Five Reasons why I keep coming to Yoga:

Why do I keep coming to yoga?  Before it was my vocation it was my avocation and I’ve been blessed to have the ability to make that shift.  There are days I walk into the studio not feeling myself for one reason or another and after teaching or taking a class, I feel an excellent shift in my energy, physical self and mental well-being.

Before Bindu Yoga Studio (www.bindu-studio.com) I practiced Sivananda for years, before that Bikram and hatha yoga. So a decade or so into my own personal practice my passion for yoga burns very bright although my focus has shifted. Here are ten reasons why I still love yoga and keep coming back:

1. Yoga makes me feel good: No matter what I walk into the classroom with, something usually improves physically during my practice and if it doesn’t, than a mental shift does.  I’ve never left a class feeling worse, both mentally and physically, than when I stepped into the classroom.  After spending the last two years battling physical injuries I finally feel like there really is a light at the end of the tunnel.  I ended up doing more yoga than physical therapy after my back surgery and feel like I am getting stronger every day.  Practicing vinyasa yoga gave me a rush of energy and eagerness to learn more and more.  Advanced poses, arm balances and other stretches were my goals …. until I couldn’t move my left shoulder and neck and there were days when just lifting my arms was a challenge.  Many acupuncture needles and neck releases later, those days are fewer and farther between so I revel in every arm movement I can make.  Same with my back – I’m nearly at my pre-surgery flexibility and I believe have surpassed my former core strength to hopefully keep that low back happy!  Yoga has been a saving grace for so many reasons, but above all, because it makes me feel good.

2. Its still practice, because I’m nowhere near perfect: And that’s not only okay, it is exactly what it should be. Since earning my Registered Yoga Teacher 200 hour designation, I’ve been diagnosed with arthritis in my neck, herniated disks in my low back, had surgery on my back and developed arthritis in my low back. Needless to say my changing physicality makes for a changing practice. I’ve always felt stronger in yoga class than in the gym. Targeted exercises in the gym for me, are a short term fix for an area that may need a little building. But in many yoga poses, particularly standing, finding the balance of strength, grace and release ends up strengthening more than the area that the pose targets.  Practice doesn’t always make perfect but it means some days my forward bend is far prettier than others.  Learning to accept yourself on a day to day basis is an important part of being a happy human being.  I find something in every class I teach or take that was an improvement upon the last time.

3. Physical Therapy/Yoga/Viniyoga: First of all, let me say that over the past few years I’ve developed a huge respect for physical therapists. They go through a lot of education and training, help people, hold our hands, prod us when we feel like the pain and weakness is going to win and they don’t make a whole lot of money. When I began attending and teaching classes at Bindu, we had a Viniyoga teacher, Emily Large, who was a breath of fresh air for me especially once my neck and I began doing battle. She made small suggestions and adjustments, strength building poses and movements and most of all, just a solid practical knowledge that got me through some painful days. As I got deeper into physical therapy for my neck and later my back, I came to realize just how many exercises and movements are related to yoga asanas and movements. I’ve been able to incorporate physical therapy movements into both my home practice and teachings.  I’ve shared class or taught students who are recovering from addictions, breast cancer, lymphedema, spinal injuries, sciatica, wrist injuries, wrist injuries and more wrist injuries.  Yoga is more than bending and stretching and balancing on your pinkie while tucking your toes into your ears (I kid, I kid – mostly) – it can help improve your physical self and rehab many injuries and diseases.

4. I’ve met wonderful people at the studio: I’ve met people who have passed through my life but been incredibly important while they were here; friends who I hope will be with me forever; people who I send a message to the Universe asking them to show up in class; students who do “turn the world on” with their smiles.  My mentor was an attendant in my wedding. A student did my (and my attendants’) hair on my (giddy) wedding morning.  Another student had suggested the venue. My pet sitter I met at a Simon Park Workshop at Bindu.  Officially, Bindu has permeated every facet of my life!  I’ve met students with wonderful stories to tell, students with stories of perseverance and injuries and surgeries and recoveries. Fellow teachers are joyful friends. Students and teachers exchange ideas, recipes, eggs and freshly grown or canned fruits.  Students who are emotionally or physically fragile can count on me for support, just as they’ve helped me through tough times with just their presence in class and relaxed smiles at the end of class.

5. Meditation means more than it used to: This is a big one. A recent (good) shift in my back pain has found me meditating even more than usual. Whereas meditation used to be a 5-10 minute practice a few times a week, I now find meditation a useful tool to not only calm my brain but also to calm my pain. My practice is expanding and near daily I am experiencing some sort of little epiphany. Next spring I’ll be attending Instinctive Meditation Training with Lorin Roche at Bindu, http://www.bindu-studio.com/id2.html, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

5a.  I don’t have batwings.  Yes, I practice yoga because I love it.  But no bat wings on my arms, tight triceps, biceps and a firm(er) body are nice side effects.

