[VIDEO] Three Questions with Angela Jamison

Angela Jamison sitting for an interview

A few of us who went on the Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor retreat to Xinalani earlier this month did so with a goal of leaving behind online and social media distractions. I was one of them, taking my iPad only to write, and using my iPhone for photos and video. Given how intensely relaxed everyone was able to be, I was a bit shy about asking my teacher and our retreat leader, Angela Jamison, if she would be willing to sit down for a YogaRose.net Three Questions set. On the other hand, when else would we have this setting, and this time? So I asked, and she sweetly said yes.

We set up a chair in the retreat center’s dining area, and you can hear the waves of Xinalani Beach below her as she speaks. (Thanks to the gorgeous lapping of the waves, if you have headphones, I think that’s the best way to listen to these videos.) The videos are listed first, and then some thoughts follow.

What is radical f-ing acceptance? (Hint: Think equanimity with an edge.)

What are the slowest openings? (Hint: Think about the places with the least tangible structures.)

What are questions to live by? (Hint: Think about orienting questions that keep teachers close.)

Radical f-ing (or is it effing?) acceptance

At the Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor (AY:A2) shala, we talk a lot about radical f-ing acceptance, so this has become part of my vocabulary.

As an AY:A2 apprentice, I had the chance to observe Angela teach a workshop in Canton, Mich., last month for a group of mostly vinyasa yoga-based practitioners who didn’t have radical effing acceptance in their parlance. This discussion came up in the context of a student’s question about what she can do about the feeling that her ribs are being crushed in twists like marichyasana C. Instead of launching into an anatomy answer, Angela starting by talking about a two-step process that can help remove resistance in our practice.

The first step involves this radical effing acceptance, which can help take that first level of judgment out of the picture: “Most of the time we’re subtlely kind of fighting with our experience,” she said. She explained that learning on a subtle level to cut the nervous system’s circuit of attraction-repulsion — to learn how to step away from the fight for a minute — is a skill in and of itself, and it’s not an easy one. The next step is to work with the energetics of this: “OK, this is information. It is what it is and it’s OK. If you don’t have that baseline of just radical acceptance, you won’t actually get access to all that information.” In step 2, in other words, if you’ve confirmed that you’re safe, then can you see if there’s a way to relax? Is there a way to let that experience flow?

Yoga practitioners in the ashtanga lineage know that asana is just one of eight limbs, and the physical practice is not the end all, be all of the practice. But it’s so easy, in that moment of trying to twist and bind — or get your leg behind your head or whatever — to not get caught up in it, and only it. Using a two-step process like this can help us turn every challenge in our asana practice — and we all know how many there are every day, much less over time — into a teachable moment for our nervous system.

‘Almost no experience in the body is solid’ — except perhaps thought forms

In that same workshop, Angela noted that in most poses, there is no stasis in our bodies. “Almost no experience in the body is solid — ever. Even when we’re lying in savasana for 15 minutes, there’s almost no stasis,” she said.

The most solid aspect, for instance, of what happens in the body’s zone that includes the belly, diaphragm and ribs — which are so much air and water — are our thought forms. “If we have a thought form of, ‘Oh, this is what my belly is, and I have this belief about it’ — that’s pretty stable. And we reinforce it and we think it again, and that stays. But really, in the meantime, the physical and energetic structures are always moving,” she told the group.

And maybe in that moment, a practitioner can simply exhale.

That idea made immediate sense to me — at the same time, it blew my mind to view our body-mind connection this way. Thought forms as more solid than what is actually happening in a body? Absolutely — I mean, think about eating disorders and socially constructed self-hatred-driven body image issues that both women and men deal with.

When is it appropriate to start teaching ashtanga? 

Although the Xinalani ashtanga retreat, held the first week of March, was set in a secluded paradise, there were workshops each afternoon for teachers and aspiring teachers that talked about everything from karma yoga to questions to live by, which is the focus of the third question above.

We also talked about when it’s appropriate for someone to start to teach ashtanga yoga. Angela writes about this in a fantastically candid blog post she wrote a few days ago on the AY:A2 apprenticeship program:

For ashtanga teachers, transitioning from sadhana to seva (from self-focused practice, to service) can be weird. It can stunt one’s growth dramatically if done without sufficient (1) preparation as a student, and (2) support from teachers and community. When this transition is made because the student puts herself in the teaching role, and not because her own teachers identify her as sufficiently skilled and prepared to teach, the challenges just mentioned are multiplied.

(Subtext: do not get in to ashtanga teaching unless you full-on cannot avoid it. Resist!! Don’t give yourself over to it unless you basically have to do it in order for your own practice to grow, and unless you have tons of support.)

Given these challenges, most teachers need active, invested mentors to whom they are accountable. (I do.) They need a (1) clear method and (2) a sense of history to keep from getting confused. They need to have strong equanimity and mental clarity, so they can (1) stand outside today’s “yoga” market and culture hype and (2) influence that culture positively.

Teachers need to be able to identify, and resist, the ego’s urge to use teaching to feed root chakra needs: money, sex, power, and attention.

We talked about this last point — that move from scarcity motives to abundance motives —  in detail during the retreat. While there is a kind of useful fire that can be generated from scarcity motives, there are dangers if someone doesn’t actually believe he or she has all the money, attention, sex and power needed, because that leaves open the opportunity to use the teaching to try to get it.

“Usually it’s not appropriate to teach ashtanga until the transition of scarcity needs to abundance motives has been met,” she said during one of our workshops. Here’s an example: Coming from a place of scarcity motives, other yoga teachers and studios can be seen as competition; from a place of abundance motives, the same teachers and studios are viewed as colleagues. It’s a world of difference, and it can have such a significant impact on how someone chooses to transmit the practice, interact with students, run a business, and everything else that surrounds the act of teaching.

My next beach reading

Back to the third video about questions to live by. Asking yourself: “Who am I and why am I here?” as a way to remain alive in an experience, no matter what it is — I’ve tried this since the retreat in ways large and small, from eating choices to teaching schedules, and it’s been interesting how it generates slightly different answers than I might get from thinking about an issue without these types of big-picture questions.

