June, 19, 2017
Yoga is Skillfulness in Action
This is a famous quote from the Bhagavad Gita. What is skillfulness? How do we acquire it? What are the benefits of being skillful at something?
Skill is defined as the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily; dexterity or coordination in the execution of physical tasks; a learned power of doing something competently. (from 11th edition of Miriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).
While some of us might be naturally good at something that does not necessarily mean we are skilled. Take the example of someone who is naturally flexible and can contort their body into complicated advanced yoga poses with ease. While this might seem impressive, and make for good Instagram posts, it is not skill in the yogic sense of the word. Yogic skill is acquired over time, with dedicated attention to asking questions about what we are doing and how we are doing it. Just because I can pop into that cool arm balance and wow my fellow yoga practitioners in class doesn’t mean that I should. Skill on the yoga mat comes from listening to our bodies and paying attention, not just the moment we are doing the pose, but how does my body feel an hour after class, how about the next day, or two days later. It means checking in before we do a pose to see if we have the energy for the pose, the mental focus, and the physical stability and ease required. Maybe all that yard worked has left my back tired and my hamstrings tight…maybe I stayed up too late binge watching on Netflix and didn’t get enough sleep.
Skillfulness is getting out of autopilot mode and into manual mode. It is the opposite of blowing through practice quickly, where we end up not really doing any yoga at all, even though we did 20 or 30 poses. To be skillful is to be in the moment, making conscious choices – perhaps we opt for child’s pose instead of crow pose as a result of checking in with our body and mind first. Or maybe in the midst of a thoughtfully sequenced class we are inspired to try a pose we have never done before because we have prepared the body to attempt it in a fun and safe way. On the yoga mat skill is about where my mind is, what my breath is telling me, and how my body is feeling.
If your practice feels the same every time, then perhaps it is time to inject a dose of skill onto your mat. Whether it is understanding the basic alignment of a pose, the unique strengths and limitations of my own body, the anatomy of a pose, or how to use props, being curious and exploring will make us more skillful. So consider using a block in your next revolved half moon pose, skip shoulderstand and do legs up the wall pose, go for that arm balance you have never tried, laugh at your foibles and stumbles and learn from them…most of all enjoy the journey.
December 12, 2016
Steady and Comfortable
One of my favorite yoga sutras (2.46) states that yoga poses should be a combination of steadiness and ease. Sthira is a Sanskrit word that means steady/stable/firm. Sukha is a Sanskrit word that means comfort/ease/good space. It was a long time before I really grasped what this sutra is really saying. What I found in my own personal practice was that certain poses seemed to require more effort, such as warrior poses and arm balances. Then there were other poses that felt comfortable, such as child’s pose, supported bridge and legs up the wall. Then at some point after many, many years on the mat I started to experience less stress and more ease in some of the more challenging poses. I wasn’t even sure what was different, but something had changed.
We have all probably heard a teacher say something catchy about finding the ease in the effort when we are straining and holding our breath in a side plank. But have you ever really thought about what that means, or how it applies on and off the mat? I think one of the key aspects of finding it on the mat is to be aware of every breath when I am in a pose…to constantly be analyzing and noticing if the breath has gotten louder, softer, shorter, longer, smoother, ragged or perhaps it has stopped altogether. Am I panting like a dog when I get to down dog in a dancing warrior series? If so, what does that tell me? The breath is such a helpful yardstick to guide us in balancing the effort and the ease, but won’t help us if we aren’t tuned into it. The moment you notice a shift in the breath that signifies straining, recognize that you may be getting off track and refocus on the breath and fine tune the pose. This might mean grabbing a prop, or picking a modified version of the pose. Maybe it is time for child’s pose. Relaxing the face and jaw can also invite more ease into a pose. The key is to stay present enough to recognize when we are getting off track.
The flip side of over-efforting or straining in a pose is being too passive. In a seated pose can you maintain some gentle effort in the legs and feet to bring stability into the pose? What happens to your breath in a more passive pose? Do you completely forget about it, or are you able to stay connected? Yoga teaches us to walk a fine line, to constantly check in and refine, to stay present. Again, the breath is a wonderful tool and guide. Sometimes we need to increase the effort in a pose and other times we might need to soften and let go of unnecessary tension, whether that tension is physical, mental or emotional.
