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Many of us come to yoga to improve flexibility; at least initially, I would say flexibility is one of the top three reasons I hear when new students tell me why they’re coming to yoga.  And yes, flexibility is very important and yoga is very helpful in gaining flexibility.

So it’s ironic that often once we learn how to get into a yoga pose, we get there, then freeze and hold it statically until it’s time to go to the next pose.  Sometimes this even turns into a static definition of what your expression of a particular pose is, e.g., “this is my warrior 1 pose,” without ever challenging that or testing the waters to see if the front knee could go slightly lower, or if the torso could be slightly more straight over the hips.   This shows up often in intermediate / experienced students, because generally these students (and I count myself in this group), we feel like we ‘have’ the pose or at least a reasonable semblance of the pose, and we don’t often question it, challenge ourselves to go beyond.  But of course as with any aspect of yoga, there is almost always more: more expansion in the pose, more strength in the pose, and/or more comfort and steadiness in the pose.

So I offer this suggestion – give yourself permission and freedom to move within your poses.  What might happen if you wiggle your hips a little in your down dog, or shift weight slightly from side to side as you do your standing forward fold?  If you’re like me, you might be surprised – you might find a way to access a stretch differently, or in a different part of the muscle, or be able to deepen your expression of the pose.

You might even have a little more fun practicing, especially if you visualize yourself wiggling around or practice with a friend who’s also moving more freely.  Give it a shot this week – move around a bit: forward and back, side to side, up and down, in your poses, and see what you find 🙂

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One thing I forgot to mention in my earlier posts about home practice – your pets will think this is absolutely the most amazing development ever.  Originally I thought that this was just a quirk of my super-friendly cat, but no – it seems it’s as irresistible as keyboards are to cats or squirrels outside are to dogs.  My cat’s specialty is putting herself between me and the floor, which is both risky for her and quite strength-building for me (nothing keeps you holding a pose longer than the fear of squishing your beloved pet).  Jokes aside, be prepared to share your practice or to put your pet in another room.

Finally, having shared some thoughts on home practice with students this week, I can say definitely that reactions were not what I expected. Some students surprised me by already having regular home practices, and others surprised me by seeming like it had never occurred to them that they could practice outside a yoga studio.  I was surprised to hear also that some of the more advanced yogis I know don’t practice on their own, outside class.  In a way I can see why – it’s hard, definitely, and it’s a step that sometimes needs a nudge to get going.  It certainly reminded me of how grateful I am to have built a solid home practice, to be able to come to my mat whenever needed.

I’ve been encouraging my students this week to start to build a home practice, and I’m going to meet with some of them next week with some suggestions.

To start off with, why should you practice at home?  Some of the benefits of a home practice include:

  • Working on whatever it is you want, not what the teacher chooses, or constrains of a public class
  • Reaping benefits of yoga when you need them (e.g. do a few poses at the end of a hard day)
  • Being nicer to those around you, perhaps
  • Having more space and time to feel the practice from the inside
  • Discipline of practicing without a teacher present
  • Being able to practice whenever it’s convenient for you

A few thoughts on practicing at home:

  • Start small – there’s no need to practice every single day – or to practice for a long time
  • Don’t worry about doing it “right” – just do.  Remember Pattabhi Jois “Practice and all is coming.”  Five minutes of really focusing, enjoying your practice, and breathing is better than 60 minutes watching the clock or worrying about it
  • You don’t need much – block, blanket, strap are nice, but books, bath towel and a belt work just fine. Do try to practice on a hard floor, especially if you have any wrist sensitivity.  (Kitchens and dining rooms tend to work well)
  • If you’re trying to build a regular habit of practicing at home, practice at the same time of day – early morning may work well, or at the end of the day. Try out a few times and see what sticks

Last week I taught the alignment of Surya Namaskar A (sun salutations), moving through the poses one at a time and focusing on the alignment of each pose. Many yoga classes, including the ones I teach, often start with sun salutations, a traditional way to warm up the body for practice that spans many yoga traditions. And sun salutations contain many of the most common, foundational poses of yoga. So it’s quite interesting to focus on those poses and take them from being unconscious movements we just do, to consciously moving through each and breaking down the alignment.