This reminds me that I want to reread the Bhagavad Gita. Again. I’ve read the classic Eknath Easwaran translation twice in the last couple of years, but on the retreat, Angela mentioned Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song, published in 2007 by Graham M. Schweig. It sounds like a lovely translation, and I will start it as soon as I can get my day job to stop being so demanding. (In other words, if only I had a beach to read it on without any distractions . . . .)


Want to watch one more video? See Angela discuss “What is mula bandha?,” which was part of this Xinalani retreat blog post.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2013. 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.

Plow, baby, plow (or, how to create new patterns)

Old and new patterns“Yoga is a process of replacing old patterns with new and more appropriate patterns.” –Sri T Krishnamacharya

I shared this graphic on the YogaRose.net Facebook page today, and I liked it so much I thought I would share it here as well. (I saw it by way of Yoga Hana‘s share, and as far as I can tell, the original came from Tim Kelleher Yoga.)

Here is what I said about it on Facebook:

So this was a perfect thing for me to catch today. It’s been such a long week (already, and it’s only Wednesday!) and I realized this afternoon that today I started to fall into old patterns of stress. I identified this and took a little break from work because I wanted to short-circuit the pattern. One of the things practicing six days a week has helped me do is not eliminate old patterns — yet — but identify them and decrease the frequency and duration of them.

And here is what had happened: I had felt like a big weight had been lifted by mid-afternoon because I had just wrapped up a two-hour training session that I was co-leading. It was a fun and fruitful session, and having it behind me allowed me to get to the rest of the deadlines I have for the end of the week. But when I got back to the office, a couple of things I had checked off my list had boomeranged back to me, which was a bit frustrating. (What’s arguably worse than not being able to check something off my list is checking it off and having it reappear again.) I think old-pattern Rose would have then spiraled into feeling more stressed and would have powered through and tried to get as much done in the afternoon as possible, even if it meant a darkening mood. New-pattern Rose took a step back, realized Project Boomerang could be dealt with the following day, left the office for about half an hour, and returned feeling a lot better.

Zap, the sound of the short-circuiting of an old pattern.

Traces

I’ve seen this Krishnamacharya quote before, but seeing it again today reminded me of a passage I particularly like in the book Myths of the Asanas about halasana, or plow pose:

According to yoga philosophy, all of our actions and thoughts leave traces in our consciousness. Our actions in this world can either remove impressions from the landscape of our consciousness or carve new ones. Just as Haladhara [Krishna’s older brother] dragged the Yamuna [a great river] to him with his plow, the yogi seeks to draw the mind back from its negative wanderings in order to absorb the positive. There is a sutra in the fourth chapter of the Yoga Sutra that talks about this kind of ‘plowing of the mind’:

nimittam-aprayojakaṁ prakṛtīnāṁ-varaṇa-bhedastu tataḥ kṣetrikavat

Essentially, what this sutra says, just as a farmer plows his field to introduce water to the field for irrigation, if we remove the obstacles in our path toward yoga, we can lead our mind toward it. In this way, the plow of our mind leads us to liberation, based on the quality of our thoughts. The plow pose provides an excellent opportunity to plow the field of our mind with positive thinking.

And finally, this reminds me of a David Swenson quote posted on Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor’s Facebook page (and shared 25 times) earlier this month:

I have understood that meditations, prayers, asanas are just a tool. And this tool can be used to plough the soil and to make it fertile. This is what practice does – it makes the soil fertile. If a person fulfils difficult asanas or prays constantly it does not mean yet that this person is spiritual. It simply means that inside him there is a fertile soil. And what the person plants into this soil will grow. Therefore, the more intensively we practice, the more cautious we should be. If you plant an ego into this fertile soil it will grow up much more than an ego of a usual person. Spirituality is not defined by practice. Spirituality is defined by concentration, intention and actions of a practitioner.

zerodegreesIt’s the middle of winter — my least favorite season — here in Michigan. The weather last week was a frosty 0 degrees before you took wind chill into account. Yesterday and today? A balmy 55 degrees. In a couple days it will be back in the teens. The roads have been an absolute mess and the commute has required even concentration than usual. It’s most certainly not the time to think about gardening, growth and abundance.

And yet . . . maybe this is actually a wonderful season to nurture and cultivate new plantings. Since I’ve never actually had a garden myself, here’s some random gardening advice I just found online:

Regular tilling and amending of your soil will make it easier to work with as years go by….Preparing garden soil is a long-term, continual process. It can’t be done in one growing season. Fall may be the best time to begin soil improvement, but it’s also possible to begin now.

As with a garden, so with our consciousness?

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2013. 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.

[VIDEO] Three questions for Jayashree and Narasimhan / The sutras as ‘a single string that gives a single meaning’

20121116-211845.jpg

Long day, up at 5 a.m. in my Eastern time zone, where it’s now the middle of the night. It’s only 1:30 a.m. here in California, where I just landed — a state that hasn’t been home for a decade and a half, yet still feels very much like home. Being a bit turned around on the whole space and time front seems like a fairly apt time to talk about how I started the week — with two evenings spent in workshops with Indian scholars Dr. M.A. Jayashree and M.A. Narasimhan, hosted by Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor. The sessions, as promised, went a little like this: “Monday, we will have an introduction to Indian philosophy and some chanting of the Samadhi Pada. Tuesday, we will focus on the eight (ashtau) limbs (anga) that asht-anga yoga comprises.”

Looking back, though, I can’t really separate day 1 from day 2, and one of my favorite quotes from the evenings was when Jayashree explained that Patanjali goes on like loops. Some people say “sutra” (singular) rather than “sutrani” (plural) to describe the yoga sutras, because every sutra is linked with the other (just as each of the four chapters of the books, or padas, of the Yoga Sutras are linked with the other):

It is a single string that gives a single meaning.

At minimum, we were told, “to understand one sutra, you need the previous, and the next.”