“I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my Soul.” —Rumi

My soul speaks to me the loudest when I am practicing yoga in one form or another.  That is really the biggest reason I practice yoga.

Your power lies within.  Breathe it, live it, love it ……

1384273_153136744895955_299951450_n

 

My personal practice: How do I love thee, let me count the ways …

Given that meditation is the weakest part of my practice and always has been, its funny that my personal practice began with meditation.

There was always something exotic to me about meditation and especially the props and accessories one can utilize to draw oneself deeper.  I’m embarrassed to say that I’m shallow enough that it was the “bling” that drew me to begin meditating at home – I found a book on chakra meditation that suggested a mala (rose quartz?  sandalwood?  both?) and candles.  I spent more time and energy picking out the right combination of candles and setting up my first little meditation corner at home than I did meditating!!

As I learned the Sivananda series better (and my daughter moved out) I took over the “Florida room” for my home practice and expanded what I did.  There were mornings that I would do the entire Sivananda class and a bit of meditation and breath work, then as I got burned out on the series, I would just pick out my favorite poses or what I thought I needed that morning.  Eventually, and especially after spending a week at the Sivananda Center in upstate New York, my home practice evolved and deepened.  While my Florida Room did not face the east, I enjoyed practicing in the very early morning hours where I could feel the sunrise at my back and watch it slowly light up my house.  The animals were quiet and calm.

At its peak I would practice at home for 60-90 minutes each morning and I had a routine of breathing, meditation, asana and yoga nidra that I felt eased me gently into the world each morning.

When my path moved to Vinyasa, my home practice got a little more confused, but I took teacher training within a short period of time of switching styles and my training became my focus.  There was always a project, breathing or asana to be practiced, sequencing to learn – between training and taking the requisite classes at the studio, my home practice became one of necessity and practicality.

For the first year or so of teaching the sequencing of each week’s class would become my weekly home practice.  First I would sequence, then send to Angel (who showed infinite patience) for suggestions/corrections, then practice the class until I knew it by heart.  It was also about this time, 2009 or so, that I began to have the first symptoms  of the arthritis in my neck and my home practice began to shift into a therapeutic/anatomical focus.

Since I began experiencing physical challenges my home practice has really waxed and waned, becoming mostly physical until this year two things happened:  I had back surgery and was gifted with a bronze singing bowl.  After my back surgery I expected to be back at practice in a few weeks but in truth, two weeks after surgery I was challenged by sitting against a wall and bringing my legs into tree and butterfly shapes.  Physical therapy movements have merged with yoga movements.  I began to re-discover yoga nidra.   It was lovely, like dipping into a warm salt water pool.  When I’m lucky, I even feel like I’m floating during yoga nidra!

My personal practice has reflected the weird changes to my physicality as well as the mental challenges of dealing with two chronic pain conditions (although its really one chronic pain conditions in two different places – that sounds better!) the healing sounds of brass and crystal bowls entered my life.  Angel began incorporating crystal healing bowls into some of the gentle practices until she found a home for her bowls with the Yin class Tuesday afternoons at 4.  At first, I found a lot of the tone discordant and would literally feel my ears ringing.  As my body has healed the bowls and I have become friendlier and friendlier.  My husband’s gift of a brass bowl has brought me much joy as I’ve learned to play it.  They’ll be more blogs on the bowl.  For the purpose of this blog, it is impossible for me not to associate meditation with playing the bowl.  The vibrations move throughout my body – supporting hand, arm, speeding up my heartbeat and bringing warmth to my chest – and bring me towards a meditative state partially because of the amount of focus I place on the bowl.  When I stop playing, and those last few vibrations release into the universe, I can’t help but sit and be.  Not always for long periods of time.  But the bowl has brought my personal practice back to a full circle – with a focus on meditation, thanks to the work with the bowl.

Now that I feel like I’ve gone full circle with my home practice does that mean I’ll be giving it up?  That’ I’ve learned all there is for me to learn?  Not at all.  One path may be well traveled and looped back around, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t be stepping onto a new path tomorrow.

bell

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a tricky thing.  Sometimes the words the great thinkers use to describe forgiveness and how forgiveness will set you free sound incredibly trite and well, like drivel.

I’ve been giving some thought to forgiveness lately.  I’ve been a Philadelphia Eagles fan for over thirty years and I have five dogs.  I have a daughter and son in law who are veterinarians and my sister always adopts adult shelter dogs.  We are a dog family.

