I Don’t Want to Know What Kind of Yoga You Practice

I don’t want to know if you feel strong after yoga.
I want to know if you feel softened, receptive, and open to grace.

I don’t want to know if you can touch your toes.
I want to know if you can touch your heart, my heart and the world with your truth.

I don’t want to know if you can reach the sky as you rise.
I want to know if you can kiss the earth in mourning, in joy and in between.

I don’t want to know if you can balance on your head.
I want to know if you can shake and wobble and not give up.

I don’t want to know how often you practice.
I want to know how often you cry at the sheer beauty of your own heartbeat.

I don’t want to know what brand of clothes you’re wearing.
I want to know if you’re comfortable in your own skin and how it stretches over your bones just perfectly.

I don’t want to know how yoga has fixed you.
I want to know if you know you weren’t broken to begin with.

I don’t want to know if you meditate or not.
I want to know if you can look in the mirror and see who you really are.

I don’t want to know what kind of yoga you practice.
I want to know what kind of life you live.

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4 Ways to Go Deeper in Yoga

aumI attended an amazing yoga teacher training a couple years ago. Among the many things I learned from it was this:

A yoga teacher training may deepen your knowledge of yoga, but only you can deepen your practice of yoga.

That deepening, sifting, observing, and growing happens subtly, over time, and often through your own home practice. The doorway to a deeper practice may turn out to be your own and not the one into a yoga studio.

Here are four practices  I routinely return to when I feel the need to dive deeper, long to feel connected or want to jumpstart my heart and soul.

Skip the Music

Music is a powerful addition to yoga, but so is subtracting it. When I practice without music I have to hear my bones creak and crack. I have to hear my breath start out uneven and slowly deepen, slowly lengthen. I have to hear both the silence and the noise that I often try to escape. In short, I have to practice alongside myself as the yogi I am and not the yogi I hope to emerge as after my practice.

Practicing without music gives my heart the space to speak up, and when my heart speaks I want to be able to hear it loud and clear.

Try: Noticing the natural noises in your surroundings. The birds, the traffic, the fan, the dishwasher, the silence between your inhale/exhale, and eventually the beating of your own heart. Follow those sounds into the present moment. Linger here, you the teacher, you the student.

Slow it Down

Slowing down our yoga practice means allowing the poses to work on us instead of us working so much on the poses. A more deliberate, slow practice lets us find and focus on gems that are easy to miss when we move quickly. Our breath gets to become our endoscope, exploring our insides for tightness, patterns of holding, and muscles locked in fear and habit.

Try: Holding each pose for at least a minute after warming up. Pay close attention that each movement corresponds with a complete inhale and exhale. Instead of letting your exhale taper off at the end focus on keeping it strong and steady the entire time. Notice when and how your internal dialogue kicks in. Allow what already is to rise to the surface.

Practice When You Don’t Feel Like It

Reasons I often hear (and use myself) for skipping yoga, especially a home practice, is I’m tired, I’m too busy, or I don’t feel like it today. Ironically, these are the most fertile times for us to practice. These are the times we can observe our internal dialogue as we practice and start doing the deeper work of yoga; that being unifying our mind and body and stepping into a more honest relationship with our true self.

If time is the problem, commit to a 10-minute practice once a day. A consistent practice doesn’t have to be a long one. The consistency is the important thing.

Try: Starting with an exhale instead of an inhale. Empty yourself out completely. Now there is space to begin. Instead of “adding” breath and movement, try observing the layers of stress evaporate until all that’s left is breath and movement. Stay focused on linking your breath with your movement instead of trying to get through a certain routine or number of poses.

Explore Mantra

Some of the most revealing insights I’ve experienced in yoga have come through mantra. There are a multitude of mantras to choose from, but let’s focus on the most common one we hear in yoga, om.

Om, or aum, is a sanskrit syllable also called pranava or “deep sound.”

The three letters correspond to three states of being. The A being the waking state, the U being a dream state, and the M being a state of deep sleep. The ensuing silence is referred to as a fourth state, Turiya, or consciousness itself.

Try: Beginning and ending your practice with an aum. Notice how each feels different. Observe how the sound physically emerges from you, with the A beginning at the back of your throat, the U rising to the roof of your mouth, and the M holding steady with the lips closed.

Deepening our yoga practice doesn’t always mean mastering a harder pose, taking a teacher training, or practicing more. Often it just means opening the door to your heart and courageously choosing to enter with awareness, commitment, and compassion.

Originally published on elephantjournal.