Jayashree, whose bright smile reminded me of my mom’s joy and radiance when she sings classical Thai songs, later illustrated the idea by the idea by sticking out her arm. “Can I call my hands as ‘Jayashree’? Can I call my eyes as ‘Jayashree’?”

‘Ashtanga is yoga’

When I was in Maui this spring for my honeymoon, I had the good fortune to meet the gorgeous and ginormous Banyan Tree (pictured above) that graciously unfolds in the town of Lahaina. One tree, many trees — it’s hard to tell, because you can’t quite discern where one ends and one begins. It reminded me of M.C. Escher drawings.

At some point, Narasimhan started discussing viveka and at some point, he said: “In the Indian system of thought, there is no black and white. No right or wrong. Shades of gray.” (This, in turn, reminded me of what I’ve been learning about Ayurveda, and the idea that there is no “good” or “bad” herb or mineral, for instance. Just the appropriate one for the appropriate condition.)

Loops

Here are some impressions, some moments:

  • One way to view yoga’s purpose? To create optimistic, happy and connected people who can in turn help make society happier and more connected.
  • It’s not accurate to view India as having many Gods. “There is only one primordial force,” Narasimham said. “We always follow the primordial force.” What, then, of all the images of deities — such as the unmistakable Ganesha, with his elephant head? Think of them as creative forces. “Creatives forces are represented as a god — small ‘g’ god.”
  • Ganesha is the remover of internal obstacles. A human being has a spinal column and two hemispheres, and from the back, the human body can appear like an elephant’s head.
  • Bramacharya is “controlled sex” rather than celibacy. So, even if you are married, you only have sex under certain circumstances, not just whenever and wherever; and that schedule is given in the scriptures.
  • The nervous system is the bridge between the physical and the mind.
  • Kriya yoga as physical, mental, emotional –> tapasya, svadyaya, isvara pranidhana –> action, knowledge, devotion/love –> karma yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga.
  • The electrical attraction between a cloth and dust creates a dirty cloth. You remove dirt by using a cleaning agent such as soap. Tapasya acts as a cleaning agent to help separate us from guilt, much the same way other cleaning agents work to break attraction. The eight limbs of yoga cleanses us physically, mentally and emotionally.
  • Processes abound, but effort does not necessarily need to accompany those processes. Asana –> pranayama –> pratyahara. Dharana –> dhyana –> samadhi. You cannot put forth effort to express samadhi, which is the opposite of what happens in the external world, where typically, the more effort you put forth, the more you are rewarded.

I could share more impressions and more moments, or I could let you hear a little from the brother-and-sister team yourself. In the first video, they offer an unforgettable analogy of samadhi to none other than a cup of coffee — while name-checking Starbucks to boot. In the second question, they discuss subjects and objects. I think the springboard for the third question (questions and answers sort of overlapped, as you might imagine happens in this kind of discussion) was about Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, who was described as essentially a psychologist, with his work being more relevant today than ever before.

Three Questions

What is samadhi?

The second yoga sutra discusses “citta vrtti,” which you describe as loops. How can the first few sutras help us as human beings understand consciousness and our relationships with objects, and how can the sutras help us change our relationships with loop patterns?

What changes with yoga?

I am such a devotee of the ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice because I love its design. It’s beyond brilliant. And every time I learn more about the aphorisms that collectively make up Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, my respect grows. For me, listening to Jayashree and Narasimhan discuss the sutras — and chanting in Sanskrit along with them — helped illuminate the intricate yet I suppose ultimately simple architecture of the sutras. The images I’ve been feeling in the days since have been Escher-esque bridges, ropes and branches that loop, pathways that only appear linear, trap doors that actually liberate, and beginnings and ends that connect and recoil. It doesn’t matter where in this spiritual design you start. Walk along whichever foot path intrigues you most to discover a universal journey through your individual experience.

Links

(Photo credit: The famous Banyan Tree in Lahaina, Maui, via echobase_2000’s Flick Creative Commons license)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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.

Workshop dispatch: Richard Freeman resources

I first tasted the teachings of Richard Freeman when I read The Mirror of Yoga earlier this year as part of an Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor retreat. I first met Richard at the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence this past March, where I was introduced to his vibrant and rich imagery — oh, that cobra hoodie! — and where I was lucky enough to get a nearly indescribable dropback adjustment from him (what I refer to as my Oh. My. God. dropback adjustment).

Miro Barn near Columbus, OhioWhen I met Richard again this past weekend inside a beautiful converted barn in Columbus, Ohio, I told him about that backbend, whose energy I think I still have in my body. He simply said, “Hmm. I must have slowed down your backbend.” There he was, being humble. I sort of wanted to shout, “THERE IS NO WAY THAT IS ALL YOU DID! COME ON, COP TO THE MAGIC POWERS YOU HAVE!” But I just smiled and we moved on to another subject.

At the end of the three days with Richard — after he was cool enough to talk to me for my Three Questions video series — I got into my car for the four-hour drive back home. Before I hit the highway, I had popped the first of his six-CD audio set, The Yoga Matrix, into my player, and I just finished the last CD. (All this really means is that I am ready to start round 2 of listening — there is just so much packed into these discussions.)

You probably already know this, but the guy is amazing. Here are some ways to get more Richard Freeman right now:

The Mirror of Yoga [book]

I got really into the book and read it about this time last year, and I also did a blog post here and here.

The Yoga Matrix: The Body as a Gateway to Freedom audio course

The Yoga MatrixAlthough I got a lot out of The Mirror of Yoga, for me, The Yoga Matrix is where it’s at. While Richard covers many of the same themes, it makes a big difference to be able to hear his voice, his intonation and his cadence. At the time I’m writing this, you can get the audio download for about the cost of three drop-in yoga classes ($36.73).

Pranayama: Unfolding the Secret Breath

This is what I woud love to dive into next (probably won’t have time until next year, though). From the official description:

Pranayama (literally “to release life energy from its bounds”) is considered the central practice that will lead you into the true promise of yoga: the experience of freedom itself. When performed correctly, this powerful form of conscious breathwork reveals the intricate web of your thoughts, physiology, and energetic patterns—helping you learn to quiet the mind, heighten receptivity, and open to what is referred to in yoga as the intrinsic radiance of being. Featuring six video sessions with Richard Freeman plus a wealth of lessons and exercises, Pranayama will teach you advanced yogic meditative techniques that will serve as a solid base for a longstanding practice.