Michael Vick, for those of you who don’t know, is an NFL quarterback who  pleaded guilty in 2007 to “Conspiracy to Travel in Interstate Commerce in Aid of Unlawful Activities and to Sponsor a Dog in an Animal Fighting Venture”. He admitted to providing most of the financing for the operation and to participating directly in several dog fights in several states.  He admitted to sharing in the proceeds from these dog fights. He further admitted that he knew his colleagues killed several dogs who did not perform well. He admitted to being involved in the destruction of 6–8 dogs, by hanging or drowning. The “victimization and killing of pit bulls” was considered as aggravating circumstances that led prosecutors to exceed the federal sentencing guidelines for the charge.  (Thank you Wikipedia)

When I first heard of Vick’s crimes I shut my ears to it as much as possible.  The crimes were hideous.  Some were committed with his bare hands.  I couldn’t fathom that level of violence against dogs.  My dogs sleep with me!

Since Vick played for the Atlanta Falcons, he never made a big impression on me; I remembered him more for putting his pot in a water bottle and trying to sneak it on a plane than for his skills.  The only impression he had made upon me was negative.  He went to prison and I thought that was that.

Ugh.  In 2009, my Eagles adopted him.  Then-quarterback Donavan McNabb and head coach Andy Reid got with Tony Dungy and they took in this dog killing felon.   I was having none of it.  So as a South Florida transplant  I cheered for the Dolphins for a season and didn’t do anything but keep an eye on the Eagles.  Vick didn’t play a lot but it was interesting to watch him.  I didn’t see many interviews with him although periodically another article would appear about his crimes and whether he should even be playing in the NFL.  I felt that he should not be allowed to rejoin the NFL and he should never, ever be a sports hero or role model for anyone.

A funny thing happened.  Vick played more and was interviewed more.  He was coming across like someone who had hit rock bottom and was trying to dig his way out.  He knew, or at least said out loud, that he was the cause of all of his own problems and was taking responsibility trying to find his way back.  Vick lost everything:  his career, his multi-million dollar endorsements, money, homes.  But in 2010, Vick was no longer wearing wild dreads and oversized athletic wear for interviews.  He was well-groomed, articulate and clearly had been coached in PR.   And he was starting to make progress with me.

Any time I would read a blog about Vick it was generally negative and the comments would be just heinous.  Do to him what he did to dogs.  Don’t let him make millions and become a hero again.  There was definitely a part of me that agreed with this.

There was also a part of of me that was waking up.  I’m supposed to be a Christian, right?  And aren’t we supposed to be all about the forgiveness?  Or were Vick’s crimes too horrible to ever forgive?  To make it that much worse, in 2010 Vick had a Pro Bowl season.  He was scrambling and throwing and making his case on the field more than in the press.  I was drawn back in to watching the Eagles because Vick was so captivating to watch.  That really confused the issue for me.  Was I liking Vick more because he was helping my team win or because I truly believe in change?

Slightly off topic – you know when a friend complains about relationship problems and you respond by saying “well people don’t really change”.  Is that true?  Are we stuck with actions and opinions that we cannot change?  Is our personality so set in stone that nothing can ever be corrected?  Yoga does not teach me this.  Yoga teaches me that people can change both physically and mentally once you open yourself up.  I know I’ve changed through my yoga practice.

So I decided to stick my toe in and become a quasi-Vick supporter.  The sky did not fall.  So I started cheering a little harder and supporting Vick a little more vocally.   No one stopped being my friend.  No family member disowned me.  A few had things to say about my support of Vick.  I asked those people to donate to the ASPCA or Humane Society instead of buying me Christmas presents.  That helped mitigate some of my unease.

From 2010 to 2013, Vick and the Eagles have been on a down turn.  Vick signed another multi-million dollar contract, this time with the Eagles.  He fumbled the ball a lot, got injured a lot, several keys players (and the coached) mentally checked out and weren’t putting their all into it.  This was when I realized I was more than a fan than I thought – three years later, I’m still cheering for Vick and still hoping for the changes he seemed to make to be permanent.  So far, he has been a law-abiding citizen who has gone beyond the conditions of his parole to work on legislation to prevent dog-fighting.  He has been a mediocre quarterback at best.  I am still a fan.

Through yoga, I’ve tried to step outside of my head and look at things from other people’s perspectives.  Sometimes, when I really open myself up, I am shocked to realize that my perspective is not universally shared on issues I think are clear as day.  In listening to and reading interviews with Mike Vick, I came to realize something:  as much as I could never understand his attitudes towards animals, perhaps he could never understand mine.  Maybe he would never understand why Bree sleeps on my pillow, or why Pixel wears a sweater when its 70 degrees out or why Jack Henry the beagle knows my deepest, darkest secrets.  This certainly doesn’t excuse his crimes, but it made me think of things a little bit differently.