Tap into Your Life Force to Re-Energize

“A yogini is a professional of the interior landscape, an expert conservationist of the vital life force, Prana.” -Tenzin Palmo

Maha Prana, or the “great Prana,” is that vital life force.

I think of it as my raw aliveness.

Many of us first experience Maha Prana on our yoga mats. If you’ve ever been unable to sleep after an intense backbend class, found your body shaking midway through a powerful Vinyasa flow, or experienced a strength you didn’t know you had after holding standing poses longer than you thought possible, that’s the pranic energy flowing through you.

As Tenzin Palmo advises, the longer we practice yoga the better we get at containing, conserving, and managing this magnificent force within us.

Although we often feel great after a yoga practice, in the rest of our lives we might find our energy waxing and waning and seemingly out of our control or feel out of touch with our Prana.

When we reclaim our Prana, we reclaim our life. We tap into that great energy within us and guide it where it is most nourishing, most sustaining, and most beneficial for us and the world we live in.

wind powerMaha Prana can be broken down into 5 principle energetic functions. These are called vayus, which translates to “wind.”

If you think about the power of the literal wind when it’s wild and free versus when it’s contained, funneled or focused, you can start to get an idea how powerful these vayus can be.

Cultivating awareness of these vayus can help us stay in touch with our Prana off our mats and in our lives.

The vayus govern, not only our physical energy, but also our emotional and mental energy. Without getting into too much detail, here is a brief summary of the energetic qualities of each vayu:

  • prana-vayu is a receptive, receiving energy that moves inward, towards the center of the body. Think Inhale.
  • apana-vayu is an energy of elimination that moves downward and outward. Think Exhale.
  • samana-vayu is a unifying energy that moves from our periphery to our core.
  • udana-vayu is an expressive energy that moves upward from the throat.
  • vyana-vayu is a coordinating, connecting energy that integrates the whole body and extends from our core to our periphery.

Getting sensitive to the energy we experience in our bodies allows us to then find ways to redirect energy that’s not serving us or unblock energy that is stuck.

I see these vayus most clearly at work in yoga poses. For example, in Warrior 2 apana-vayu grounds my legs and pelvis while prana-vayu lifts and expands my torso and arms. When I hug into my core I tap into samana-vayu and when my head is balanced on my spine and my eyes softly focused over my fingertips I sense udana-vayu. Through vyana-vayu I feel the energy radiating from my core to my fingertips.

Knowing the names and details of the vayus is not the important thing. Sensing them at work in your body is what matters.

How do certain yoga poses and sequences make you feel and how do they affect your mental and physical energy? How does your body feel when you’re depressed or when you’re joyful? What happens to your breath?

Becoming sensitive but not judgmental is the balance we strive for when stepping into our skin.

I’ve found the sequencing of yoga poses and the quality of my breath has a major effect on my overall energy after my practice and through the rest of my day, sometimes even the rest of my week.

To that end I try to first listen to what my body actually needs on any given day and respect that by choosing a practice that will balance my energetic body as well as my physical body.

Sometimes that means just breathing without additional movement; sometimes that means a strong moving practice; and sometimes that means an evening of restorative yoga. (Two online resources I love for balanced energetic practices are here and here.)

Reclaiming our Prana is not a matter of charging in and demanding it obey us.

Reclaiming our Prana is a matter of stepping into our body with awareness so we can hear the quiet wind that blows through every cell of our being and gracefully and gratefully navigate the river of life that flows through each of us.

 

photo credit: Chuck Coker

4 Bedtime Poses to Help You Sleep

30 percent of adults have symptoms of insomnia.

5,000 to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers.

Sleep disorders are associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, cancer and high blood pressure.

At the end of the day our minds are often wired while our bodies are tight and fatigued.

“Active relaxation” is what happens when we use restorative yoga poses to both stimulate and relax the body so that it moves towards a more balanced state.

These 4 poses can easily be done in bed to calm your central nervous system and prepare your body and mind for deep, quality sleep.*

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Legs up the Wall (Viparita Karani)**

This is a gentle leg inversion that allows gravity to work on your lymphatic channels (an important part of our immune system) encouraging lymph fluid to circulate.

  • Viparita KaraniLay on your back and rest your legs up against your headboard or a wall. Alternately, you can lie on the floor and rest your bent legs on your mattress. (This option is great if you have very tight hamstrings.)
  • Bring your attention to your breath and try to lengthen the exhales.
  • Rest here for 5 minutes.

Child’s Pose on a Pillow (Balasana)

This forward fold calms the brain and gives your hips and thighs a gentle stretch.

