She’s got curves — are you sure she’s a yoga model?

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Be honest: What was the first thing you thought of when you saw this ad?

Unless you’re immune to what American society seems to constantly tell us about what the ideal female body looks like, I think it’s hard not to do a double-take over this print ad, which appears in the current issues of Yoga Journal and Yoga International. My immediate reaction was, “Wow, did they really choose a larger model for this photo shoot? Props to you, Kripalu!”

I emailed Kripalu about the ad, and this is what Kripalu Marketing Operations Manager Joyce Monaco said:

As far as larger models go, we try to appeal to all types and want women and men of all shapes and sizes to know that Kripalu yoga is for everyone.

Kudos!

Online yoga watercoolers such as elephant journal — which describes itself as “a paperless vehicle devoted to bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society” — and the irreverent YogaDork blog have  featured some excellent articles and discussions about yoga and body image. Read “What does a yoga body look like?” and “The Curvy Yoga Proclamation: A Letter to Yoga Journal” as just two examples. I added my own two cents on International Women’s Day, with “Mirror, mirror…

As yogis, shouldn’t we be more interested in whether someone’s chakras are balanced versus whether they fit into size XS Hardtails? Or am I missing something here?

The more steeped I become in American yoga culture, the more I think it’s inevitable that the values and patterns so prevalent in our greater society seep into the culture of the yoga studio. Does it have to be that way? No — and if there’s any system or way of life with the potential to break those types of bounds, it’s the discipline of yoga. That said, when we step into a yoga studio, we don’t check our outlooks, perspectives or biases at the door. Yoga can help us start to undo our samskaras — deeply ingrained, habitual patterns — but only if we are absolutely vigilant.

I would love to see more ads — whether it’s for local yoga studios, international retreats, clothing lines or accessories — feature models who don’t look traditionally enviable. I say this for women and male models, even though the examples mentioned in this blog post pertain to women.

As a side note, I used to live in western Massachusetts, and I spent a weekend on the beautiful grounds of Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. I actually didn’t go there for a yoga reatreat — I went there for a workshop on taiko drumming — and it was a blast. I’d love to head back to Kripalu one of these days — and the values that I saw conveyed through the selection of this print ad only makes me want to schedule that trip sooner rather than later.

(Image credit: Scan of Kripalu ad printed in Yoga International, summer 2011 edition)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The human body as a metro-styled map (aka, one way to imagine the chakra system)

Check out this world map that’s been brilliantly reenvisioned by Spanish artist Michael Tompsett as a metro-style map. I first saw this image yesterday on Melaz Cosmo’s Tumblr, and fell in love immediately. You can purchase this print as a canvas, as shown above, or as a print. Subway maps are some of my favorite things to collect when I travel, and my boyfriend and I recently picked up this gorgeous book called Transit Maps of the World that gives us all these amazing maps in one place. We only half joke when we say we’re going to start choosing our next vacations based on how inspired a city’s metro map looks. (The single craziest metro map I’ve seen so far, by the way, is Tokyo’s. Wow.)

This reimagining of a world map sparked a thought about the process of reimagination in general — a thought that ultimately led to how the practice of yoga can help us reimagine our body, mind and spirit. In the same way that a typical world map gives us continent outlines and maybe some topography, we as human beings tend to view our body the way we see it in a photograph: made up of the outlines created by the architecture that is our skeleton, flesh, skin.

But a yoga practice is designed to send our awareness inward — inward even to the level of energy centers called chakras that we can’t see, touch or even really scientifically prove exist. The current Wikipedia entry on chakras offers a decent overview:

Chakra is a concept referring to wheel-like vortices which, according to traditional Indian medicine, are believed to exist in the surface of the etheric double of man. The Chakras are said to be “force centers” or whorls of energy permeating, from a point on the physical body, the layers of the subtle bodies in an ever-increasing fan-shaped formation. Rotating vortices of subtlematter, they are considered the focal points for the reception and transmission of energies.Different systems posit a varying number of chakras; the most well known system in the West is that of seven chakras.