I don’t know Michael Vick personally and I have no way of knowing if he has really truly changed.  But I’ve decided to be on board with forgiveness and try to be a little more open with it.  Forgiveness is a gift that you give to yourself.  Michael Vick will not know that I have forgiven him and moved on to become a supporter.  I hope that I am correct but I have no way of knowing.  I have taken a leap of faith and am putting forgiveness into the universe.  Holding in the negativity, whether it’s someone you know or someone who effects your life in some minor way, does you no service.

Go Eagles!

Yoga Etiquette

As teachers, we try to set a particular atmosphere for classes … specific music, lighting, props, whatever we can utilize to help students move deeper into their practice.  At Bindu we’ve spent a lot of time creating a loving and nourishing ambiance, and as teachers we work hard to not only maintain the studio, but to bring that ambiance into the classroom and maintain throughout classes.

Most yoga students tend to be incredibly respectful of each other as well as the teacher and the studio.  But there are a few guidelines that should always be followed, no matter what studio you attend.  Most of them are common sense or simple courtesy:

  • Never, ever wear your shoes into the classroom.
  • Do not eat for at least two hours before you practice.  Doesn’t matter if its a gentle class or active class – many poses (asanas) work your innards as well as your soft tissues, and you really don’t want a full breakfast in your digestive tract as you twist.
  • Arrive at least 10 minutes prior to class starting.  The teacher and students expect to start on time, and you will need time to sign in, put your belongings away, set up your mat, gather any props and especially, begin to center yourself in the classroom.  Sure, everyone has a day where we run late or decide to attend class at the last minute.  In those instances, please be quiet and thoughtful – avoid clunking shoes, jangling keys, slamming doors and being noisy in the classroom.  But try your best to get to class 10-15 minutes before it starts.
  • My personal pet peeve:  Leave your cell phone in your car or make sure you turn it off.  Not vibrate (you can often hear the vibration, especially if the phone is sitting in a wooden cubby) but off.  Few things are more disconcerting to a teacher or student than taking a class through a deep practice, moving into savasana or a guided meditation, then having someone’s cell phone start shrieking “Freebird” or “Baby Got Back”.  And if your phone does go off and you know its yours, please get up and turn it off.   Your teacher and fellow students will greatly appreciate it.
  • Please be honest about your injuries and heath conditions, even if they are controlled by medication.  There are poses that should be avoided for everything from glaucoma to herniated discs, however, there are many, many ways teachers can modify poses for you that safely take into account any health issues you may have.
  • I teach and practice vinyasa yoga, which is a form of yoga that is a marriage of breath and movement.  We breathe deeply, as in most forms of yoga.  Please avoid wearing perfumes and body lotions.   For the most part, I gauge when blankets need to be washed in the studio when they smell of body lotion and perfume.
  • Conversely, please be clean when you take yoga.  ‘Nuf said.
  • If you have something to talk to the teacher about, please do it before or after class, not in the classroom.  Many students come slowly out of savasana and want to savor those last few moments.  If you have a question about a pose while you are in it, please ask, but if you have a question about a class pass or want to discuss the class schedule, the classroom is not the appropriate place or time.

Everything about yoga class is thoughtfully designed to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for the student.  That requires some cooperation from the students as well as the teacher.   Just as a sloppy teacher who starts late, doesn’t end on time or gives poor instruction is going to make your class experience less enjoyable, having just one student who seems to forget that there are other people in the classroom can make teaching and practicing a challenge.

In the end, we all want to practice thoughtfully, mindfully and with patience, care and attention.  Being courteous to one another makes it all so much easier.

mandala6

The less I hold on, the more beautiful the sound …

So practicing every day since I got my Tibetan singing bowl has taught me several things:  its not as easy as it seems, there are muscles in your hands that can ache, how you hold the bowl is supremely important and, seemingly contrary – the less I grip the mallet but the more consistent the pressure, the better.

Everything yoga has taught me is in some manner about letting go.  Much of what I’ve tried to pass along in this blog is about letting go.  Learning the singing bowl has again reinforced that to me.

The first day I picked up the bowl, I had no expectations, some typed instructions and some YouTube videos.  I made that bowl sing immediately and thought that it was all uphill from there.  Well, the next day I thought about everything and, of course, couldn’t get the bowl to hum.  I added a little meditation to my practice routine.  I brought out my rose quartz mala – rose quartz opens the heart chakra, which is where I feel I need to play from; it helps to balance the emotions, thereby keeping me less frustrated; and it is used to raise self-esteem, which being horrifically unmusical, I appreciated.

