You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘philosophy’ category.

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.

Advertisements

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.

As I was sitting in meditation the other day, after having practiced asana for a bit, this thought came to mind: The purpose of yoga is to live a happier, fuller, and more enlivened existence.

I wrote it down, looked at it for a bit, and contemplated it over the next few days.  I’d written it on the back of a piece of paper that I had handy when the words/thought came together.  A month or so passed, and I saw it again this morning, and it speaks to me still.

Like other physical activities, asana practice lifts my spirits.  But in addition, I learn about myself through practice in a way that specifically and directly improves my life; that improves my ability to stay calm when things go wacky, to really listen to myself and recognize patterns of thought and why they’re coming up, to balance my energy levels, calm anxieties, alleviate fatigue, and increase my feeling of connectedness to the world around me.

Obviously, these are just a few of the benefits of a well-rounded yoga practice that includes meditation, pranayama and the other limbs of yoga, but sort of summarizes why I practice yoga.

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!

The change of seasons always reminds me of the fluidity of time, and how what I think of as static is just changing slowly.  Even when the season changes are subtle, they’re a good reminder that almost everything does change, the world around us, circumstances, and our relationships with others.  As the days get shorter and the nights get longer, it feels like it’s time to turn inside a little more, delve more into meditation, slow down and notice what’s around me a little more.  The season change prompts to revisit my relationships and feelings about those around me, and to try to soften and smooth out some of those edges, to view others with a slightly softer, warmer light.

I’ve practiced this with the lovingkindness meditation, in which you actively cultivate feelings of warmth and love, and direct those feelings to others.  It’s easy to start with someone who has supported or provided for you, such as a parent or teacher, feel their love for you, and send them love in return.  Then, thing of someone you love deeply, perhaps a child or life partner, and direct your love to them.  Then, you can move on to someone you’re neutral about, and then perhaps someone you have negative feelings about, this for me is undoubtedly the hardest.  I find myself sort of superficially sending them good thoughts without really changing my view on them specifically.  I think the teaching for me here is that everyone offers something I can love them for, that I can focus on that and through that focus, any hurt feelings or dislike I have of other attributes begins to soften.

A helpful description of and practices for lovingkindness: http://www.wildmind.org/metta

Peace and love to you!

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.

About a week ago, I received a great gift.  A relative shifted his attitude toward me, and built and cemented our friendship.

We are related through marriage and have known each other for almost a decade, but we have never really clicked.  He seemed just so different from me, and we had difficulty connecting with each other.  It might not be a stretch to say that we didn’t really like each other a whole lot.  Last week, he shifted his attitude toward me and really opened up to me; we are truly family now.  And all it took was for him to make a conscious mental shift, for him to decide we are good, and to take the small risk of trying to reframe our relationship.

In addition to the gift of his friendship and support (he is an amazing person), he gave me the gift of the lesson underneath it all.  He taught me that by shifting my attitude, I have the power to change my relationships with other people.  To some extent it takes two, but even if the other person is unwilling to change, I can still shift my half of the relationship.  I suspect that most of the time, it will work fully; that the other person will be receptive to the shift and embrace the change.

In teacher training, we learn “Attitude, Action, Alignment”; that an asana practice must start with the right attitude.  Like most of what we learn on the mat, learning to skillfully adjust our own attitudes extends to and pays dividends in real life.

I hope I can always remember the gift my family member has given me: that truly, attitude is everything, and I have the power to change my relationships just by shifting my attitude toward those around me.

On Monday I attended a memorial service for a friend’s husband, who died suddenly in an accident the week before.  What stood out to me most after the service, in addition to the sheer tragedy of it for my friend and her daughter, was that I feel like I missed out, I wished I’d gotten to know him better.  Everyone who spoke of him described him as being bold, and being extremely energetic and driven.  They described that when you first met him, you knew he was someone special, that he never met a stranger, and that he had lived so fully.

As too-early deaths often do, I’m reminded to live my fullest life now, to do and go for what I think matters, and to be fully present in the experiences I have.  He gave us a wonderful gift in his example of how to live fully, to be fully committed to what mattered, and to experiencing all that life has to offer.

Yoga is a practice that encourages us to live fully; our practice on the mat is simply training and preparation for life off the mat.  One of the things that keeps me coming back to my mat day after day is that I feel more alive, I feel more whole, and I feel more empowered when I practice.  This week in class, we will practice with radical expansion, with rooting into the foundation and expanding in all directions from there.  We will support ourselves with strong shoulder integration and challenge ourselves with a variety of hand balances including one armed handstands and vasistasana transitions to hanumanasana, and back.