The cost? An incredibly reasonable $49.

Classes, workshops, intensives, and archived studio talks

I know someone attending Richard’s intensive this January, and I can’t tell you how excited I am for him. Find all the details of Richard’s travels, intensives at his home studio, studio archives, and the occasional blog post, here. (Just a quick note to say that Richard has a scheduling conflict and won’t be teaching at the second annual Ashtanga Yoga Confluence taking place in 2013.)

Social media

See his listing on the Ashtanga Yoga + Social Media Grid.

Have you studied with Richard Freeman? Would you add anything?

Richard Freeman head shot

Related links:

>>[VIDEO] Three Questions with Richard Freeman
>>Ashtanga Yoga Confluence: Thinking of Ashtanga as ‘pranayama for restless people’
>>Ashtanga Yoga Confluence: Backbending, and getting back together
>>End game? Untethering the act of practicing from the feeling I want from practice
>>Dig, or all dug out? Reading Richard Freeman’s ‘The Mirror of Yoga’

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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.

An elevator pitch for a steady, consistent yoga practice? (Or, thank neuroplasticity for what happens when your brain is on yoga.)

Elevator via Zero-X's photostream

I spent four hours yesterday listening to a replay of Yoga Injuries: Facts and Fiction, a telesummit organized by Yoga U, a platform for high-profile yoga teachers to host webinars. Not multitasking is not my strong suit, so while I posted a bit about it on the YogaRose.net Facebook page, I mainly used this span of time to listen to the interviews with eight speakers while cleaning out my home office space — the last room of our new house to receive a cleaning-out-the-closets treatment.

The cleaning-out was great. So was the telesummit — particularly the first two speakers. Roger Cole rocked out a refutation of the infamous New York Times article by William Broad that triggered the telesummit (I think paying for the full pass for the event would probably be worth it for this segment alone), and Timothy McCall, M.D., the medical editor for Yoga Journal, provided some juicy elevator pitches for the benefits of yoga.

I say “elevator pitch” probably because I enjoy teaching beginning yoga students and find myself thinking about how to quickly explain the benefits of yoga, and because I work in the public relations arena, in which you frequently need to assess whether your clients have a clear sense of their goals and objectives. What message are they trying to get across? Can they distill it into a pitch short enough to make during an elevator ride? If they can’t, maybe the overarching message is too muddled.

Anyway, based on his presentation, I looked up some of McCall’s past work and found a little gem. Unless you’re in an elevator ride gone awry, McCall’s 2009 piece titled “Your Brain on Yoga” is a tad too long to qualify as an elevator pitch, but at a brisk 332 words, it’s still a short, breezy and extremely accessible read. I’m sure there are excellent distillations out there, but this is one of the best I’ve stumbled over that supports, from a scientific and holistic point of view, why we should practice yoga consistently:

When I was in medical school in the 1980s, we were taught that after a certain stage of childhood development, the architecture of the brain was fixed. Brain cells, or neurons, couldn’t be replaced; at best, we could slow the rate of their loss by cutting down on alcohol and other damaging habits.

But now, due to the growing sophistication of neuroimaging technology like PET scanners and functional MRIs, we understand that brain structure can change over time based on what we do. Recent research shows that even aging brains can add new neurons.

Scientists coined the term neuroplasticity to refer to the brain’s ability to reshape itself, confirming what the yogis have been teaching for millennia—the more you think, say, or do something, the more likely you are to think, say, or do it again. With every activity, neurons forge connections with one another, and the more a behavior is repeated, the stronger those neural links become. As neuroscientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers a recipe for success in yoga: steady and enthusiastic practice without interruption over a long period of time. This ideal formula takes advantage of neuroplasticity to rewire the brain. Swami Vivekananda once said, “The only remedy for bad habits is counter habits.” As your yoga practice deepens over time, it becomes a strong new habit that can compete with old patterns.

In yoga, you are systematically awakening your ability to feel what’s happening in your body, heart, and mind. As your awareness becomes more refined, it can guide you in all areas of your life. You begin to observe which foods make you feel best, which work you find most fulfilling, which people bring you joy—and which ones have the opposite effects.

The key is steady practice—whether it’s asana, pranayama, meditation, chanting, visualization, service, or all of the above. Just a little bit every day is enough to steer you step-by-step toward true transformation.

 

Establishing new habits to compete with old ones . . . in the telesummit, McCall talked about how that is a weakness of the medical system — when people are told to quit smoking or eat healthier or whatever the case may be, but aren’t given any tools to create new habits. I know nothing except for yoga has ever truly worked for me when it comes to trying to be a less reactive person, to eat better, etc. etc. — so where would I be right now if I didn’t have these tools?

I’ve been writing quite a bit lately about how redirecting my practice pattern — practicing at least a little bit six mornings a week versus only a few evenings a week — has totally !!! my world. (By the way, I do promise to blog about something else soon! :-) ) I wondered if I could distill the neuroplasticity idea even further — into the 140 characters of a tweet — and ashtanga-fy it a bit (not because other methods don’t work, but because this is the only method I can personally attest to) while alluding to the concepts of a conditioned mind and illusions that arise from the Yoga Sutras. I came up with:

Using the body to get beyond the body, a 6-day-a-week Ashtanga practice rewires us to experience life without filters created by illusion.

What do you think?

What would your elevator pitch be?

Pain relief?

So what is it that happens when we are capable of practicing detachment?

Bringing this up reminds me of workshop I attended last year with orthopedic surgeon, yoga practitioner and author Ray Long, M.D. I loved how he brought up painkillers in an analogy for how yoga helps decrease human suffering. I am paraphrasing big time here, but basically, he discussed how local anesthesia works to numb an area, while morphine works on the central nervous system. What people have recounted about being on morphine is that they are still aware of the pain, but it doesn’t bother them.

