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.

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Lately, it’s seemed as if inspiration is around every corner, that everything around me offers a new and exciting discovery.  I find a lot of inspiration in science, in learning how and why things work.  For example, I’m amazed how slow-motion cameras are showing us the crazy way cats drink water (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/12/science/12cats.html).  I find inspiration in the kindness and creativity of people around me, in seeing people doing what they love, even when it’s tough.  For me, inspiration is in the beauty of trees and seeing how waves crash into the rocky shore.

What inspires you?  What brings out your inner creativity, and makes everything seem fresh?    Maybe for you it’s stretching your wings to try something different, something new.  Or maybe it’s reading about leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King and the incredible passion that carried them through such extraordinary challenges.

How do you stay connected to what lights you up?

The invitation this week is to meditate upon these questions, to invite yourself to connect more deeply with what inspires you, and to weave more inspiration into your life.  Focus: sama vritti pranayama, twists and balancing poses such as ardha chandra chapasana, vrksasana, adho mukha vrksasana.

Sometimes we all need a little help…

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.

Asteya is one of Patanjali’s yamas or codes of ethics.  Asteya’s literal translation is non-stealing.  Since most of us have that part down by now, I hope, (and because like any philosophical or religious text, it’s important to delve deeper), how can this be investigated more deeply, how can it provide more meaning?

For me, it’s taking what I need, but no more.  One can “steal” a pose in yoga by pushing into it physically, without a sense of peacefulness and/or proper alignment.  This is often a self-limiting practice because you get hurt pretty quickly this way.  So, yes, finding asteya in our poses is about finding the balance between challenging yourself and not losing track of what you need to support yourself.  For some of us, that means the dreaded “backing off a bit”.  Three months ago, I went to an equinox celebration with a slight twinge in my back from overdoing it in a heated yoga class the day before.  The practice was to perform 108 surya namaskars, a wonderful challenge for even seasoned yogis.  But did I stop when the twinge became pain?  No.  I was with a friend an hour away, we’d driven together, and I distracted myself with these as excuses from the truth, which is that I just didn’t want to “quit”.  I wanted to do 108 sun salutations and to be able to say I did it.  It took me about 3 weeks to really recover; it was a small muscle pull deep in my middle back muscles.  A decade or two older and who knows what kind of damage I’d have done.  Hopefully this time the lesson sticks with me.

Beyond the risk of injury though, stealing a yoga pose is stealing from yourself the mental and emotional benefits of your yoga practice, which for many of us becomes more and more the purpose of the practice, and the reason we return to our mats each time.  Losing the mental balance and sense of ease of a balanced yoga practice is a very steep price for satisfying our egos, for being able to say we did something.

How do we find this balance of challenging ourselves the right amount in asana practice?  I think it has to do with really connecting with the feeling within your body as you practice, and being able to separate the mind’s view and the body’s feeling from one another.  And then, to have the fortitude and respect for yourself to make a judicious choice.  Possibly, we can find balance when making other life choices; balancing trying new things and taking on challenges while maintaining practices that support us on an even keel.

Asana focus: balance stability (hugging into the midline) with extension and expansion.

Backbends including salambasana, ustrasana and urdhva dhanurasana coming from stable legs for foundation and extension through the sternum, curling from a place of lengthening out first, and being sensitive to how the lower back and shoulders feel in the poses.

About a year ago, I went from teaching yoga just to my beloved in our tiny kitchen to teaching a public class.  The first week no one came, it was a new class on the schedule, and at an odd time.  The next weeks I’d have a student or two or three, often my friends coming to support me.  I went on a two month business trip and canceled the class.  A few months later, at the well-placed encouragement and urging of my beloved, I started teaching again, creating a Saturday late morning class, free to all, at the Hacker Dojo in Mountain View.  The Dojo is a techie community center, an open space for folks to learn and create, to work on startups and connect with others in the tech community (and it had never had yoga or anything like it).  It’s an open, airy space though very much not a traditional studio: we move furniture, sweep and mop the floor before we start, and then move it all back after we finish.  Several months in, we have a very steady core group (and brand new yoga straps and blocks for all).  My original purpose in creating Yoga Hacks was to gain experience teaching, and to get comfortable teaching.  It has been awesome to offer yoga to the Hacker Dojo community, a group of techies and engineers like me, and who are my local community.

Now, as I see my teaching improving and my confidence and comfort teaching increasing, it’s time to expand: I’m transforming the class to be donation-based, and I’m giving the proceeds to charity.  I’m committing to continuing the class into October, which will be a year.  I’m excited about this next chapter and have picked our first charity: http://www.worldreader.org/, which is a non-profit bringing digital books and e-readers to remote villages in developing countries, including some in sub-Saharan Africa.  I can’t wait to see what we can do for this group; it’s so rewarding to do something I love to raise money that helps a worthy cause.

I choose to teach yoga because I want to share what has brought me so much joy and fulfillment.  I almost feel as if having been given this gift, that I have an obligation to others to share the gift.  Here’s just a bit of what I’ve gained from my yoga practice:

being more comfortable in my own skin
a sense of accomplishment
patience and steadiness
strong reminder of the benefits of discipline
physically feeling better; literally feeling healthier
connectedness with others
refined my philosophy: start from love
set of tools for tough times

If I can open the door for one person’s life to change as mine has, then I’ve achieved my goal. I have learned more about yoga through learning to teach it, and more about myself through the practice of teaching. My eventual goal is to teach regularly to an under-served community, and to teach a more advanced weekly studio class to stay connected with the yoga community and keep my teaching at the highest levels.

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.

Everything we do speaks, whether in conscious or unconscious ways.  Maybe you have very deliberately pondered your legacy, what you want your life to have been when you back at it in old age.  I certainly have, and I’m still working to develop my views of what I want my impact on the world to be, and to take actions and shape my life accordingly.  But what’s easier, more tangible and needed every day, is to consciously shape the ripples we create in every day living, through every action we take.  What do we want the impacts of those actions to be on the ones around us?

I’ve been biking to work recently, and on my way to and from I see a lot of other commuters, particularly in the mornings.  I watched last week as a woman on a bike gave a huge smile and a loud “good morning!!” to everyone she passed.  Many looked back at her blankly, some smiled back, most seemed to be a bit caught off guard.  But, most interestingly, I then heard more “good mornings” between folks after she’d passed by.  To me, this was a concrete example that one person’s simple action affects others.

Asana recommendation:

Bring more awareness into each action you take in your asana practice today.  Focus on moving deliberately and on the spaces between the poses.  These spaces are the unconscious ripples we create in daily life, whether we scowl or smile as we move through our lives.  Keep the sides of the torso long, lengthening the distance between the hip bones and armpits, make space for the positive.  Carefully place your hands and feet in alignment and watch the way you feel.  Try to share any good that comes out of your asana practice with those around you.

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