WEDDING PRESENTS

Interesting title for a yoga blog, eh?  Well, I got married on 02/02/13.

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and for my husband and I this was our second wedding. We have everything we need and more.  While I had a brief moment going through the Williams Sonoma catalog where I thought “hmmmm, that pasta maker looks nice” I knew I didn’t need it and could get it on my own.

So we decided to ask for donations in lieu of gifts.  Our preferences were Big Dog Ranch Rescue (www.bdrr.org) and my husband’s fraternity scholarship fund, Delta Sigma Pi (www.dsp.org).  The response was overwhelming.

We  adopted our 16 month old puppy, Jezebel Snowflake, from BDRR and were extremely impressed with their facility.  It is huge, and started off as a Weimaraner rescue and eventually merged to become BDRR.  Don’t let the name fool you – they have big dogs, small dogs, medium dogs, purebreds (especially Weims), mutts … you name it.  They have a clinic on site and are working on improving it.

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How does this relate to yoga?  So many ways.  Giving is so much of yoga.  Whether your teacher is giving you class, you are giving your energy to your teacher, teachers and students give each other knowledge …. plus the compassion that we learn from yoga.  While I have compassion for many and much, I was able to settle on BDRR as a place where I could put my compassion to good use.  I intend to continue trying to support them in any way I can.

For my husband, his fraternity has been a gift to him in many ways.  Literally life time friends he has made, skills he has learned that have enriched his life, and in his fraternity, he learned the importance of giving back.  By the way, his fraternity is business-related.  While I’m sure they had their share of fun in college there was also a point.  Interestingly, when I first started teaching, he was able to impart to me some of the public speaking skills he had learned through his fraternity.  And since becoming a part of the yoga “fraternity”, my husband has really pulled together the benefits from the years of being a part of his fraternity and been able to relate what he has taken away from the fraternity over the years to what he takes from yoga.  So for him, to give back was to ask for donations to a scholarship program that funds current college students to attend fraternity seminars.

Eddie Stephens

Eddie Stephens, Board Certified Marital & Family Attorney

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Yogic principles trickle down to so many different aspects of our lives, and frankly, once you start to live with more yogic principles, the more you begin to see the good in your past and present experiences.  So for us, the ability to have our friends and family give to charities that give back to others, it felt like a good way to celebrate the beginning of our lives together.  Love feels like an awakening and transformation.  Once you awaken, you begin to transform, and then you want to give back.  XOXO

Letting go within my teaching

When I first started teaching Vinyasa I was so worried about forgetting my flows (I’m the kind of person that when I blank, I blank.  I mean mouth-open, brain blanked panic.) and giving a good class that I wrote down every single breath and movement and followed it rigidly.

As I grew more comfortable in my teaching, I started using some abbreviations and didn’t have to write out all the breaths.  And as I grew even more comfortable, I would vamp here and there, or I would just write down the parts I really wanted to remember and play the rest by ear.  If I was teaching a “specialty” class, like hip openers or shoulders, I would still write out alot of things.

As more time went by I became able to teach a one-hour class completely off the top of my head.  Came one Saturday afternoon that I simply had no idea what I wanted to do in class the next day; none of my usual sources of inspiration helped.  Even getting on the mat didn’t do much.  I didn’t panic.  I actually felt a sense of calm.  By this time I had developed enough of a rapport with my students to gloss over many errors, and I had also come to realize that making errors was not the end of the world.

So I went in to class that Sunday morning and did 90 minutes of yoga totally off the top of my head.  It was probably a very basic class.  I also discovered a new challenge:  I definitely had to do most of the flows to remember what I had done but I also had to keep myself from sinking into my own practice.  I needed to not only pay attention to what I was doing from asana to asana but keep myself from going too far within and disconnecting from the students (which, by the way, is how I know its time to get a haircut – when my bangs/hair obscure my eyes & I can’t see my students!).

Recently I took another step forward.  I had a few vague sketchy ideas for class but nothing concrete and absolutely no particular focus.  As students entered the studio, I realized I had a pretty low-key bunch with no particular physical ailments or chronic conditions.  In fact, the biggest common denominator (as with many classes, but that’s another blog!) was professionals with stressful jobs.