I’ve heard Tim Miller use a line he got from a Vedic astrologer in India: Yoga makes us human shock absorbers. And I just found this interview with David Swenson in which he responds to a question about finding peace (definitely not an elevator pitch, but good stuff):

I think that peace just means, that even though I may die today, I’m living my purpose. And that’s the peace. It doesn’t mean that there’s no stress in life. It doesn’t mean that we just float along and there’s never any problem. Peace just means that we feel like we’re living the life that we should be living. And many times we have to live a lot of lives that we realise we shouldn’t be, in order to find out what we should be doing. It’s an ongoing journey. To find balance, sometimes we have to understand imbalance by moving through extremes. In my life there have been different extremes… to swing like a pendulum. And the balance or the peace comes from the middle road. As humans we find it easier to live in extremes, “I’ll only do this. I’ll never do that.” That’s where religion plays a part, where you’re just told to do this and that and you follow. But peace comes from some sort of inner feeling that the life we’re living is a life that we should be living. And it doesn’t have to be that you’re in a monastery, or that you’re doing some grandiose thing. It could be aligned with raising your children, getting them to soccer games on time, being at peace with the life that we have chosen, or the life that has chosen us, but finding our place within that. Certainly I can’t say that every moment at the day I’m walking around in some bliss bubble. Certainly I have problems, I have stresses, or I get upset. But underneath all that, as a yogi, we learn to observe our emotions, these ups and downs, and we try not to become too attached to one of them. Great joy or great sadness, both of those are going to change. Instead of this rollercoaster ride, we can become the observer, but it doesn’t mean that we’re some emotionless robot.

Shanti.

(Photo credit: Elevator photo via Zero-X’s Flickr photostream.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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.

 

Cleaning out closets — physical and mental (in which opinions and judgments count as ‘stuff’)

 

Graph of cost of too much stuff

Graphic credit: Carl Richards via The New York Times

The New York Times yesterday posted a piece titled “You Probably Have Too Much Stuff” by a certified financial planner. (I probably wouldn’t have seen it, except Bristo Yoga School posted it on their Facebook page, and that showed up in my newsfeed.) Readers of this blog know I’ve been working on unpacking my patterns of excess during my recent move, so I was interested in reading this column. What impressed me most, other than the very clean and striking graphic that I’ve posted above, was that this financial planner acknowledged the emotional price you pay for having too much stuff:

When we hold on to stuff we no longer want or use, it does indeed cost us something more, if only in the time spent organizing and contemplating them. I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about getting rid of that tie (for instance), and every time I went to choose a shirt for the day, I would think about the few that no longer fit.

. . . .

It can help to think in terms of, “Do I have room—physical, emotional, mental—to bring one more thing into my life?”

It has taken me a long time to realize that my opinions and judgments — of myself and others — count as “stuff” that needs to be constantly cleared out. (Better yet, not brought in in the first place.) What makes this kind of excess worse than the piles of unnecessary whatevers that may be laying around the house is that it travels with you — it’s not something you can avoid when you’re not at home. I think most of us know people so chained by anger, resentment and grudges — so addicted to personal drama — that they can’t even see how much friendship, good will and respect from others they have lost. These packets of anger, resentment and grudges that get stockpiled can color every conversation you have and affect every relationship you enter. It can cause you to push people away and it can keep people from wanting to be closer to you. It saps a tremendous amount of energy and it’s toxic. Is there a higher personal cost than that?

Two sides of the same coin

In many cases, anger and the like are byproducts of too intensely liking someone and being disappointed, right? In The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, T.K.V. Desikachar offers up a simple little drawing of a tree (p. 11) that I always think of when there’s yogic talk of ignorance. The caption underneath the tree reads, “Avidya is the root cause of the obstacles that prevent us from recognizing things as they really are. The obstacles [branches of the tree] are asmita (ego), raga (attachment), dvesa (refusal), abhinivesia (fear).”

At a recent Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor retreat, Angela Jamison talked about Yoga Sutra 1.33, which I’m referring to here using this translation:

Maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam. In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.

I don’t remember the retreat dwelling on it, but I scribbled in my notebook that the last of the four discussed was equanimity, which Angela noted included “not getting attached to preferences in people.”

That’s such an interesting one — and I realized that I was recently confronted with this. During the months of my wedding planning and after the wedding itself was held in May, I had been quietly holding on to hurt feelings. I had a few friends who meant a lot to me and who, as a result, I expected to somehow demonstrate their reciprocity by, at best, being excited by the wedding and, at worse, at least acknowledging the event. But as with any wedding, there were people who didn’t so much as reach out with a post-wedding “hey, congrats” or a “sorry I blew off your invite, I was x, y or z” or whatever. Their silence was deafening to me. The fault was entirely my own, though: I should have not have expected anything, because expectations create baggage. And did it matter what the reasons were? Everyone who was invited to the wedding was someone whom my husband and I felt had given us a gift of friendship at some point; that was enough.

As a post-script, I have to say that I somehow shed a lot of these feelings — along with other holds I’ve been carrying for a long time — during my honeymoon in Maui. Part of it was the magic of that island, and much of it had to do with the fact that my wedding showed me just how much I had to be grateful for — I have so many good people in my life, and can you ask for much more than that? I felt so light as my wedding weekend came to a close, and that feeling has stayed with me.

The geometry of closets

Like much of the population, I tend to stash stuff I don’t need into closets. This forces me to cram stuff I don’t need or even really like into spaces that contain stuff I do need and do like. The end result? The stuff I don’t need pushes the good stuff out of view and everything ends up crumpled. In my emotional closet I’ve started taking inventory of tchotchkes built on resentments, articles fabricated of anger, and boxes storing grudges, and I’ve been pitching as many of them as I can. (I’m also trying to catch myself before I drag in new junk.) It’s less that I have reached that level of zen, and more a reflection of how much I value all the good people and things in my life — I don’t want those dynamics wrinkled by emotional detritus I should have tossed years ago.