Rose quartz mala in hand, I began to meditate for as long as I could.  The first day or so there was a focus issue, then the focus came back (almost like muscle memory) but life would interfere.  One overcast, drizzly morning, when the house was very low energy, I picked up my mala and went through it in its entirety, sat for a few moments then picked up the bowl.  I held it directly out from my heart and picked up the mallet.  I was holding it differently, less of a grip but it somehow felt more controlled and I held the bowl in my flat left hand.  My mind was clear and I had no expectations or frustrations.   From there it just flowed.

Sometimes it frustrates me, sometimes it amuses me, sometimes it comforts me ….. but the more I learn, the more that I keep coming back to a few basic, recurring precepts of yoga.  Today’s happens to be exactly this – the less I grip and clench and hold on, the softer and easier everything becomes.  In a class when I reach my first child’s pose, sometimes my low back is not prepared to release and I end up hovering a couple of inches over my heels, causing pressure on my neck, frustration and the lack of release into that long spine stretch.  But when I am able to stop gripping, child’s pose becomes easier and more enjoyable.  When I hold on to an emotion, when I grip it tightly to my heart, it does not resolve anything, but when I am able to soften and allow myself to feel and let go of unneeded emotions, well – it’s win-win.

Lately circles have been resonating with me – I see circular patterns in the breath, in life, in the routine of my day – so to find that the more I learn leads me back to the paths I’ve been following reinforces to me that I am learning to let go and live more freely.  I don’t quite feel like I’m going in circles yet, because I keep picking up and gaining knowledge that is simply taking me back to a beginning.  But I bring a little something new with me each time I return, and today, it was the beautiful sound of a singing bowl that I held very loosely near my heart and to some extent, played me.

 

800px-Klangschale

Yoga and Religion – Part Two

I previously wrote specifically about religion and yoga, and how some students deal with the various aspects of spiritual yoga. This is a little different.

In California there are apparently schools that offer yoga as an alternative/supplement to physical education. A group of parents sued, stating that yoga is inherently religious and violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

While I have many thoughts as to how the constitutional use of church and state is used hypocritically by many people as a means to their personal ends, in this instance, the argument simply did not hold water.

The Encinitas Union School District had stripped all spirituality out of what they were teaching, down to changing the Sanskrit names of poses to secular, more child-friendly names – for instance, lotus is called “criss cross applesauce” pose. I’m not even sure from what I’ve read if they were teaching the children any breath work. The families were also given the option to “opt out” or not enroll their children in the yoga class.

But here’s the real kicker – according to what I read, the children of the parents who sued never attended any of the yoga classes offered by the School District. They researched yoga on line, decided they didn’t like what they read and as the Judge put it “It’s almost like a trial by Wikipedia,”

Yoga is a terrific form of exercise and a magnificent way to learn to deal with anxiety and nerves. My friends and I have spoken many times on how much more complicated and stressful our children’s lives are ….. even going back to when my daughter, now 30, was a child, and I was worried about her getting good grades in elementary school so she could get into the right middle school, continue to work hard, take as many advance and AP classes as she could to then get into the right high school so she could go to a good college. Phew! I’m exhausted just typing that! Add in school and homework, sports or even family, and “free time” for children is becoming less available to them.

Yoga can help children learn to deal with anxiety, nerves and stress.

Let’s talk about the obesity problem with American children. Yoga is not a high-calorie burning activity, for the most part. But it will help the children develop a better knowledge of their bodies, and I believe can also assist in helping children form positive body image for themselves. I have read studies where yoga is integrated into eating disorder treatment plans and in the studies I reviewed, the majority of the students under treatment for eating disorders found yoga helped them tremendously to get in touch with their bodies and form a more positive self-image. Why can’t that translate down to our children?

Apparently some of the parents were also concerned that yoga could be a gateway to their children becoming interested in, or learning about, other religions. If yoga is a gateway for religious exploration for some individuals, its likely because they were seeking in the first place.

While I have an obvious bias, yoga and breath work should be taught to children as young and as often as possible. We live in a high stress world and that trickles down to our children. Why not give them the opportunity to learn how to deal with their anxieties and bodies without medications, therapy, or just letting them implode. Public school is not the place for religion, I agree. But teaching children to exercise regularly, respect themselves, perhaps improve their body image and calm themselves is a different story, which is why the Judge ruled as he did.

http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/Jul/01/encinitas-schools-yoga-trial-judge-ruling/2/?#article-copy

Coordinating Mind, Body and Breath

Many students of yoga (or people who are in touch with their physical selves) know the connection between mind and breath – when you are upset or your mind is full of information and problems, your breath is generally quick, short and/or shallow – and once you participate in any form of exercise that requires coordination of breath to movement, its pretty clear how the mind, body and breath work together.