So I let the students teach me.  They were very focused and into their warm ups; I could hear several students make the switch to ujayi breath.  Several were deliberately slowing down their movements.  When I saw that a student or two was starting to wander, we got up and broke a sweat, but we still moved deliberately and with a focus on alignment.  Then it got practical and as we passed the 70 minute mark we moved back down to the mat … but only did three asanas (bridge supported with bolster, reclining on bolster with shoulders on mat and savasana).

This may have been the most personally satisfying class I’ve ever taught. More importantly, every student had a smile on his or her face and looked relaxed and replete.  I don’t expect to have that sort of inspiration or connection with every single class.  I do know I’ve done it once and it will happen again.  I look forward to that.

Vacation Yoga

On vacation, moments to practice are often scattered through the day.  Time here and there when kids and significant others are occupied. Vacation yoga is almost a form of yoga unto itself.

Is form perfect?  Probably not.  Do I do an entire flow, or series, or class?  Um, no, but dropping to a down dog to feel the sand slide under me as I try to reach my hips up to the sun is a very different feeling from down dog in the studio.  Yoga is everywhere and on vacation its easy to find spots to slide into an asana.

I like to take the opportunity to visit out of town yoga studies while away.  Its difficult enough to get to class during the week at my hometown studio.  So before I go away I’ll often narrow down a search and find a studio near my vacation spot.  And as we are taught, each class has been a gift, exactly what I needed that day and that time.  I’ve gone to sports injury classes (always looking for some new shoulder work!), ashtanga lite, vinyasa flows that were inventive yet familiar at the same time.  Sometimes it’s just hearing another teacher’s voice or wording that makes a difference.  But it’s always welcome

The only time I had a problem with a “vacation” yoga studio was one closed in the Keys for renovations.  Luckily it was beautiful outside and there was a pool with a deck.  I know some students who, while on vacation, will try things they don’t generally do in practice.  Others prefer to stretch.  I think we all agree that none of us really push ourselves very hard when practicing without a teacher – so make it luxurious.  Stretch.  Let your body unfurl with the breath.  Really reach the arms up and the legs down.   Unless you are taking sort of vacation where every second is planned, let your day to day stress roll off away with breath and movement.  Take advantage of these moments with your practice.  Don’t preplan your practice just unroll your mat and let it happen.  Whether you just stay in savasana and let your mind clear and breath go deep or if you let your body lift you up into a natural warrior flow, let your practice lead you during vacation.  Play around with different things but no further than your body and mind want at that time.

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing and fun.  Yoga is portable.  Take the opportunity to let your practice relax too.

When your teacher is your student

In teacher’s training we had to teach a certain number of classes to graduate. Of course, my teacher and fellow students all attended. I was very used to getting feedback and having my mentor in the room. When I graduated I took over a Sunday morning timeslot that I’ve been teaching for several years now.

One morning my teacher showed up. This was unusual, as Sundays are her one definite day off a week. She told me she was going to take class with me. Internally I gave a little “yay” and kept checking in students. From time to time other teachers from the studio take class with me and there is a certain amount of fun and camaraderie when you have your peers in class. I always enjoy it.

I rarely get butterflies before I teach anymore. As I was walking into the room, I saw my teacher and immediately was thrown back to teacher training. I broke out in a cold sweat, got butterflies and couldn’t really remember what I had planned.

This was an excellent lesson for me because guess what …. she just did the class. I would teach a flow and she would do it, just like everyone else.   Plus I think it bumped up my regular students game a little bit, to have the studio owner in class with them.

Over the years I’ve run into people in class that I would rather not see or teach, who made me nervous or anxious for one reason or another.   I actually found it more difficult as a student to know that person was in the room with me.  As a teacher although there may be a student, or an incident, or something you bring into the classroom with you that is distracting, there are things that you have to work beyond in order to give a good class.

As yoga teachers no matter what our certification may be, we will always have teachers. I am lucky enough to have my teacher right down the street and can access her wisdom often (and I do!) Having her in class was a special treat and next time it happens, I’m going to take that deep calming breath, remember she’s there as a student and enjoy the heck out of teaching her!