Chakras aren’t something you will ever find during a cadaver dissection. If you find the whole concept of chakras to be foreign and undigestible, it’s not my intention in this blog to bring you around on chakras (although I feel compelled to say I know scientists who practice yoga who find the chakra system to be a very useful way of imagining and experiencing their own body and spirit).

What I wanted to share in this blog post is my feeling that putting the metro-style world map above next to a more traditional world map could be one way to try to understand — if you’re open to the idea — how chakras can be imagined next to the more traditional western view of the human body. Rather than look at the external outlines of a body, you can consider the energetic stops along a human being’s route of existence.

The rough idea is that the first chakra, the root chakra located at the base of the spine, is the energy center that grounds us and the seventh one, located at the crown, is our space of liberation through its connection to whatever you want to describe as divine intelligence. In between, you have chakras where emotion, will, love, communication and intuition are based.

I had to read Wheels of Life as part of the 200-hour yoga teacher training I took through Hilltop Yoga in mid-Michigan. There were aspects of this book that were, admittedly, too far into the New Age realm for me to be comfortable. But there were aspects of the book that I really enjoyed exploring — such as the idea that we can try to see which chakra is dominant in our own personality, and in the personality of our signifiant other or love interest. Using the imagery of how chakras interact as a way to map out the dynamics of a relationship is fascinating to me, and I think it can be a helpful way of viewing struggling relationships.

Dr. Ray Long, a University of Michigan-educated orthopedic surgeon whose books include one on my bookshelf that I love referring to — The Key Muscles of Yoga: Scientific Keys, Vol. 1 —  offers anatomic breakdowns that show which chakras is most relevant to a particular muscle action and posture. (In case you’re interested, Dr. Long is coming to Michigan twice in 2011 — for more see my one-tank-of-gas workshop page.)

Whether you find any value to thinking about the chakra system, I think it’s safe to say that those willing to commit to a solid yoga practice has a far better map to the body, mind and spirit than they would have ever had if they had never stepped aboard that yoga train.

(Image credits: Map via http://www.imagekind.comChakras via Joelstuff V3’s Flickr photostream, licensed through Flickr Creative Commons.) 

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Like a matsya out of water: A yogi tries to learn how to swim

Wide-mouth-guppy

"Big mouth guppy" by Alice Chaos via Flickr Creative Commons

I don’t know how to swim, and I feel as if I am the only one in this country over 8 years old who falls into this category. Every year, I tell myself that this will be the year I stop flailing in water — the year that I can look at a pool and think about what I can do in that space, rather than what I can’t.

Well, tonight I took the first of eight 30-minutes classes I’ve signed up for through my local park and rec department. I figured it was time. I’m not getting any younger, and  life only gets busier. Besides, 2011 has been a great year so far for me trying out other ways to feel more expressive in my own skin.

Clinging

Being the former inquisitive reporter that I am, I asked the very sweet, young instructor if adults are the hardest to teach. She said no — that little kids cling to her and cry, scream. I asked her if she was sure that none of us (me) would eventually get to that point.

I don’t know why I don’t know how to swim. I have fond memories from my childhood of taking swimming lessons, with my mom and her radiant smile watching from the sides. But somehow either the lessons didn’t stick or fear took over. Fast forward, for instance, to my middle school years. I was extremely lucky to win a scholarship to Space Camp — yes, it was as awesome as it sounds — and while I mostly have fun recollections from that experience, there was one activity held in water. I think it was a team-building exercise to build some geometric shape in the middle of the pool. The only thing I contributed to was my lack of confidence in a body of water, because I remember clinging to the side of the pool most of the time. Fast forward again, to freshman year. At my high school, all students were required to take swimming in the ninth grade. But the pool was going through a renovation the semester I was set to take it, so I escaped (which, being a body-conscious teenager who did not want to be near any other human being (especially of the male variety) while wearing a bathing suit, I couldn’t have been happier about). I saw it as an escape at the time, but it was another opportunity to avoid facing my insecurities.