Don’t get me wrong — I am human, and I still have way more baggage than I need. But the spring cleaning has begun, and I suspect it will be, as is everything worth taking on, a constant and lifelong process.

Cleaning out

(Graphic credits: Top: Carl Richards via The New York Times. Bottom: The Red Chair Blog.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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.

Retreat dispatch: A simple (though maybe not easy) way to ratchet down reactivity

The Stone Arch event space

The Stone Arch event space in Saline, Mich.

Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor‘s summer retreat was held this weekend inside the Stone Arch, a beautiful and expansively intimate church-turned-event-space located in a cute Michigan town called Saline. This was my third retreat with Angela Jamison of AY: A2, and, as with any good yoga workshop, each one of these seasonal confabs has offered me an array of inspirational, intellectual and practice-based nourishment. Some I digest right away (along with, I should mention, actual tasty nourishment in the form of fantastic lunches), and some I can’t until much later.

Something I digested in real time today had to do with an exploration of how to decrease your reactivity during potentially tension-filled situations — whether that’s at an academic talk, a corporate meeting or a personal conversation. There’s a one-word answer and then a longer answer. The one-word answer: Listen. (If you’ve already started judging this word, hold on — listen for a couple paragraphs longer.) The longer answer requires a look at a person’s five koshas, or sheaths. Koshas go from the outside in, starting with gross manifestations (the body) and move toward more subtle ones:

  • Annamaya kosha: Physical body
  • Pranamaya kosha: Energy body
  • Manomaya kosha: Mental body
  • Vijnanamaya kosha: Wisdom body
  • Anandamaya kosha: Blissful body

Rather than starting to build up your own wall of defenses — your feeling on the matter, your justifications, or whatever it may be — while someone else is talking, try really listening. Become very, very receptive to what is said, rather than work off a loop of assumptions and proactive counterarguments. The self-help industry is full of advice of listening, but in this yogic framework of koshas, what you’re doing is allowing a quick downshift from the mental body to the wisdom body, and allowing reactions to come from a more refined place. It’s not easy to let go this way, but the payoff can be tremendous.

I seriously love framing this shift in consciousness like this, because I do this. I. Do. This. I do this all the time, in fact. I don’t consider myself overly analytical, but probably starting with my time on the high school speech and debate team and on through my work in deadline-driven professionals, I’ve always seen arguments — even healthy ones — as an us versus them proposition with winners, losers and a ticking clock. Time is limited. Get your idea out there before a worse one gains popularity. (Working in corporate America has done nothing but reinforce my patterns.)

Speaking of digestion . . . in my ongoing efforts to start waking up at 5:30 a.m. six days a week to practice, Angela has suggested that I stop eating dinner at my usual 8, 9 or 10 p.m. and try to eat earlier. The retreat flew by today, and between that, the 75-minute drive home, and a quick errand on the way home, it’s getting awfully close to my usual dinnertime. I have lots of great vegetables from yesterday’s trip to Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Famers Market, so I better go.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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.

 

(Mental) space renovations

After 11 days in my new house, I’ve come to truly understand just how much choice we have when it comes to setting up the internal spaces of a home. From type of flooring to ceiling styles, from window treatments to light fixtures, you don’t have to settle for what you’ve currently got. There are plenty of home improvement shows on cable that prove you can transform any space if you have the right tools and work systematically — but it has taken being a first-time homeowner to truly drive home the point for me.

The last several days of replacing, organizing and decluttering has led me to think about physical space as an intriguing analogy for, and reflection of, mental space. It’s been slow going unpacking my personal stuff — clothes, books and mementos — because even though I tried to whittle down as much as I could while packing up our old apartment, I was only capable of parting with so much as we departed that space. After our arrival in this new space, I’ve had a little more time (and literal space) to be much more deliberate.

Do I need this? 

Really, do I really need this?

Seriously, what does keeping this around do for me? 

A lifelong pack rat, I’m determined to make this a home that feels clean and open. And along the way, I’m trying to see if I can mirror this determination and this process by decluttering my mental space a bit too. Just as I examine each skirt and shirt I own to see if it should enter my closet or be taken out of this house for good, I’m trying to examine each grudge, resentment and anxiety that arises during this time.

Do I need this? 

Really, do I really need this?

Seriously, what does keeping this around do for me? 

Maybe it’s not quite as impossible as I think it is to become the more even keel person I want to be.

Coincidentally — or perhaps not so coincidentally — the most recent AY:A2 newsletter includes a paragraph on saucha:

Saucha is a niyama suggesting, for practical purposes, that practitioners develop energy awareness, learning to keep the energies around things, people and practices distinct. It’s usually translated simply as “cleanliness.” What does it mean to practice with awareness of mental hygiene, physical, interpersonal clarity and crispness?

Of the suggestions linked, this one stood out to me:

Be cautious about repeating negative thoughts (or talk) in a compulsive manner. You have choices about the (inner) environment you inhabit. It’s funny, but physical practice is easiest when there’s a vibe of kindness and generosity to oneself and others. It is possible to cultivate positive emotions and thoughts while accepting and studying any negativity that arises.

In this reorganization and shedding process, I’m hoping that as my rooms go, so go my mental spaces. It’s this kind of liberation I’ll be thinking about on this Fourth of July, as my husband and I enjoy one of the few full days we’ll have this month to simply relax together in our sweet little home.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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.

Yoga for depression and anxiety

I was happy to be able to snag the last available spot for a two-hour workshop called Yoga for Depression and Anxiety, held this afternoon at the beautiful, community-focused Just B Yoga in Lansing. It was taught by a good friend of mine, South London native Kim Lewis.

Just B Yoga website screenshot

Although I won’t try to document the breathing and moving techniques that Kim went through — I believe these types of things are best learned and digested in context — I do want to say it was very moving when Kim started out the workshop by telling her own story. Here is her bio:

I first experienced a yoga class about 20 years ago, but I began to practice consistently in 2002 in my late 30s. I’d never been comfortable doing sport or “physical” activity, so I was surprised how much I enjoyed this unfamiliar form of exercise. Since then, I’ve learned that yoga has much more to offer than simply physical movement.