And when there is someone or something in class that throws me out of teaching mode I’m going to take that deep calming breath and go about teaching class.

Sitting still outside of the yoga room

Well, this is interesting.

A veteran of neck and shoulder problems, I woke up Monday morning (Super Bowl Monday) not with a hangover, but with a stiff, sore low back. Assuming it was muscular, I stretched, showered and went about my day.

Tuesday I felt ok, still not right . I attended a Yin yoga class in the afternoon and felt mentally refreshed, still stiff and sore but no pains, no numbness or tingling, still assuming its muscular.

Wednesday … I could sit for long periods of time, I could stand, I could walk but any transition … from chair to standing or in or out of the car, for instance, was horribly painful. Then, for instance, once I stood up, I’d take 4-8 steps and my low back would seize up. I mean take your breath away pain, but just for a few moments.

Thursday morning I went to put my dog’s bowl on the floor for breakfast and ended up frozen on the floor. I took the day off and went to get evaluated, told I “may” (no tests have been done, this is just someone’s experience talking) have bulged a disc in my low back. The pain and discomfort was now also in my right hip & flexors, making movement very difficult. After some treatment I was told to go home and take it easy, treat conservatively and visit my doctor on Monday if I didn’t feel a whole lot better.

Immediately I started thinking of the things I could do at home if I were basically confined to my house for 2-3 days. Laundry, organizing, some light cleaning, a work project I could bring home and do.

Um, no. Apparently rest and conservative care means no matter how much laundry or how dirty the floors are they wait. No lifting, minimal bending, no twisting. I was told not to even try to go into child’s pose for awhile, THAT’s how stiff and sore my low back is.

OK, I’m a yogi. I take class regularly and tune out everything else and am present in the moment. I teach and am totally present in the moment. So why am I having such a difficult time letting go at home? Shouldn’t I be able to just let go of my personal to-do list and relax in order to heal?

I should. My “regular” life, both professionally and personally, keep me moving at such a pace that I have trouble shutting off at home. I am coming to learn that I do not let go at home as I do in the yoga room.

Whenever I walk up the stairs to the studio I learn and teach at, I begin to feel a sense of peace, relaxation and realization that I’m about to do something I love. If my mind is at full steam, its at 3/4 or 1/2 steam by the time I sit down. Usually by the time we are done with warmups and breathing I’m there. On the occasions it takes me longer I still almost always get there by the end of class.

Its like my body and mind have become addicted to certain words and places to let go. So now I have to strengthen my practice and bring it more into my “regular” life. I didn’t realize that I had such a divide between my yogic life and everything else. I thought I had gotten pretty good about bringing yoga outside of the studio. I have learned today that I am very very wrong.

I will relax, I will let go. It sounds almost like I’m commanding myself. I will be trying for the next few days to be quiet with my body on purpose, not just because its exhausted. In order to help myself I have to, and I know its not just me that has this issue.

I’ve had more than one student race into class at the last moment then watched them struggle for a few moments to be present and relax. Then once class is over they start checking their phones and I can see tension and that sensation of being wired creeping back in. All of our lives are busy and full of schedules, anxiety, stress. Give yourself permission. The laundry really will wait. Even if you just take 5-15 minutes a couple of times a day to sit still and let your mind and body relax and let go, you will notice a difference. This is not necessarily time for asana practice or even meditation. This is resting, effortless, just being a lump on a log time. Don’t let an injury force you into sitting still.

Am I Going with the Flow?

I used to be a far more regimented person than I am now. Some of that was by virtue of being a single mother, raising a daughter who liked to go places and do things while working a demanding full-time plus job. It’s pretty hard to not plan out your day under those circumstances.

Once my daughter left home I continued with a pretty strong routine. It was comforting and frankly, kept me from becoming a complete couch potato.

Then I delved farther into yoga and once I discovered vinyasa, I started to realize just how tightly wrapped I am, and how much anxiety it would cause me to deviate from schedule or alter my routine.  At some point, I stopped wearing a watch.  I found I was checking it far too often during the day, and I came to believe it was creating stress for me.  Am I on time?  Am I spending too long on this project?  I stopped wearing a watch and the first few days were a withdrawal.  Then it became ok.