With the empowerment of practicing asana fully, bravely, expansively, maybe we will be able to live more fully, bravely, and expansively too.  For me, this means actively pursuing goals I have set for myself.  There are a few I’ve made significant progress with over the last couple of years: taking the leap to live somewhere totally new (coast-to-coast move), sharing what I love so much with others (yoga), and doing work at a place whose mission aligns well with my values (job change a few months ago).  I’ve started chipping away at another goal of giving back to the community, though there is much more to do.  There is much more to discover, learn and experience.

Courage is not being without fear, but acting despite fear, my teacher Sianna said recently.  In a way, this is more challenging, but in another, it’s a lot more truthful and achievable.  Often when I decide that I am unafraid of something, it’s that I stashed that fear away in a little box and refuse to consider it.  It’s not that the fear is gone, but that I ignore it and move on.  Acting despite fear is a more truthful approach, with more integrity, to say, “well, yes, I’m scared that X will happen, but I’m going to do Y anyway.”

I think many of us feel this way with the Anusara fiasco that started this February, with allegations against John Friend etc.  I, like many others, were holding out hope that the Interim Committee could rescue the good of Anusara and set up a new teacher-run school, independent of John.  The current reality is that this is not happening, despite tireless efforts by some wonderful people.  My fear has been, “well, if not Anusara, where do I belong?”  I am trying to convince myself that I don’t need a style of yoga or broader community (beyond the local groups with whom I practice and teach).  But I am still afraid.  I felt like I had found “my people” in Anusara and now I feel a bit stranded.

The story of the goddess Durga inspires me to act despite my fears, to keep finding my voice despite the dissolution and fracturing of what I think/thought were my people.  One day a long time ago, a demon was terrorizing everyone and everything, he had grown very powerful and thought he was invincible.  His name was Mahishashura.  One by one the powerful gods went after him, to fight him, and one by one they failed, including Shiva.  Mahishashura had been given a boon from Brahma that no man could kill him.  So the gods decided to create the goddess Durga to send after him.  On the 10th day of battle, Durga cut off his head and finally killed Mahishashura.

Do you think Durga was a little bit scared to fight this demon none of the powerful gods of the land could harm?  Do you think she felt the pressure of everyone depending on her?  I certainly do.  But she acted anyway, persevering over 10 days of battle and finally winning.  For me, I will think of Durga the next time my fears try to tell me I can’t do something, or that it won’t work out, or whatever.  I will recognize that yes, it’s scary, but I have that part of Durga inside me and I will act.

Asana recommendations:

Arm balances such as Eka Pada Koundinyasana 2, Parvsa Bakasana – start with hip openers such as lunges with elbows down, Agni Stambasana, and work into bound Parvsakonasana variations.  Attempt EPK 2 through slow transition from lunge, as well as from plank pose, pulling leg in and out, stacking knee above bent elbow and really moving heart forward several inches.

I’ve been contemplating integrity, as part of the broader theme of living my life in accordance with what I stand for.  To me, one aspect of integrity is what I do when no one’s looking, how I behave.  I support myself in this endeavor by creating healthy habits that align with what I stand for.  I lean on these support habits when things go wonky and it’s hard to stay in balance.  Two of these habits are daily meditation and a gratitude journal.

I attempt to meditate for a measly 8-10 minutes a day, which I miss when I skip it.  Also, I keep a gratitude journal and write a word or phrase in it every day, whether it’s my loving kitty’s name, that I was able to help a yoga student somehow, or for my wonderful life partner.  These support habits don’t happen all the time, but they happen a lot, and there’s a tangible impact to my life and happiness when I do them regularly.  They create a nice shift in my mindset that makes me feel happier, more satisfied, and more optimistic about the future.

My invitation to you:  Ponder what will help you maintain your integrity, your alignment with what you stand for, even when no one’s looking; and to take action to support yourself in this pursuit.

Asana recommendation:  Find integrity in your standing poses, which can be very grounding and stabilizing.  Start by standing in Tadasana, then move your thighs back an inch or two (toward the space behind you).  Next, tuck your tailbone down just slightly, as if tucking your hands into your back pockets.  Your spine will be in its neutral curve, your pelvis and hips level, and your lower belly will have a slight tone.  As you move through standing poses, take these actions – thighs back, tailbone scoop, and see how your back and hip flexors feel at the end of your practice.  In asymmetrical poses, focus on moving the forward leg thigh back more, and scoop the tailbone more on the rear leg.

As my teacher Noah Maze says, “If you want a fun, happy life in alignment with your spiritual aims then you must cultivate, not just the energy necessary to manifest and live that vision but you must also have the requisite focus, determination and discipline to direct your energy consciously toward what you really want.”

Build tools that support your determination and reinforce your discipline to live life as you want it to be.