The dunk

Class sizes are limited to six in this program, and there were three in our group tonight — one of whom happens to be a former coworker. Neither of us knew we were taking this class, and we were surprised to see the other, in no small part due to the fact that we both think we are alone in not knowing how to swim.

The instructor started us out slow, allowing us to simply get accustomed to standing in the shallow end of the pool. While the pint-sized “starfish” next to our little area were all moving around with as much gusto as if they were on land, we adults  — being the land-tied creatures that we are — were very cautious, thinking about, and discussing with one another, every instruction before we actually tried it out.

I was feeling pretty good, though, until we were instructed to dunk our head under water and either blow out of our mouth or nose.

I hated it. And although we were supposed to do it a few times, I could only stand doing it twice.

It occurred to me then that I don’t mind being in water — I mind the act, or even the thought of the act — of having my head under water. I can’t pinpoint why, but maybe  it reminds me of having asthma attacks as a kid. All I knew is I wanted out — immediately.

Testing new waters

As a yoga instructor, one of my favorite classes to teach is an intro to yoga class. I think of it as being a tour guide to a new experience — which means that I can’t take anything for granted. I may be accustomed to connecting a movement to a breath, but that doesn’t mean the person on the mat in front of me is. I may feel a sense of exhilaration from the chest-breathing (versus breathing into the low belly) technique used in Ashtanga yoga — called ujjayi breath — but that doesn’t mean it’s accessible to someone who is stepping on a yoga mat for the first time.

Needless to say, I was grateful that this instructor took nothing for granted either. She didn’t even assume that we were comfortable standing in three feet of water away from a wall. The 30 minutes felt like 15, and by the end, we were getting from one end of the pool to the other using swimming strokes but with one hand holding on to a flotation barbell.

I’m looking forward to next week, and I’m happy to take this slowly so that I can start to isolate what exactly it is that’s holding me back.

Guppies, yoga-style

If you’re curious about the title of the blog post, matsya means “fish” in Sanskrit. Matsyasana, or fish posture, occurs in the finishing sequence of Ashtanga yoga. In Ashtanga, you see it done while the legs are in padmasana, or lotus pose. Outside of Ashtanga yoga, I see it more frequently with legs extended.

Myths of the Asanas tells the story of Matsya, the special fish who overhead Shiva telling Parvati about yoga. By listening, the fish became the first student of yoga. The book continues:

When someone becomes truly enlightened, he or she has an opportunity to return to earth in order to help the rest of us who are interested in this kind of liberation. Matsya chose to come back, and he was born, as legend tells it, as half fish, half human. He was called Matsyendranath, ‘the lord of the fishes.’

Ardha matsyendrasana, or half lord of the fish pose, is a spinal twist that occurs in Ashtanga second series. There is a a very challenging posture called purna matsyendrasana, or full fish pose, that occurs in a very advanced series of Ashtanga yoga. The difference between the two is that in the full version of the pose, the bent leg is in half-lotus.

(Photo credit: “Big mouth guppy” by Alice Chaos via Flickr Creative Commons)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X [Round 2]: What’s vinyasa, power yoga and Ashtanga all about? How do I tell the difference?

YogaRose.net Explainer Wordle

I’ve received so much feedback since writing my blog post on P90X Yoga X that I thought it might be helpful to do a part 2 blog post answering a few of the common questions people have.

What is a vinyasa?

In the P90X Yoga X DVD, Tony Horton refers to going through a vinyasa. It can be confusing, because “vinyasa” can refer to moving in between poses, it can refer to a style of yoga, and sometimes you see Ashtanga yoga referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

There are many ways to explain it, but Shiva Rea does a concise job in an article titled “Consciousness in Motion“:

‘Vinyasa’ is derived from the Sanskrit term nyasa, which means ‘to place,’ and the prefix vi, ‘in a special way’—as in the arrangement of notes in a raga, the steps along a path to the top of a mountain, or the linking of one asana to the next. In the yoga world the most common understanding of vinyasa is as a flowing sequence of specific asanas coordinated with the movements of the breath. The six series of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are by far the best known and most influential.