Whenever we do something in a repeated fashion, we start to learn and remember it. I would like all of us, both seasoned and newer practitioners, to wisely choose how we practice these movements, especially because we do them so often. Slight misalignments will build up over repeated movements, and patterns will become more entrenched. These patterns are called samskaras in yoga.

I think a teacher’s primary responsibility with beginners is to help them imprint positive patterns: patterns of good alignment. My opinion is that once a student learns to move in ways that support the body, in good alignment, that student can then safely extend their yoga practice to another style of yoga, such as flow or heated practices, or to more advanced poses. After all, a lot of what makes any physical practice safe is how aware the practitioner is of their body in space, and how aware they are of how their body feels, whether you’re snowboarding or practicing headstand. In this way, the imprints, or samskaras, of how I place my body, frees up awareness to focus on how it feels, and whether the subtle actions within the pose are working.

Both groups I taught to this week received the detailed alignment breakdown of surya namaskar well, and the idea of imprinting positive patterns. Often, the teachings about samskaras are from the perspective of discerning what our patterns are, and choosing to keep ones that serve and release ones that don’t, and as a seasoned practitioner that’s a lot of what my work is, in my own practice. But with newer students, it’s often a pretty blank slate, or at least the patterns are much less entrenched, and we have a great opportunity to build a good samskara directly. I’m quite sure that my foundation of Iyengar yoga was crucial to my early satisfaction (delight!) with yoga, and has served me well through today, fourteen years later.

I truly think that starting with alignment-based classes is the way for anyone to begin, because it establishes samskaras of proper alignment.

I was reminded of the importance of tone in communication and interaction with others this evening, as I reviewed a contract agreement. I read the agreement twice thoroughly and drafted a response with my comments.  My response was straightforward and direct. But in re-reading it and discussing it with my loved one, I realized it would likely be seen as abrupt, impolite or argumentative.  I ended up trimming the note significantly, and softening the tone substantially, after thinking about what I wanted from this communication. The email, as I’d first drafted it, contradicted my objective, because the recipient might be surprised by the direct tone and/or receive the message from a defensive point of view.

How does this relate to yoga, you ask? As on the mat, so in life. My ability to perceive more than one way to accomplish a goal, my ability to step back and consider the broader context as a means to more skillfully accomplish my goal, and the patience to respond instead of react; these are all skills I’ve honed in my yoga practice. We practice yoga with a tone too; alternatively discipline or dedication, eagerness to learn or advance, frustration with certain poses or categories of poses. Whatever tone we approach our practice with influences our practice that day, and the outcomes of that day’s practice. We can more consciously choose our tone by setting an intention for that practice.

So, I urge you to take a lesson from your asana practice off the mat and into your communications and interactions with others. Take the time to observe the broader context, and ask yourself what your goals are. Then, set an intention and act with a tone that aligns to that intention. For me, this is much more skillful alignment in life.

In Ayurveda (Indian holistic medicine), there’s a concept of doshas, which are basically excesses that need to be brought into balance: fire, earth, air.  A teacher of mine once said that one way to identify our dominant dosha or excess is by looking at how we approach a problem.  Some of us get angry and push through, others get anxious and avoid the issue, and others may dwell on the issue, be depressed about it, and get stuck.  While it depends on the situation, it seems true in my personal experience that over the long run most people have one tendency or another.

The risk of categorization is that it can pigeonhole us into seeing ourselves in a limited way.  But with a few dashes of salt and a step back, it can be really enlightening to notice how we react to situations, and to make a conscious choice to try something different.

For me, when a problem arises, my first inclination is to push through, to change it to be the way I want it to be, to make something happen.  Oh, a problem’s come up?  Well, here we go, just fix it, now, the sooner the better.  This isn’t bad, but it isn’t always the most productive approach, and often it isn’t the most pain-free.  So sometimes, when I catch myself early enough, it works best for me to let it rest for a bit, a day or two, and to actively try to think about it in a different way.  Normally I have to still plan out my usual “attack the problem” solution first, but then before acting I can sometimes remember to step back, think, and find a path around rather than through.