Through analyzing the balance of comfort and stability every moment in each pose we are learning to live more in the NOW. The practice of this on our mat will hopefully begin to spill out into our daily lives…we might notice as we are sitting at our desk that we are holding our breath, our shoulders are hunched and our jaw is clenched. Then the moment we become aware of it, we have the power to change it – relax the face, shift our physical position, take a few deep breaths… This is the power of yoga!
August 29, 2016
Why do you yoga?
I have heard so many answers to this question over the years. Of course one of the most popular is flexibility and strength. Some people have a goal of maintaining or improving balance as they age. Others have been told yoga may help reduce stress, which is so rampant in 21st century America. I personally got into yoga to heal from a shoulder injury that wasn’t improving with other types of intervention when I was in my 20s. It is extremely rare to have a new student say they are seeking a greater connection with their own Spirit through yoga. Although, at the heart of it all, this is what the key texts of yoga all speak about. In her book The Secret Power of Yoga, Nischala Devi speaks of yoga as a process of remembering who we really are. She explains that we become so distracted by the body and the spinning mind and all the distractions of modern life that we completely lose touch with our Divine Self. So many people think of yoga as down dog, sun salutations, headstand – the physical practice of poses. Occasionally you might hear someone talk about breath practices or meditation. The whole of yoga involves more than physical poses (asana), breath (pranamayama) and meditation (dhyana). It is a multi-faceted path that also shares ten tenets to improving our relationship with ourselves and others. In the coming months I will be posting about these other aspects of yoga that influence not only how we practice when we are on the mat, but also how we navigate the world off the mat. For today, take a minute and sit tall, close the eyes and notice the movement of breath in and out of the body. Can you remain aware of your posture and breath while simply noticing the churning of thoughts as you sit for at least one minute? Don’t try to stop the thoughts, simply allow them to be there while you sit tall and breathe. Notice if you feel any different afterwards.
Feeling sluggish this time of year? Turn to yoga for help.
November 11, 2015
Everyone is affected by the shorter days and longer nights this time of year, even folks who live in areas where the weather is still quite warm. In spite of all the modern conveniences of 21st century America, there is no way to avoid being affected by the shorter days and longer cooler nights. The problem is that many of us have become disconnected to the cycles of nature and their effect on our bodies and minds. We attempt to keep life going at a frenetic pace all year round. We might be able to get away with it in summer when the days are super long and our bio-rhythms are different, but keeping it up this time of year can leave us feeling as if we are paddling upstream. Here are some simple tips to help you find more balance this time of year.
Sleep more. Don’t fight the urge to put on your pajamas at 7:30 pm and curl up with a blanket. There is wisdom in this natural desire to wind down earlier in the evening…see what you can do to make space to go with it.
Change your diet. Our bodies thrive on eating foods that are in sync with being grown locally. If you are not familiar with what is seasonal, check out one of the many St Louis area farmers markets. Root vegetables, bitter greens, and apples are in abundance right now. In general eat warmer, cooked foods such as soup and healthy fats such as those found in nuts. In general consume less cold items such as salad, iced beverages, raw fruit.
Learn to say no. For many of us declining a wonderful invitation from family or friends during this holiday season is hard to do. We are afraid of offending, maybe worried we’ll miss out. Honesty, non-violence, moderation, self-reflection…these are some key concepts from yoga philosophy that help me say no when necessary. Knowing what my limits are and being honest when my dance card is full is a part of my off the mat yoga practice. It can be uncomfortable at first, but just like anything it gets easier with practice.
Alter your yoga practices. Check in with yourself before practice and rather than barreling through a vigorous vinyasa practice when you are low in energy, consider a more gentle approach that meets you where you are…restorative poses, yin poses, forward bends, a longer savasana.
See what you can do to slow down and embrace the different rhythm that nature is offering and see what happens.