You might see “vinyasa” described as “flow,” which refers to the fact that in this style of yoga, you flow from one posture to the next using the breath as the link. If you go to a new yoga studio and it lists vinyasa classes, these classes will connect breath and movement, generally by starting off with sun salutations, going into a sequence that is perhaps repeated a few times (though not necessarily) and then ending with finishing postures to cool the body down in preparation for savasana, or corpose pose, which ends the practice. People also use “vinyasa” to simply refer to the transitions between postures.

What kind of yoga is done in the P90X Yoga X video? Is it Ashtanga yoga? 

No, it is not Ashtanga. The fitness guide that comes in the P90X package refers to the opening section as “Astanga Sun Salutations.” (By the way, “Astanga” is an alternate spelling of “Ashtanga.” Both are correct, but you see it spelled “Ashtanga” far more frequently.) The sun salutations, in my opinion, have the spirit of Ashtanga sun salutations A (surya namaskara A), but to be true Ashtanga sun salutes, you would have to come back to standing in between each one rather than go right into the next one. You would also have to hold each down dog for five breaths. In a traditional Ashtanga practice, you do five sun salutation As and five sun salutation Bs (which add a warrior posture and utkatasana, or chair pose, into the flow).

Is the rest of it Ashtanga yoga?

No. Not even close. Ashtanga yoga refers to a set sequence of postures. If you’re curious about which postures appear in Ashtanga, take a look at this PDF of the Ashtanga primary series (there are several series of Ashtanga, but most people practice primary and second series). Yoga Journal provides this quick overview, and this Ashtanga.com backgrounder provides a deeper level of info on the design of the practice and all that it encompasses.

Now that we’re on this subject, is power yoga, Ashtanga yoga and vinyasa yoga the same thing?

Nope. I’ve seen plenty of references that go something like this: “Ashtanga, or power, yoga…” or “Power yoga, also described as “Ashtanga yoga…” “Ashtanga” is a specific system and it is not interchangeable with “power” or “vinyasa.” You might think of vinyasa as the broadest term, the one that refers most generally to linking breath and movement in a sequence. Power yoga is a vinyasa-style yoga, and, based on what I know, it was coined around the same time but separately by two yogis: Bryan Kest and Beryl Bender Birch. Bryan Kest refers to power yoga this way:

Power Yoga is directed at creating the highest level of energy, vitality and freedom. The only way to do this is to work with yourself, not against yourself.

Hilaire Lockwood, who owns Hilltop Yoga where I practice and teach, describes it this way:

Power yoga is often misunderstood. The power in power yoga refers to the inner power that we all hold. That deep inner strength that not only keeps us focused, but allows us to be honest with ourselves and our limits. We carry so much love and compassion as well as depth and a desire for challenge. It is quite amazing when we tap into the life force we hold as individuals and consequently begin to see how we can impact the world in small or very large ways. While we do experience a ‘workout’ by practicing power yoga, you will also experience the yoke and the union that is true yoga – a body, mind, and spirit connection that allows us to achieve a deep ‘working in.’

If you go to an Ashtanga class, it will always feature the same sequence. Vinyasa and power classes do not feature the same sequence every time, so the instructor can put together a sequence that is most fitting to the students in the room.

I’m still not entirely clear about the names and styles

Especially if you’re new to yoga, it can be hard to get a handle on these distinctions. My suggestion is to let it go for now. Don’t worry about it and instead use your energy to find a yoga class in your community that you will enjoy and benefit from. Go practice and clear your mind. :-)

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>>Related posts in the YogaRose.net Explainer series: YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X

>>Previously in the YogaRose.net Explainer series: What’s that pose the guy in the Sunday Times is doing? And how do you get into it? 