There are other ways that the breath, mind and body work together.  For instance, when you are upset or “taking a moment” before confronting a problem, have you ever noticed how you tend to have a long, full exhale, sometimes even counting to 10 like grandma suggested?  That’s your mind telling your body to calm itself by engaging the para-sympathetic nervous system with the long, soothing, outgoing breath.  Your mind knows when you are anxious:  Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand. When you feel stressed by something going on around you, your body reacts by releasing chemicals into your bloodstream. These chemicals will give you more energy and strength. This is your body’s throwback reaction to when human’s stress was generally caused by physical danger.  So this helps if the stress is caused by an emergency or physical danger.

Many different things can cause stress — from physical (even think about how your body reacts to a near-miss in traffic) to emotional (our never-ending concerns about family and friends). Identifying what may be causing you stress is often the first step in learning how to better deal with stress.

Sometimes we can change or modify the cause of the stress and anxiety.  Sometimes we can’t.  That’s where using our yogic tools comes in handy.  Deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing, calming poses like legs up the wall or child’s pose, yoga nidra and meditation are all arrows in our yogic quiver that can be used to coordinate the mind, body & breath and relieve stress and anxiety.

There is also a different aspect to mind, body and breath coordination in yoga, and this is one with which I am personally struggling.   That is when your body is injured or aging and your practice starts to change.  Change is ever present and of course we all know that the harder we fight change, the more we are like a fish swimming upstream – struggling against something we cannot control or change.

Now, just because your body may be changing or that you are rehabilitating an injury doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a satisfying yoga practice.  But your body may not cooperate with what your mind thinks it can still do.

For instance, in Sivananda yoga,  headstand, shoulder stand and plow are routine asanas in class.  I loved shoulder stand and plow and eventually, learned to love headstand.  However, when I was learning these asanas my focus was not on alignment and proper use of breath.  Five years later, my memory of these asanas is both wistful and a little  peeved.  I really, really wish I had known then what I know now, and if it weren’t for my own physical limitations I would be practicing these poses routinely.  However, convincing my mind and heart that my body is no longer physically equipped to support these poses is a new challenge in itself.

I’m far enough along in my physical recovery to know that its time for me to start testing my limitations and boundaries as to what I can do, where my body can safely go and riding the breath all the way.   Its time to start poking at my own fears, hard edges and rebuild strength and continue to find flexibility.  In order to achieve this, I will need all of the yogic tools I’ve been taught over the years – which again, brings us back to the mind, body and breath connection.

Whether you are trying to connect your mind to your body and breath to deepen your practice, recover from injury, start a practice, relieve stress and anxiety or build strength, keeping the “big three” connected will be key.

Remembering all mothers on Mother’s Day

I lost my mother when I was 8 years old. As a result, I grew up with a variety of mothers, ranging from my father to my sisters to my aunts to my friends’ mothers. I was mothered by many and learned a lot from everyone, especially my sister Linda who taught me everything from how to make oatmeal cookies to how to survive my daughter’s teen years.

smolak01

When I got a little older and could verbalize what it felt like to lose my mother at such a young age, I can to realize that for me,  losing your mother is losing the foundation of your life. You don’t quite feel like you have a secure anchor because you don’t have quite the same unconditional love, even if you have plenty of love around you, which I always have – but a mother’s love for her child is different.

Recently this makes me think about the mother to us all, mother earth. The mother that supports us, and who we should be supporting. Instead, we are destroying her. How much ground can we recover from the excesses of the last hundred years or more? The digging, drilling, polluting, poaching, mowing down rainforests and entire eco-systems for malls and housing developments. Can we fix that damage somehow, in our lifetime anyway? Will my grandchildren be wearing gas masks and covered from head to toe because of the pollution and UV rays?

We all have one mother and we share her. She keeps us warm, fed, and supplies the very air that we breathe. As with human mothers and children, we aren’t always nice to each other. But what we have done to our shared mother, mother earth, is truly heinous.

Its far to late to fix what we’ve done. At this time I do my best to mitigate my carbon footprint, separate my recyclables (and hope that they actually get recycled), try to carry my water bottle, re-use or re-invent what I can. But I can’t clean up the Great Lakes, I can’t clean up nuclear waste-sites. I am only one vote when it comes to off-shore drilling or running a pipeline through the wilds of Alaska.

So on Sunday, as you think about your mom if she’s not with you, or as your kids make you brunch or you have a big family celebration, take a moment to think about our shared mother, not the one we live with but the one that we live on. Try to do something, one thing a day, that will help keep our shared mother healthier. Pick up trash, plant a tree, reusable water glasses instead of bottles – anything you can think of.

Sometimes, emotionally, we are lucky enough to be mothered by more than one person. But when it comes to mother earth, its time for us to start thinking more about what we can do for her, instead of what we can continue to take from her. We need to treat her with compassion and respect. Its time for the human race to stop acting like adolescents and take, take, take from the earth. Instead, lets start to give, give, give and see if we can do something in our lifetime to relieve some of the stress that we have put on her.