Before getting more serious about yoga, I was suffering with backaches, headaches, and neck aches – probably all because of stress. I’ve also had trouble with depression and anxiety that has sometimes thrown me completely off balance. Yoga has helped me to build better physical and mental health, so I’m able to function well in my daily life – and really live life.

At 46, I’m in much better physical and emotional shape than I was at 26. The combination of yoga poses, breathing and meditative practices simply makes me feel good. I’m so fortunate that I found yoga and I want to share it with others.

I trained with Hilaire Lockwood at Hilltop Yoga. I am also certified by Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression, as a LifeForce Yoga Practitioner.

Kim was diagnosed as bipolar in her 20s, and strongly advises anyone trying to come off medications to do so with the help of a physician — rather than trying to do so on their own. Kim told the group today that she is living proof that while yoga can’t take away all the challenges, it can change someone’s life:

It can change your brain.

Kim told us that yoga gives you the tools to take care of yourself. These tools can be summarized by three words: “Breathe, Move, Watch,” based on breathing techniques (pranayama), physical postures (asana) and looking at how yoga philosophy views the Self.

You can use breathing and movement to:

  • Balance the body and mind
  • Calm the body/mind when anxious
  • Energize the body and mind when depressed — but on this point, Kim emphasized how mindfulness is needed because this can also aggravate anxiety or set off a manic state.

She said everyone needs to cultivate self-awareness and check in with themselves. If you feel lethargic and depressed, start slowly and warm up to a more energetic practice. If you feel jumpy and anxious, start with more active movement and then slow down to a more calming practice.

As a yoga instructor, I appreciated Kim’s pointers for those with depression or anxiety when taking group yoga classes — that you have to cultivate this same self-awareness and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

On this point, I think yoga teachers would be wise to try to learn more about depressed and anxious students. You won’t be able to tell that modifications are needed the way you would if a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy walks into your class, but even being aware of different needs might make you more intuitive about students who may quietly be suffering through major depression and need a different energy from you.

I found these points particularly interesting:

  • For someone with major depression, it may be too much to turn in internally, so don’t allow yourself to go there.
  • For someone with major depression, it might be uncomfortable to close the eyes, so just soften the gaze.

On that point, as an Ashtanga devotee, it made me all the more aware of the importance of dristi — the gaze — of the practice. Dristi is one of the three tools that the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga system gives us (together, the three are referred to as the tristana). There’s not a whole lot of eye-closing in Ashtanga — you are always asked to set a soft gaze on one of nine points (tip of nose, hand, to the side, etc.). I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that, to keep us present on the mat in a way that allows us to boomerang our awareness inward with true clarity, rather than in a way that allows us either to escape to another place or get sucked into a place we don’t want to go to.

I’m writing about this workshop to, generally, help share the resources that Kim shared. I also noticed that the workshop had sold out at 20 slots — but I only counted about 14 in the room, and wondered if some folks were too anxious to be in a group setting where the focus was on yoga therapy for depression and anxiety.

For anyone with depression or anxiety reading this blog post at home, know that there are people who get it, and that yoga therapy may be able to help. If reaching out seems impossible, maybe make a few clicks to buy some of these resources listed below, to help you get to a point where you can seek out a professional who can work with you on some basic yoga techniques that — while they will hardly fix everything — might be able to help.

Suggested books

Suggested CD

>>Related posts: A different kind of black Friday

==========

By the way — I know it’s been two weeks since my last blog post, and I have to tell you that it’s killing me that I’ve been too busy to blog. If you’ve been following this blog for the past year or so, you know I fit in blogging whenever I can — so the fact that I haven’t been able to put anything up is a testament to how compressed my schedule has been. I think I literally have about 12 blog posts in my head right now — about the first Bikram class I took about what being a Radiohead concert made me think about injuries, about one excellent tool for home practice and how I lost my voice nearly completely but taught a led class anyway — and on and on. I hope to catch up on some of these. We shall see.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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.

Ashtanga Yoga Confluence: Guided primary series with Nancy Gilgoff

It’s hard to believe the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence was only last weekend. If I didn’t have a full-time job, if I didn’t teach yoga four times a week, and if I wasn’t trying to plan a wedding, I probably would have written twice as many blog posts during and after the Confluence. :-) But I’m thankful for the time and inspiration I have had for the posts I have managed to do — a big thank you to everyone for reading, commenting and sharing, both here and on Facebook.

I have a couple more posts to go, however, before I say I’ve filed all that I want to file from the gathering.

On the last day of the Confluence, I took the guided primary series with Nancy Gilgoff. I loved the balance of taking the led primary from Richard Freeman on the first day of classes and then seeing Nancy’s approach on the last day. They couldn’t have been more different in their approach to beginners.

You could tell from Richard’s class that he has a background in Iyengar and philosophy. His approach, which I really appreciated, was to set the scene, so speak. Offer up intensely vivid imagery (such as golden dragon tails and cobra hoodies). Get deep into poses. But at the very end of classes, he said, “So . . . don’t try to remember any of this.” He told the room full of students that if we continue to practice, all of this stuff will find us. If we don’t, it will run away from us. Richard seems to simply want to plant the seeds of these ideas into our body and our consciousness.

Nancy began class by saying that when she first met Guruji, he had to put her into poses. He had to help her jump back, because she wasn’t strong enough. She is a big believer in introducing Ashtanga yoga to beginners by having them just do it. Breath? Bandhas? “The beginner can’t hear it anyway,” she told us. Nancy continued by saying that bringing up too much with beginners runs the risk of causing their minds to activate. “The less thinking, the better,” she said.

I loved what she had to say about the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga breath:

The more I practice, the more I realize the simplicity of it. This is about the breath.

(Interestingly, in a similar vein, Richard Freeman had said in his class that you could think of Ashtanga as “pranayama for restless people.”)

Nancy knew that nearly every single person in that room already had an Ashtanga practice, so she noted historical facts about the poses as we got into them. I loved it — it was like taking a guided historical tour of how the primary series sequence has changed over time.