  • Supported BalasanaCome into a wide-legged child’s pose on your bed with your feet touching and knees wide.
  • Stack one or two pillows in between your upper thighs and walk your torso out over the pillow.
  • Turn your head to one side and rest here 5 to 10 minutes.

Reclined Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

Twists are detoxifying and rejuvinating. They release tension in the back and are energizing for the spine.

  • Lie back on your mattress and bend your knees.Reclined Twist
  • Lift your hips and shift them an inch to the right.
  • Bring both legs over to the left and place your right palm on top of your left palm.
  • Keeping the knees stacked, lift your right arm and stretch it to the right.
  • Take 10 to 15 deep breaths here, releasing any tension on the exhales.
  • Repeat on the other side (shifting the hips an inch to the left.)

Left-Nostril Breathing (Chandra Bhedana)

At any moment we are breathing through only one nostril. Which nostril that is changes throughout the day.

Right-nostril breathing is associated with being more energized, increased heart rate and blood pressure, whereas left-nostril breathing reduces heart rate and blood pressure and helps to induce a more restful state.

If you feel very awake, stimulated, or jumpy when trying to fall asleep, try Left-Nostril Breathing to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which will help your body to calm down and relax.

  • Nadi ShodhanaPlace your pillow under your hips for a comfortable seat.
  • Rest your right thumb gently on your right nostril and your right ring finger on your left nostril.
  • Gently close the right nostril.
  • Inhale through the left nostril.
  • Close the left nostril, exhale through the right.
  • Close the right, inhale through the left
  • Close the left, exhale through the right.
  • Repeat for 10 to 15 breaths.

 

*Consult your doctor before beginning any yoga regimen.

**Do not practice Viparita Karani if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or glaucoma.

Yoga As An Undoing

I recently attended an evening yoga class at a small studio near me that holds classes outside on a large wooden deck.

I practiced next to a large tree trunk that emerged through the deck and the ocean air reminded me to inhale fully.

At the end of the class as I set up for savasana and stared at the open sky, I remembered these lines from Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind.

The ancient Greeks had a structure they called the temenos: a four walled enclosure with no roof. The warriors would come in off the battlefield and remove their armor to lie down on their backs and open their hearts again to the sky.

Laying there I felt like that warrior. I’d spent the previous hour removing the armor I wear all day long. The safe space I was in encouraged my body and mind to soften their constant gripping.

Without the weight of my defenses and the stiffness of my judgements weighing me down I found I could easily slip into the sacred space of my own heart.

Here in my heart it’s dark and I am alone, but somehow I’m able to see so clearly and I don’t feel lonely.

I say I do yoga, but really yoga is undoing all my doing. It unravels my tension, releases my breath, and softens my mental and physical gripping. It reveals to me who I am under my armor and my judgement. It polishes my heart and reflects back to me a capacity for love that I often forget I’m capable of.

In a world where doing is praised more than being, yoga as undoing is exactly what I need to become more present, more conscious, and a more authentic human being.

Navigating the Landscape of Limitation

blacksMy 6-month-old recently figured out how to roll. He can’t get enough of it and rolls everywhere.

It didn’t take him too long to start rolling into things, like the side of our blue couches.

I would see him run into the couch and I’d think. Okay, now roll the other way! You’re not going to get anywhere rolling into the couch.

But he wouldn’t roll the other way. He’d back off and roll into the couch again.

Over and over again. He didn’t appear to be frustrated or angry about it, just kind of exploring his new territory.

I’ve been trying to bring some of his childlike curiosity to my yoga lately because it occurred to me there’s a lot of similarities between his practice and my practice.

I visit the same territory of my body and mind over and over in yoga, and there are a lot of limitations and barriers I roll up against in my practice.

It can be a physical limitation like my tight hamstrings lately or a mental block like judging how I’m doing on any given day.

I like to practice these concepts in yoga because it makes it easier to practice them in life. It’s a starting place for me.

Here in the home of my body, working with my own skin and bones, can I soften a little right where I want to harden.
Can I open a little more right where I feel myself closing.
Can I create a little more space in the most contracted, uncomfortable poses.

Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. Either way is okay if I remember to bring my curiosity and consciousness to the process.

If he keeps at it my little one is going to realize he can’t go through the couch, but he can crawl around it and he can climb over it.

If I approach my limitations respectfully and curiously, I’ll probably find a treasure buried in this terrain I think I know so well and a new way to navigate the landscape of my life.