I had always been an anxious traveler; through yoga I came to realize some of that was my need to stick to schedule which, let’s say when traveling from Florida to Ohio at Christmas with a blizzard around the corner, is just not reasonable.   For many reasons, sticking to a schedule when traveling is just not always feasible, and I started to let go of some of that stress too.

I’ve come to realize over time just how rigid my life and thinking used to be. Everytime I push the corners a little bit, it becomes clear to me how small that box was. I have less self-induced anxiety. I have alot more boundaries to push and I’m finding I trip over them every day; some days I can move past them and other days I can’t but I still know where to find them for another day.

Here Comes 2011

2010 was a very quick year! The fall kind of snuck up on me, then it was somehow Thanksgiving, Christmas flew by and here we are on New Year’s Eve.

2010 was kind of a messy year in my yoga practice. I started the year with all good intentions of becoming stronger and working on more advanced balances and asanas and I just kept hurting myself. Lesson number 1 – just because you can get into a position doesn’t necessarily mean you should be there.

Sometimes we let ego or ambition get too far ahead of us and force the body into a position it really doesn’t want to be in. But there’s no softening, no acceptance by the body. Not unlike fitting a round peg into a square hole, something’s gonna give. Lesson number two: backing off from time to time is not a bad thing.

Because I can only get to class usually twice a week, I try to get to one low to the mat class and one active class. Besides working above my level, the active classes also give me the opportunity to learn new flows I can incorporate into my classes. But sometimes I’ve found myself trying to force my body into a position it did not want to be in. I could feel the creaking and pulling and while I felt some softening, there wasn’t enough give to really feel confident in the position.

Bottom line for this year is that I intend to try to hurt myself less. I’m going to work more on proper alignment and technique, as well as building strength, before charging into the really fun looking stuff that looks light and carefree, but I haven’t found the lightness yet. I’m going to work on finding the lightness too.

Those are my yoga resolutions for 2011. I’m hoping that by taking the more passive approach, things will come with less challenge.

Yoga and Religion

Religion is always a difficult subject. Wars have been fought over religion and religious freedoms. Everyone believes their religion is the “right” one and some are zealous about it.

Many people who practice yoga have entwined their spiritual life with their yoga practice. Many practice simply hatha yoga. Lots of us have a belief system but enjoy the spiritual aspect of yoga as well. The bottom line is that you can fit yoga and your spiritual life together easily.

I’ve had people tell me they’ve left yoga classes because the teachers have concentrated on the spiritual aspect too much. I think it’s fair to say that a teacher is going to teach what he or she is comfortable with and sometimes that will include spirituality, sometimes with chants and music, sometimes with readings from sacred scriptures, even just opening or closing with a prayer. As a student, you have to do what you are comfortable with and if you are rehabilitating an injury, you may not want any deities with your yoga. That’s fair and certainly doable.

If you are uncomfortable with the way a teacher handles the spiritual aspects of class, don’t be embarrassed to ask a teacher if that was a special class, or if there is always an emphasis on the spiritual side of the practice. That should guide you as to whether or not you want to return to that class.

I’ve also had students tell me they felt uncomfortable with chanting. I’ve always given the same advice: if you attend a class where the teacher chants, and you’re not sure what it means or uncomfortable with it because of your own belief system, simply recite one of your prayers in your mind.

Yoga not only makes you flexible, it is flexible. It can be strenuous or gentle. It can flow or be in a very hot room. There is spirituality behind yoga, but you only have to include only what makes you comfortable in your own practice. I’m not going to pretend I’m any kind of expert on any religion, but I do know that once you open your mind to a yoga practice, balancing the spiritual side can be equally challenging. But as with so many other things, if you really want to do it, you will find a way, and not use religion as a reason not to practice yoga.

Remember to Use your Tools!

Odd title for a yoga blog, you may be thinking.  Do I need a hammer, saw or screwdriver to do yoga?  Does she want me to do something to the “tool” down the street whose dog barks at 2:00 a.m.?   No and no.

