular exercise, may prove the gift to finding a better path—to a healed heart and body.

If you want more insight into the mental causes for physical illness or “dis-ease,” check out You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay. Some people think she’s a little nutty, but I’m more of a fan. And for whatever ails you--heart or hips--treat yourself to Aztec Hot Chocolate, appropriately described as a "sweet-and-spicy recipe that is just what the love doctor ordered." Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How did I come to write this blog?

Warning to readers: the path is circuitous. It also involves whales.

On December 31, 2009 when I typically plot my intentions for the New Year, I couldn’t do it. It’s a ritual I’ve had for about the past five New Year’s eves—after a string of too many always-a-let-down “celebrations.” An acquaintance had told me how she burned things to be free of them, meditated, and did other rituals to rid herself of the old and ring in the new, and this sounded like something I could try. So, I flung myself into this personal celebration. And for the most part, it has been a success.

But in my heart of hearts, I’m really not the goal-setter type (or the type to burn things), and that year I just didn’t want to reprise the whole enterprise. I really just wanted things to be different. Preferably, by magic. 2009 had proven that not much was within my control, even with clear intentions and a lot of discipline.

On a work trip in late fall 2009, I was on a ferry between Seattle and Victoria, BC and we were treated to the sighting of, at first, two orca whales on the star board side. As the boat paused to let them pass, they surfaced on the port side to join a pod of orcas, moving in an easy alliance alongside us. It was beyond magical, especially since when the ferry left it was overcast and very foggy, and the prospect was a crossing without seeing a thing. I took this as a sign. A few years earlier, a friend had identified my totem animal as the whale. And once home, Google turned up the following:

"When whale totem appears it may very well be a sign that it is your time to shine, and also to inspire others. If you are lucky enough to witness a whale's breach in the open sea it could indicate it is time to turn a page.” [Source]

A month later, in early December 2009, still in a mystery of confusion about how to move forward, I contacted a friend who is a certified life coach. Several hours later and Meditation Secrets for Women: Discovering Your Passion, Pleasure, and Inner Peace in the mail (check out the cover photo), I felt I had some guidance on how I might “turn a page”.

One of the meditations in the book asks you to identify an animal and then see through their eyes. Hovering under the covers in my bed, I took a virtual tour through what I believed a whale might “see”. It was surprisingly quiet and deep and slow. The whale wisdom to go inside, to listen.

Several days later while sorting through some old papers, I had yet another, and final, encounter with whales. If whales are your totem animal, it read, “you are called to go deeply into your intuitive and creative psyche and then use this whale wisdom to heal.”

At that moment, I released all my ideas for what I might be able to achieve in 2010 and instead chose the whale's path: to go inside, to listen, and to heal. And many unexpected—and also very mundane—twists and turns later (much later as it turns out), I’m writing a blog. Listening. And sharing what I hear.
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