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Got a question for YogaRose.net? Send it my way! Drop an email to ashtangayogarose [at] gmail.com or send me a tweet @rose101. I can’t promise to answer all questions (I do, after all, have another gig besides teaching and writing about yoga), but I will try to at least steer you to interesting answers. (It goes without saying that this isn’t meant to be a step-by-step how-to on yoga. To learn yoga, find a good teacher and get yourself to a yoga class, stat!)

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© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X

Are you among the more than 3 million who have ordered the P90x home exercise system? You know the one. P90X comes with a set of DVDs that you’re supposed to rotate through in a specific order over the 90 days of the program. The Yoga X DVD begins with the rather charismatic Tony Horton pounding out the virtues of yoga, including strength and calmness of mind. He then says:

Expand the mind here a little bit and try something new. I can do things at my age of 45 not because I can do a bunch of pull-ups, but because I do yoga.

My disclaimer here is that I’ve only done the 90-minute DVD once. But in the spirit of the immediacy of a blog, I’m going to share my initial impressions — from the point of view of a long-time practitioner — with you.

P90X Yoga X includes

What Tony says about it in the DVD

YogaRose.net’s thoughts

Intro on the virtues of yoga, including strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and calming the mind “…combining mind, body and soul together…”“It’s about breath work…”“The tip of the day is to clear your mind.” Bravo for talking about the need to expand the mind, and the fact that yoga aims to bring body, mind and spirit into union. I also liked that he noted yoga is about strength (the common perception is that it’s all about flexibility) and that it requires breath work. (Later on, he even talks about how yoga postures provide massages for the central nervous system.)
A 90-minute sequence

I like this because the styles of yoga I do (Ashtanga and power/vinyasa) connect breath to movement typically in a 90-minute format.
Written descriptions of each posture in the accompanying fitness guide

I haven’t read through all the descriptions, but I’m glad that they are there, including tips on how to intensify postures and a caution: “Avoid injury by not forcing the body beyond its capacity.”
Three sun salutations These are Ashtanga sun salutations Close, but not exactly. In Ashtanga sun salutations, you hold each down dog for five breaths and you return to standing in between each one. Tony goes right into the next one. (But bonus points for spelling it “Astanga,” which I consider the more traditional way to spell what in America is nearly always spelled “Ashtanga.”)
Breath cues Breathe Kudos for reminders on breathing. As an Ashtanga yoga practitioner, I would have loved for Tony to talk about how in this yoga breath (called “ujjayi” in Sanskrit), you inhale and exhale with the mouth closed and you breathe into the chest rather than the low belly.
Upward-facing dog

I would love to hear Tony tell P90Xers that in up dog, you need to send the hips forward (this decreases the risk of bringing tension into the low back).
Chaturanga Keep the elbows pinned (“pinched”) to the side of the body Agreed! I have to admit I don’t like to use words such as “pinched” or “collapsed,” etc. in yoga, but that’s a stylistic matter.
Relaxation reminders Keep the face calm Excellent!
Modifications for various postures For example, if you need to come out of reverse warrior 2, you can straighten the front leg for relief. Very important.
Transitions from warrior 2 to warrior 1

Warrior 2 is a wide-stance posture in which the hips open out to the side wall. Warrior 1 is a posture in which the hips square to the front. If you are toggling between the two, I think it really helps to know that you need to turn the back foot in 45 degrees in warrior 1 so that you can set the skeletal body up to even begin to square the hips. Otherwise, this can be such an awkward and uncomfortable transition.
Savasana Tony notes that in yoga, you shouldn’t just abruptly end the practice. He puts P90Xers into savasana (corpse pose). Cool.
Om/Aum Tony says it’s not a cult thing. He likes to do om three times and encourages his P90Xers to use their voice. Impressive. His oms are serious – he’s not just mailing them in.

P90X Yoga X includes

What Tony says about it in the DVD

YogaRose.net’s thoughts

Overall, I was surprised by the P90X Yoga X program. I expected an exclusively all-exercise, keep-pushing, lose-that-weight, tone-that-hard-body tone. I would have loved even more breathing cues and an explanation early on that in standing postures, you want to keep the kneecaps lifted up in order to engage the quadriceps (basically, you want to keep those upper thighs working). I outright disagreed here and there – for example, whether to contract the gluteus maximus in certain postures. And I definitely would have given more instruction for full wheel (upward bow) posture, or just not included it, since it’s such a deep backbend.