 

Our Practice Reveals What’s Already Perfect

anjali mudra 1I stand at the top of my yoga mat and take a moment to notice what’s already happening in my body.

My upper back and shoulders are rounding forward and my head follows their lead.

Tired, I think. I feel tired.

The heels of my feet carry most of my weight and my arms hang at my sides feeling tight and dehydrated.

I look down and notice the fingers on my right hand curl in considerably more than the fingers on my left hand.

My breath is uneven and shallow.

I bring my hands to my heart and try to honor the body I stand in, with all its imperfections.

Lifting my head I begin to breathe deeper.

I root down evenly through the soles of my feet and let the inhale lift my shoulders from the inside. My head finds its rightful place on top of my spine and with my next breath I lift my arms high.

Space. I want to create some space.

I move slowly, reminding my body to follow my breath.

Mountain pose, I root down into my center.
Arms lift, I rise up into my present.
Forward fold, I bow in gratitude for all I have.
Rising halfway, I lift my heart bravely.
Bending at the hips, I fold in to replenish.
Arms reach for the sky, I rise up to receive.
Hands in prayer, I offer my head to my heart.

A sweet soul-sustaining breath echoes in my ears.
Pause. Listen. Repeat.

A few sun salutations later I stand at the top of my mat and wonder if anything has changed.

My hands are the most noticeable. My fingers hang long and relaxed at the end of my wrists. My feet are weighted evenly on the floor and my breath is even and full.

I press the edges of my thumbs into my sternum and pause.

Thump thump thump. Thank you, Heart.

Practice doesn’t make perfect.

Practice reminds me that under my imperfect skin and bones my heart beats perfectly.

Thank you, Yoga.

*This post was originally published on elephantjournal.

A Different Approach to Postpartum Yoga

IMG_3589The first few weeks and months after having my baby were not what I expected.

Initially my body felt like it had been hit by a truck. I had a healthy pregnancy and delivery, but the impact of childbirth and the physical toll taking care of a newborn took on my body blew me away.

When I attempted to resume my yoga practice I found I had very little energy and even less time to practice. 

I knew I needed yoga, but I wasn’t able to do the yoga I did before getting pregnant or even while being pregnant. Postpartum yoga was its own category. When I would search for postpartum yoga I’d see lots of articles about “getting your body back.”

I wasn’t interested in “getting my body back.” I was interested in figuring out how to function and practice yoga in this new body.

This is where my yoga teacher training really paid off. I decided I had to scrap my old yoga practice and mindset and start from scratch. This wasn’t easy, but I knew it was the safest and most nurturing thing for my body.

I’m six months into motherhood and I still don’t have my old yoga practice back, but I’ve learned how to make my yoga count.

Gone are the days of 5-minute warm-ups and 10-minute savasanas.

I’m happy to get in a 15-minute practice on any given day and have found that life after baby requires a different kind of flexibility, strength, and patience than the kind I practice on my mat.

The 5 poses I share below are what I practiced for the first couple months post-baby. Coupled with awareness and breath I found them to be healing, energizing, and supportive for my body and mind.

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In all poses bring awareness to your breath and your back body, two areas that tend to get neglected in new moms. Step into your new body slowly and with awareness, letting it open up when ready and heal at its own pace.

Cat/Cow: This was the first pose I did after having baby and it never felt so good. It’s a wonderful way to gently begin to reconnect to your new body and massage your spine at the beginning or end of your day.

Learn how to do cat/cow here.

Supported Twist: Back pain is a common complaint among new moms. Twists are rejuvinating Supported Twistfor the spine and can provide a much-needed release to the back after a day of carrying baby. This restorative version is gentle enough for your recovering body and the support allows you to deeply relax.

Use blankets or a pillow wrapped in a towel. Line up your hip with the middle of your prop. Twist to face the prop and lengthen your torso as you place yourself on it. Rest on each side 5 to 15 minutes.

Supported BackbendBack Bend Over a Bolster: The hunched shoulders that come from carrying and picking up baby all day compromise our posture and can leave us feeling exhausted energetically as well as physically. This gentle heart-opener expands your lungs and frees up your breath.

Roll up a blanket and place your upper back over it until it rests under your nipple line. For extra support use a blanket under the knees and neck. Rest here 5 to 15 minutes.

Shoulder Clock: Carrying and rocking baby contracts the biceps as well as the forearm muscles, creating tension in the upper chest and neck over time. Gently opening the shoulders when possible helps to relieve some of the tightness we develop in the arms.

Learn how to do shoulder clock here.