The practice of Ahimsa, one of the  many facets of yoga,  means simply “not doing harm”. It does not distinguish between doing harm to others versus doing harm to onesself, or between harm as done to humans or animals or objects or the earth itself.

Hands on a globe

What is yoga to you?

This morning I read the quote below.  It resonated with me and as a result, I wanted to share it:

“Yoga is not about being bendy. Its about showing up to your mat consistently not knowing what is going to happen and being okay with that.  Its about rehabilitating yourself and not believing the “experts” who say you are too injured or too old.  Its about believing you can do anything even if its the scariest most impossible thing you could ever dream of.  Its about uncovering who you really are.  Its about being kind to yourself so you can then be kind to others.  Yoga is about discovering that most of the crazy thoughts in your head are not true.  Its about being healthy without pushing yourself to your limit.  Its about slowing down to get strong.  Its about breathing and moving and smiling on the inside.  Its the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the best.”

I’ve never been bendy even after more than a decade of yoga classes.  However, a lot of people – including yoga teachers – are not bendy in the way some people visualize yoga.  There is a big difference between stretching and being hyper-flexible.  Many non-yogis think that they have to be able to touch their toes or wrap their feet around their head while balancing on one finger to take class.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yoga is truly about showing up on the your mat consistently and accepting what is going to happen both in class and to your body without judgment.  Does this mean that as a first time student you show up to an advanced class and expect to not be frustrated?  No, of course not.  No matter where you are in life (or in your day for that matter) you choose a class that suits you – whether it is stretching, strengthening, flowing, breathing, meditative – or all of these things.  The biggest thing to know about yoga is that like anything else, yoga is what you make of it.  You can go to class, half-ass your way through it and at the end be dissatisfied both physically and mentally.  Or you can take the time that you’ve carved out of your life to come to your mat, be present and be focused.  Again, it doesn’t mean that you’ll do every asana, do it prettily or perfectly, but you do it to the best of your ability that day.

Small caution here – not every yoga pose (asana) is suitable for every person.  If you have high blood pressure or glaucoma headstand is not for you.  If you have diagnosed herniated or bulging disks in your back, some forward bends will need to be modified for you or may be inappropriate.  This is why its important to find a studio with mindful, well-informed teachers, and if you need them, find health care providers and doctors who understand yoga, its benefits, what to take from it and what to avoid.

I have been blessed (or lucky) and have found myself a circle of healthcare providers who believe in the benefits of yoga.  While my back surgery did relieve much of my pain, there is pain I will always have.  With the help of my “team”, including my yoga teacher mentor, I don’t have a single person in my life, with medical degrees or not, telling me I’m too old or damaged for yoga.  In fact my surgeon encouraged me to start stretching as soon as I could and my mentor encourages me to slow it down and not try to do everything in one day.

As to the mental aspect of yoga, oh, there is so much fear.  For some people, there is fear just to step on the mat or enter their first class, as discussed above – unsure of what’s going to happen, will I look foolish, will I hurt myself, can I do this, what if I fart or burp during class? – and the only way to get past it is to open your mind.

Before I became a vinyasa teacher, I took both Sivananda and Bikram classes.  Both are set classes with little to no variation from class to class.  So when I started taking vinyasa classes, I was terrified.  First off – where were the mini-savasanas (rests) between sets of asanas?  Then as I got used to the flows, I would get worried, especially in more advanced classes – what comes next?  What if I can’t do it?  What if it doesn’t feel good?

I’ve gotten past alot of those fears but I understand.  When I see a student not in the moment, I do my best to bring the student back to  and move from moment to moment without worrying about what comes next or what we just did.

Then there are  regular students who think they know what will come next, their thought process jumps ahead and again, as teachers we have a responsibility to cue students back into the moment.

Many fears can be worked through.  Many are irrational (such as those dang voices in my head) but alot of our fears have root in some kind of reality or experience.  Yoga helps us soften the hard edges, both  mind & body and as a result helps us work through some of our fears.  I find that much of this is through breath work.  It is easier to calm yourself and assuage your fears when you are breathing fully, deeply and with focus.  The more you learn more about yoga and the different types of breath – to calm, to cool off, to heat up – its amazing how you can apply to your daily life.

You do not have to lift weights or run as fast as you can to get strong.  Nor do you have to balance on one finger.  In fact, you can mix and match your exercise and you may find that a yoga class may be complementary to running or tennis.  Yoga is about stretching and strengthening.  Stretching our minds, allowing in new thoughts, letting things become more gray and less black and white.  Perhaps even softening some of the hard layers we develop through life and letting in people and experiences that you may not normally.  That’s where learning to smile inwardly works.  When you carry a smile in your heart you really do radiate it.  It makes you more open to be civil, friendly as well as open to new people, experiences and friendships.