Working on a challenging pose is a great way to practice finding a better approach.  For example, I’m working on arm balances.  My normal tendency is to pick a couple arm balances, and try them 2-3 times per week until I get them.  This will eventually work; I have done exactly this.  Another approach is instead to really ponder, to dwell (earth quality) on what it is about those specific poses that makes them hard, and then try to work on those aspects of the pose first.  An “air quality” approach would be to try them from different transitions, build from the floor or from a different pose or using a prop a certain way, to figure out the pose.  My next arm balance project is dwi pada koundinyasana, a revolved arm balance like parsva bakasana (side crow or crane) with both legs straight.  We’ll see how it goes!

We all know it: sometimes what you want to do the least is actually what you need the very most.  This has definitely been my experience in yoga.  If I were left to my own devices to practice how I want (ignoring much of the wonderful teachings I’ve received), I would practice a fairly rapid flow class at room temperature, followed up with handstands, headstands, lots and lots of backbends, and a sprinkling of hip openers.  There would be no forward bends, no twists.  I might throw in a bind here and there, but not many and only because I have long arms and open shoulders.  Certainly no seated poses, and no savasana.  This type of practice would include all the poses I already like and am reasonably good at, and avoid all the areas where I could use some help.  So what would I gain by practicing this way?  There is a management theory/career advice that says: do what you’re good at and forget the rest, but I don’t think that translates to your body.  You need your body to work properly and get you through life well, not just a beautiful urdhva dhanurasana.

So instead, I listen to my teachers, and I listen to myself, and I suggest you do the same.  I practice what I’m not good at.  And I’ve found over time, that not only do I actually get better at the poses, but I actually like them now.  (Being able to do a pose does generally make one like it better.)

Practice where you aren’t strong, practice a little where you are strong too.  Practice it all, balance it out.  If are a person who can get scattered mentally and haven’t watched a movie in months because you can’t sit still long enough, you better get to those forward folds and twists.  If you only practice yin and restorative poses, prefer seated folds and long holds, get thyself to a flow class (even maybe try a heated one).

Then, over time and understanding your tendencies, strengths and opportunities for growth, you can learn to balance your moods and support yourself.

Sometimes growth appears in an obvious manner and other times it is slow, requiring some trigger for us to look back and see that indeed we have grown or changed.  One of the ways to grow your asana practice transition from beginner to more intermediate or advanced level, is through extending out to literally grow bigger, “organic expansion” in the Anusara terminology.  This is literally rooting into your connection with the floor and rising up from there, actually growing taller, extending spine, arms and legs a little more.

Recently in a class I attended, my teacher had us work with this extension.  I was amazed to see the difference that expansion made in my fellow student.  He was very much an athlete and had a fairly strong yoga practice, but had only practiced for a year or so.  It was incredible to see him literally extend his spine in a standing pose by at least a half inch, and in his handstand, he literally lengthened a full inch.

Organic extension is what took my backbends to the next level.  Full disclosure: backbends are naturally a relatively strong area for me.  Each of us is different, and we all have poses that easier, and poses that are harder.  Because they are relatively easy for me, I had focused on other poses, and didn’t work too hard on my backbends.  But when I learned to extend my heart up to the sky, my backbends exploded.  Rooting down through my feet keeps my foundation strong and my low back safe, and upward extension through my chest is how I find room to curl more, to reach back further and peacefully extend into deeper poses.

It’s an interesting comparison: physical expansion through the chest and heart opens up your body, while expanding your view opens up your heart and your connection with others.  To grow our inner selves is also to stretch ourselves from our starting point.  For our relationships with others, we do this by opening our hearts, by seeing the other’s view, and making space for people to be who they are, versus trying to change them.

May your practice on the mat improve your life off the mat.