But here’s the thing – millions of people who perhaps would have gone their whole lives never having tried yoga have now been exposed to it because they’ve bought P90X. In an ideal world, I would love if everyone tried yoga in the setting of a dedicated yoga studio because there’s a sweetness and a quiet to it that’s hard to achieve in other places. But that’s not realistic, and I’d rather see people introduced to this incredible system by someone who at least talks about the benefits and design of the practice, talks about the importance of breath, and ends the sequence in savasana. Hopefully people who love it will find a yoga instructor who deepens their practice, and the rest will have had enough cues and enough personal sense to stay safe when they do practice.

This is all fine and good, YogaRose.net, but I have a different question. I know you in real life, Rose, and I am still having a hard time believing that you’re doing P90X. What’s the deal?

Those of you who know me will be shocked to hear that I — or, more accurately, my boyfriend and I — are indeed trying out P90X. What’s surprising about me doing this is that one of my most liberating days when it comes to health and fitness occurred in 2009 or 2010 when I realized that I had truly found a complete mind-body regimen in yoga. I could get cardio, strength training, stress relief and even meditation (of the moving kind) all rolled into one 90-minute practice a day. I was so excited by the fact that I would never have to step on to a cardio machine at the gym again that I gave away my Asics and never looked back.

This year, however, I’ve been expanding my horizons and exploring other ways to move my body, and the challenge of P90X is just that — a challenge. It’s liberating to see where I’m at compared to a few years ago, before I started doing enough yoga to make a difference in my body’s capacities. I am so much more aware of my body, and of my mind-body connection, now, so from this vantage point, it’s pretty fun to check out what this craze is all about. And I’m excited to tell you that the plyometrics program — the one Tony says puts the X in P90X — didn’t completely kick my ass (wicked hard, yes, but it didn’t floor me). Thanks to yoga, I can say, as Tony would, “Bring it.”

>>Update 7.15.12: In looking for some interesting yoga-related podcasts, I just stumbled over this archived interview on Yoga Peeps with Tony Horton

>>Update. Read the related YogaRose.net Explainer blog post: YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X [Round 2]: What’s vinyasa, power yoga and Ashtanga all about? How do I tell the difference?

>>Got questions about P90X Yoga X that weren’t addressed in this post? Ask away and I’ll share my thoughts with you. Drop a comment or email to ashtangayogarose [at] gmail.com or send me a tweet @rose101.

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>>Previously in the YogaRose.net Explainer series: What’s that pose the guy in the Sunday Times is doing? And how do you get into it? 

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Got a question for YogaRose.net? Send it my way! Drop an email to ashtangayogarose [at] gmail.com or send me a tweet @rose101. I can’t promise to answer all questions (I do, after all, have another gig besides teaching and writing about yoga), but I will try to at least steer you to interesting answers. (It goes without saying that this isn’t meant to be a step-by-step how-to on yoga. To learn yoga, find a good teacher and get yourself to a yoga class, stat!)

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© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

YogaRose.net turns 1

It just occurred to me that YogaRose.net turns the ripe age of 1 today. It was on June 1, 2010 that I sat down, picked my WordPress.com URL (would love to transform this home to a .org one of these days when I have more time), secured the domain name, picked a theme and created my pages on Ashtanga resources and all that good stuff.

At the end of a yoga class, saying “Namaste” has come to be a typical acknowledgement of those who have shared the practice with you.

Translated many different ways, one of my favorite ways to think about this Sanskrit word is, “The creative spirit in me honors the creative spirit in you.”

In that spirit, thanks to everyone who has stumbled over to my little online space to glance, read, share and support. It has been deeply gratifying — and plain old fun — so far.

Namaste.