If  you are old enough to remember The Flintstones cartoon (or the Frente! remake), you may remember this little song:

“So let the sun shine in, face it with a grin.
Smilers never lose and frowners never win.
So let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Open up your heart and let the sun shine in.”
(written by Stuart Hamblen)

If you can let yoga into your heart, you will smile more often.  Your body will feel better, your heart will sing and your life will feel different.  So don’t hesitate.  Find your inspiration, open up your heart and let the sun shine in.

The uncivility of civil rights

heart

Among my family and friends, the same-sex marriage debate has recently hit a couple of boiling points.  As all my friends know I support this and I don’t really get why its an “issue”.  Civil rights, to me, are civil rights.

I’m a newlywed.  My wedding day was one of the happiest days of my life and I literally floated on pink fluffy clouds of love for weeks after the wedding.  Marriage has changed my perspective on many things:  its changed the way I deal with my relationships, my outlook on life.  I think in terms of “we” instead of “I” on most decisions.  I save a message on my phone from months ago with my husband’s voice, just to hear it sometimes.  I am blessed with great friends and a wonderful family, not to mention my daughter for whom the correct superlative has not been invented.  But yet, for the first time in my life, there is someone who has my back in a way I didn’t know was possible.  As they say in the movies, my husband completes me.

So what if he had been she?  Would that make me love her less, or differently?  As the old saying goes, the heart wants what the heart wants and I truly believe that the heart is colorblind and completely unbiased.  How is it possible that people who love each other cannot be together simply because they are the “wrong” sex for each other …. its just not.  Or at least it shouldn’t be.  I just don’t get why people have to miss out on anything – legally, socially, romantically – because they are in a same sex relationship.

I have found that marriage has, to my great surprise, changed things.  I can’t explain how, but perhaps its a new intensity to our relationship, or a real feeling that we have to work through problems, or just knowing he’s there.

When I first began to study yoga, one of the first things I learned was “first, do no harm”.  Keeping same sex marriage illegal is doing harm.  I know there is a side to this issue that would argue well, gay marriage is harmful.  I truly have not seen a cogent argument as to how anyone would be adversely affected by gay marriage.  In fact, I’m going to quote Chris Kluwe here, because he says this far better than I could:

“I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails.”  [Chris Kluwe letter to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr.] (emphasis mine)

As with most issues, if you pull out a Bible quote that seems to be against gay marriage, I can find one to refute it.  You find me an expert that says gay marriage will ruin the morals of the country, and I would not only find an expert that would say the opposite, but I would point you towards countries where same sex marriage is legal – Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden – and ask you if brimstone has rained down upon them yet, or if cows and cats were fornicating in the streets.

There is no harm in gay marriage.  There is no harm in people who love one another legally pledging their love  and having it affirmed by miles and miles of red tape.  The hate over this issue scares me.  There are very irrational people (Westboro Baptist Church leaps to mind) whose hate is so vitriolic that its difficult to imagine that their Church is truly accepted by any God.  This is harm.

Speaking of, I don’t  believe in the hell and brimstone God, the one who was writing in a ledger that I lied to my mother about brushing my teeth when I was 6.  I believe that God is much more of a nurturer.   Its humans that are ruining everything.  The precept of “first, do no harm” has been lost to most of us.  Whatever God’s word may have been or whoever/whatever it may have been spoken through – the Bible, the Torah, Buddha, Yahweh – I am just continuously saddened that words of love and support have turned into such hate.

There seem to be no true legal arguments to impede this move forward for civil rights.  The religious aspect of it is far more complicated.  As I’ve grown older I’ve come to believe that religion must be rooted in love and it must celebrate love.  It seems unlikely that so many years of religious dogma will change but we can hope for more and more tolerance.

I like to be optimistic.  I look forward to the day when marriage is just marriage, and not labeled “heterosexual” or ” same sex”.  It wasn’t that long again that a Jewish man couldn’t marry a Catholic woman, an Italian woman could not think about marrying a German man, or that inter-racial marriage was illegal.  Heck, it wasn’t that long ago that women couldn’t vote.  Maybe there was this much hatred surrounding these issues, I have no real way of knowing.

Other than Palm Beach County no one had to approve my marriage.  No one voted on it.  We just went to the Courthouse, got a license, then started a beautiful life.  How can our country deny that right to anyone? A country founded upon diversity, upon religious freedoms and the ability to speak your mind.  First, do no harm.  Let families be families.  Let love be love.  As John Lennon said “all you need is love”. Unless you’re in a same sex relationship, in which case you need the Supreme Court to tell you that you can legalize your love.