Constructive Rest Pose: Hours spent sitting while nursing, rocking, and playing with baby Constructive Rest Posefatigues the psoas, a core muscle connected to our central nervous system and a major player in keeping the hips happy and balanced. The psoas connects the spine to the leg, and this pose helped me learn to relax it without pushing my body into deeper poses too early.

Lie on your back, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor in line with your hips. Keep your spine in its natural position with a curve under the low back and neck. Rest here for 10 to 15 minutes and let gravity do the work.

(Check with your doctor before beginning or resuming any yoga practice postpartum.)

Why Do You Do Yoga?

YogaMy answer has changed over the years.

In the beginning the answer was a formless, abstract, unintelligible lump in my throat during savasana that kept me coming back.

Yoga was drawing up all the grief I’d been holding in that was dying to get out. I didn’t know how or why, but I knew the way out was through my body and breath.

Later my answer became more defined, more refined. I do yoga so that if and when my world comes crumbling down again, I won’t. I did yoga to stay sane, to stay healthy, and to get strong psychologically.

The stronger my practice became the more afraid I was of losing it. I became attached to the ability to detatch. Asana was like an addiction that no one would question. Especially me.

There was a period when going to yoga felt like a kind of sweaty church where salvation and spirituality were body and breath and prayer was a rolling AUM.

Over time I began to realize that softening through yoga was often harder to do than strengthening. Metaphorically softening my heart, softening my opinions, and softening my thoughts allowed the true me to begin to reveal herself.

When I ask myself why I do yoga today, my answer is simple.

I do yoga to live my life.

I make room for yoga because it helps me be a better mother, wife, sister, daughter, and human being. It gives me the strength physically to keep up with my baby and it gives me the flexibility I need mentally to roll with the waves of life. Energetically it keeps things flowing and prevents me from feeling stagnant in body or mind.

What’s sometimes hard to swallow is that often doesn’t require as much yoga as I’d like. It doesn’t take four classes a week to reconnect to my true self.

It takes a few minutes a day.

It doesn’t take hours of meditation to drop into my present moment.

It takes a momentary choice to show up Now.

I love that yoga is strong enough to support me through life’s rough patches and flexible enough to morph with me as life changes. When I’m an old lady and can’t do fancy poses I know it will still be there, reminding me to breathe.

Why do you do yoga?

How Long Should You Meditate For?

yogaMeditation has been heralded as a great healer through the ages, and scientists are finally starting to understand why it works.

One scientific study found that the relaxation response elicited through meditation, especially in long-term practitioners, is very effective at reducing stress disorders, such as hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, and aging.

Meditation has also been described as Metacognition; the ability to think about your own thinking. It’s not about getting rid of your thoughts. It’s about watching them as they come and go. From this seat of the watcher you can notice things you don’t notice from the seat of the thinker.

For all its benefits, some meditation experts are concerned about the long-term effects of meditation and question whether meditation can have a dark side.

I personally would not have been able to find my way out of depression, grief, and ten years on antidepressants if it wasn’t for meditation.

The way I’ve been able to answer the question of how long to meditate is by asking myself another question:

Why do I meditate?

Knowing why you meditate can help you find a practice that’s best suited for you, as there’s no end to the practices and suggestions out there. Do you meditate to relax? To regroup? To heal? To find yourself? To let go of yourself? As a spiritual journey? It’s often recommended to find a practice you like and stick to it, not to jump around from one style to another.

Meditation is like going on a roadtrip to yourself. You don’t know what you’ll encounter on the way or what you’ll find when you get there.

Over the years I’ve tried lots of wonderful practices, from visualizations to mindfulness meditations to month-long meditations for each chakra. These have all been helpful to a point, but recently I’ve started simplifying my practice.

I start with the breath.

I end with the breath.

It’s that simple. It might not be the best approach for you, but it’s what’s working for me these days.

I bring my attention to my breath.
My mind wanders. What am I going to eat for lunch?
I bring my attention back to the breath.
My mind wanders. Has the baby been sleeping too long?
I bring my attention back to the breath.
My mind wanders. That fire truck siren is definitely going to wake him up and I won’t be able to finish my meditation. Wait a minute, I’m not even meditating, I’m still thinking.
I bring my attention back to the breath.

Eventually the thoughts start to space out. It’s like I can actually see the space. When the space between thoughts becomes long enough, I notice my breath comes to the center of my attention. Naturally. Without me having to force it. It’s like it just rises to the surface.

Ah, hello breath. Thank you for waiting for me.

I stay here, in this conscious place for as long as I can.

That’s how long I meditate. Until only the breath remains.