I attended a series of workshops with one of my all time favorite teachers, Desiree Rumbaugh recently.  She taught with a focus on drawing the front ribs in, then scooping the tailbone.  This has really improved my practice.  For the other former Anusara folks out there, it reminded me a lot of engaging kidney loop and then using that power to really engage pelvic loop, scooping tailbone.

I have always had a tenuous relationship with my tailbone.  I think I’m scooping my tailbone but in reality it’s weak.  What I was missing was the connection of drawing my ribs in first, before scooping my tailbone.  This way there is so much more power in the scoop.  I’m sure in one of the very many classes I’ve taken, others have told me to do this, but somehow the way Desiree explained and taught it, it stuck this time.  I really had convinced myself that my ribcage just jutted forward more than others’ did; even when I’ve gained some weight (I’m always at a moderate weight), one can often easily see my ribs poking out a bit.  I’ve always found backbends to come more naturally and easily than forward bends; I am still significantly better at backbending than in forward folding, though I spend much more time practice forward folds.

Bingo!  It’s all related.  Drawing my front ribs back then scooping my tailbone created a much safer feeling to my forward folds, and frankly it was easier and allowed me to go deeper than usual, without the scary feeling that most of the stretch was in my hamstring attachments.

Guess what else?  My inversions feel more balanced and steady, and I can balance away from the wall longer in pincha and handstand too.

Give it a shot: from a neutral pose like tadasana, play around with allowing your ribs to poke out and your bum to extend behind you a lot (thighs back in the old lingo) and then take it the other direction — draw your ribs in so much you feel you look like a hunchback, and then scoop your tailbone as much as you can.  Then, take a simple forward fold such as parsvottanasana, and as you fold forward, do a few iterations of ribs in, tailbone scoop as you go.  See what you think!

Yoga offers me the ability to use asana to create my own balance.  On a physical level, asana balances us by adding strength and/or flexibility where we need it.  The same pose for you may be building your flexibility, while for me, it builds stamina.  Asana is great cross-training for athletes of all stripes, runners, bikers, lifters, etc.   On an energetic level, the right asanas can energize or calm you, as needed.  Specifically, I recommend sun salutations and arm balances to energize yourself when you’re tired or feeling weighty, and hip openers and forward folds to calm down when you’re feeling anxious or overactive.

Asana can and should encourage the development of attributes we’re seeking, such as patience, steadiness, or courage, by challenging us in the way we need it most.  (We’ll not even get started today on how yoga philosophy challenges our thoughts and beliefs, asks us to consider more deeply how we see the world and why, and asks us to understand how we interact with each other and why.)

I believe it is best to consistently practice in a way that cultivates what you want/need, not necessarily what you enjoy the most or what you’re first drawn to.  For example, if you are a fiery, driven person, maybe you don’t need to take a two hour heated power flow class four times a week (even though I’ll bet you want to).  As a fiery person myself, I can attest that powerful, fast moving classes are some of my favorites and were a large part of what drew me to yoga initially.  But they can also be irritating, agitating, and can encourage excesses I already have (such as powering through something because my ego wants to, for example).  These classes don’t bring balance into my life.  Instead, practicing in a more quiet, internal, philosophical way, moving in a steady, even pace, and approaching difficult poses with patience brings me balance.

I will never forget an exercise we did in teacher training, in which we partnered up, journaled about what we were working to cultivate in our lives, then observed the other’s practice.  I had journaled privately about how I sought more steadiness.  After my partner observed my practice, the first thing he’d said was how steady and even I’d looked as I practiced, and afterward.  After I got over my surprise and suspicion that my friend had read my journal entry, I felt deeply satisfied and appreciative of what the practice had given me.

As a teacher, how do I encourage yogis to find what balances each of us?  In a class with many students, all unique, that seems a bit perplexing.  I’ll keep pondering; for now, I can certainly share the benefits I’ve received in choosing asana that complements my nature, and invite everyone to set their individual intentions for what they seek.  And I will continue to offer a range of poses and approaches, as broad an experience and as many varied poses as my beginner students can handle; to offer even a taste of how deep and rich the well is.