In yoga, we learn lots of tools for dealing with everything from headache to stress (both physical and mental) to a stuffy nose to a lack of focus.  There are certainly people out there who think of yoga as mainly affecting the physical body, but between mediation, breathing, and kriyas, there are lots of other things that we learn that help us through our day to day life with less difficulty.  But even the most diligent yogi will forget from time to time.  You may be under alot of stress, suffering from hot flashes or a really tight low back.  Yoga can give you the ability to handle all those issues, and many more.

After a recent gynecological surgery, I started experiencing hot flashes – YAY! – super fun and just as miserable as everyone has told me they would be.  I know from my reading that breathing will help curb hot flashes.  But did I remember that the first time I had a hot flash?  Nope.  For the first week or two, I just suffered through not remembering that I already had the ability to help myself.

From About.com:  “Deep breathing techniques can shorten hot flashes and make them milder. Teach yourself to start slow, deep breaths as soon as you feel a flash coming on. Take as deep a breath as you can, and hold it a moment before letting it out slowly. Expanding your rib cage can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down and helps regulate temperature.

If you practice deep breathing techniques, like yoga breathing or Pilates breathing, before you actually need them, they will come more naturally during the stress and embarrassment of a hot flash episode. Train ahead of time, and then breathe through the heat. Relax, and let your breath shorten the flash.”

Let your breath shorten the flash … how many times in a yoga class have you heard your instructor talk about the breath …. hundreds.  Are you ever stuck in traffic or confronted with a whiney child and you take a deep breath in and out (perhaps more than once).  Your body is calming itself.  There are multiple types of breathing in yoga that can be used as tools to get you through a variety of situations, both physical and mental.

But here’s the thing – in the “heat” of the moment (no pun intended after all that hot flash talk) you may forget that you have all this information and knowledge at your fingertips.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced a stomach ache, cramps, or headache and contacted one of my teachers for assistance.  Most of the time when I get their feedback, in my head I’m thinking “Of course, I knew that.  Why didn’t I think of that?”

This is by no means meant to be an expansive treatise on the different aspects of yoga and how they can help you get through your day to day life, other than toning, strengthening and stretching the physical body.  This is simply meant to remind you – if you’ve ever taken a pranayama (breathing) workshop or meditation or you have experienced several different kriyas, don’t forget them.  Use them in your day to day life.  Spend five minutes in the morning and evening in a quiet, contemplative meditation and see just how that one ten-minute a day change can positively affect your life.  And don’t forget to use your tools!

Working with an Injury

Recently I abused my body in a workshop and ended up with a very sore, tight left shoulder/neck. I was very uncomfortable, but then began to experience some numbness and tingling in my fingerpads and extreme sensitivity in my wrist and elbow. This made me very nervous. Having been a personal injury paralegal for a number of years, I knew that numbness and tingling and sensitive nerves was not a good thing.

In the meantime I tried to continue my practice. In the first days I felt confident that it was just my normal shoulder crud with additional soreness from overuse. I got a couple of massages, which helped, but it got to the point where I couldn’t raise my arm beyond 45 degrees without serious pain and cracking. So I thought I might actually rest it for a bit, and alternate ice and heat (and Toast), along with some prescription ibuprofen. That seemed to help some. But I couldn’t help but notice that the Toast was losing it’s heat or that the pain and discomfort was getting worse and less predictable.

At this point at a previously scheduled doctor’s appointment, I mentioned it to my doctor. He immediately scheduled me for a nerve conduction study and EMG both of which were normal, thank goodness. I’ve been told to take it easy and have a follow up in six weeks. Muscle relaxers have worked wonders.

Once I accepted that my shoulder was not going to loosen up after a few days, I began to focus on the gentler side of my practice. When I attended class I only took the simplest form of each asana, but really worked on my form and breath. I couldn’t do much with the shoulder, it was really locked up, so just did what I could and really didn’t push to my edge, but I did try to work as hard as I could within my restrictions.

Now that my shoulder seems to be substantially better, I know that I have to accept my limitations. I can’t just try to power through. I have to take a step back and work on some basics before I can move forward again. But for every step back, I like to think I will take several steps forward.