Enjoy the journey…
Empty the cup August 11, 2015
Regardless of how long we have been practicing yoga, coming to class with an empty cup is a part of the practice. Although many people tend to think of yoga as a physical practice, at the core of it all, yoga is about learning to be more fully immersed in the NOW. You might be thinking, “How does this affect my down dog?” When I empty my metaphorical cup at the beginning of class I am essentially meeting myself right where I am in that moment. Perhaps I overdid it exercising over the weekend and tweaked something…when I am fully present for my practice I will be more aware of my body and able to modify and alter things as I go along…allowing my body to be different today than it was last week. In my opinion every breath we take in yoga helps us with this emptying and staying present. The first down dog I do in class ultimately should be approached differently than the tenth down dog. In the first one I am not as physically warm, I might need to wiggle around to gently ease tension – my knees might not be straight. Once I am further into class my down dog may or may not change, this is not the point; the point is to be present to each down dog as it happens. When I can do this effectively my poses will be safer and my experience will be very different. I invite you the next time you roll out your yoga mat, sit for a minute or two breathe and see yourself “empty the cup”. Then as you begin asana practice stay as present as you can to what is happening RIGHT NOW, allow your poses to be different because we are never the same person twice doing our practice. Use a prop, don’t use a prop, bend your knees, stay in a more basic pose in lieu of a more advanced version…
We can practice this concept off the mat as well. Emptying our cups wherever we are, whatever we are doing, whomever we are with can help the flow of life. Learning to let go of expectations and accept what is actually arising is not easy to do, but it comes with many potential rewards – less stress/tension, more internal resources available to handle whatever is happening, less suffering… If we have old built up, unresolved issues with people in our lives, let us see what we can do to let it go so we can interact with each other RIGHT NOW!
Enjoy the journey…
Cultivating the opposite – pratipaksha bhavana May 31, 2015
“When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.” Sutra 2.33 translation by Swami Satchidananda
We live in a world of duality – hot/cold, day/night, pleasure/pain, fast/slow, good/bad. Our minds are used to looking at the world through this polarizing lens, constantly placing things into categories. This simple yet profound sutra encourages us to become more aware of this process and learn to steer our thoughts in a more positive direction.
We all have habits – the route we take to work, what we eat for breakfast, how we react to certain people or circumstances… We also have mental habits, grooves that have developed through all our experiences since birth. There are people who tend to see the glass as half empty and others who see it as half full. Pratipaksha bhavana is about consciously choosing to see the glass half full.
This simple sutra empowers us to recognize that no matter what is happening to us right NOW, we have a choice about our reaction/thoughts. I might not be able to change the fact that I am stuck in traffic and will be late for an appointment, but I do have a choice about what I do mentally/emotionally with the situation. I can arrive late, irritated and frazzled…but I will still arrive late. Or I can notice that I am getting “off track” and begin to steer myself in a different direction. Find something positive – gratitude for the car I drive, for my health, for my friends – this will not change the fact that I am running behind schedule, but will allow me to arrive more centered and content.
Yoga at its heart is about deepening awareness. What are we giving our attention to? Where the mind goes our energy follows. We have all heard phrases such as, “life is 99 percent attitude” or “your thoughts create your reality”. This sutra encourages us to become a more conscious contributor to the direction our thoughts are taking us.
Enjoy the journey!
Practicing non-attachment in the yoga room: March 24, 2015
If you are like many yoga students, you might tend to gravitate towards the same spot every time you take class. One of the core teachings of yoga philosophy is non-attachment. If moving our yoga mat is an earth shattering event, how are we going to navigate the hurdles of life off the yoga mat :). A simple way to begin to practice this is to consciously choose a different area of the room. This small shift can challenge us physically, mentally, emotionally and might even bring a fresh energy to our practice. We humans are creatures of habit, yet most spiritual paths teach that change is the one constant in the universe. Begin to embrace change by going against some natural tendencies…order something different for lunch…take a new route to work…clean the closets and let go of items that are not being used… By inviting and accepting change in daily life, we become more able to handle the inevitable curve balls life will throw our way.