A few notes:

  • In bhujapidasana, she teaches head on the floor the way Tim Miller does. Chin to the floor is more advanced, she said, and you shouldn’t do it if you can’t do head to the floor.
  • In kurmasana, it used to be arms straight out to the sides. Nancy wondered whether taking the arms at more of an angle was the result of less and less room to work with.
  • When it came time for urdvha dhanurasana, Nancy said that Pattabhi Jois didn’t have them do backbends there. “Think about that,” she said. She did let students who wanted the urdvha dhanurasanas to take them.
  • Nancy also put us in the pose that Tim Miller has his students do, where you lie down right after backbends. (Tim calls it tadaka mudra.) Nancy noted that it is not savasana. “Stiff body,” she said.
  • I loved how she introduced  ut plutihi: She said to bring in all the tension you can. All of it, so that you can fully let go in savasana. For this reason, Nancy believes in going straight to savasana from ut plutihi, rather than taking a vinyasa first. But she let students take the vinyasa if they wanted to.

After the class, we had a few minutes of discussion. Someone asked Nancy about alignment. “There is no formal alignment whatsoever,” she said.

In Ashtanga, Nancy noted, it’s about energetic channels: “It’s a completely different approach.”

I loved what she said next, because the idea that there’s no alignment whatsoever seemed to be a difficult one for our group as a whole to handle:

The western mind thinks in terms of external form.

 

As with each of the Confluence teachers, Nancy’s instruction left me with so much great fodder to think about — not just now, but for years to come.

(Illustration credit: Chakras, from “The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga,” by Swami Vishnudevananda, 1959, via Spratmackrel’s Flickr photostream and Creative Commons.)

In this series:

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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.

 

Thinking, fast and slow — about yoga, gurus and everything else

Illustration by David Plunkert, via The New York Times

Thinking, Fast and Slow is sitting next to me right now, and I’m so into it that I debated whether to write this post or keep reading. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, immediately tells the reader that his aim with the book can be boiled down to what he would like to happen with watercooler conversations. He’d like this text to:

improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice, in others and eventually ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them. In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest an intervention to limit the damage that bad judgements and choices often cause.

It’s a seriously ambitious goal, to be sure, and Kahneman’s important text offers nothing less than a fascinating approach to understanding when we can and can’t trust our intuition.

Intuition is an interesting thing — especially in the context of yoga, since one of the many benefits of the practice is that it’s designed to help us see through the veil of illusion. Sometimes — often? — our conditioned minds get us into trouble. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations — or the spinning — of the mind. Once we quiet the mind down, can Thinking, Fast and Slow help us think more clearly about thinking clearly off the mat, in our day-to-day lives?

This next passage somehow reminded me about all those times that, as students, we swear our teachers just read our mind. How did they know that was the adjustment I was craving? How did they know my back/hips/[insert body part] needed that pressure? How did they fix that back/hips/[insert body part]?

We have all heard such stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces ‘White mates in three’ without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day. Most of us are pitch-perfect in detecting anger in the first word of a telephone call, recognize as we enter a room that we were the subject of the conversation, and quickly react to subtle signs that the driver of the car in the next lane is dangerous. Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvelous than the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician — only more common. (p. 11)

I kind of loved thinking about this idea in the context of our relationships with our most cherished teachers, who never cease to amaze us. Trust your guru, yes. Be grateful for, and moved by, the expertise and the inspiration. But remember that you have incredible everyday intuitive abilities as well.

That said, Thinking, Fast and Slow is about how to discern the quality of intuitive decision-making versus rational decision-making. Sometimes our gut is plain old wrong — so how do you know what you can rely on? You’ll simply have to read the book — and I highly, highly recommend that you get it sooner rather than later (one for yourself and one as a holiday gift, perhaps?). If you need more encouragement, read this New York Times review, this Washington Post review and this Financial Times review.

In any case, this post has kept me from the book long enough. I’m headed back in. Ciao, for now.

© 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.

Can I blame Mercury Retrograde for this evening #fail?

 

Yeah, I survived Mercury Retrograde -- but did everyone else who crossed my path?

It has not been a banner evening. I got super angry at a local sushi restaurant over my takeout order. Leaving the restaurant, I got super angry at a guy who obnoxiously cut me off, and on impulse angrily honked my horn at him in protest (I never honk my car horn). Even as I write this post, I’m holding on to some residual frustration.

If I wanted to not take responsibility for this, I would blame Mercury Retrograde, that time when communication simply kind of sucks. Here’s how some random website explains it, for those of you who believe in this kind of thing:

At 07:20 UT (Universal Time) Thursday, November 24th, 2011, Mercury the wise communicator—and universal trickster—turns retrograde at 20°06′ Sagittarius in the sign of the Archer, sending communications, travel, appointments, mail and the www into a general snarlup! The retro period begins some days before the actual turning point (as Mercury slows) and lasts for three weeks or so, until December 14, 2011, when the Winged Messenger reaches his direct station. At this time he halts and begins his return to direct motion through the zodiac.

But I should take responsibility for it and admit that I had control over both situations and decided to roll with my emotions rather than take a step back and put it all in perspective.

I just reread Tim Miller’s blog post on trying to view Mercury Retrograde in a more positive light:

While Mercury is retrograde it is good to give a little more emphasis to the right hemisphere of our brain and not be so obsessed with getting from point A to point B. It’s a time to enjoy the nuances of the journey rather than being fixated on our destination. Our typical way of operating in life is called Pravritti, which means being drawn out of our essential self and into the world. What we would be wise to cultivate during Mercury retrograde is what is called Nivritti, which means returning to the Source. It is, perhaps the best of all times to practice yoga and an especially fruitful time to engage in Swadhyaya (self-inquiry). Traditionally, part of Svadhyaya is reading the great spiritual classics like the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc., or some other source of inspiration.

I could flip through some sutras or take out my Bhagavad Gita (after all, some people say it is, according to Confluence Countdown, the Gita Jayanthi today, versus yesterday). I think instead, I’ll head over to another source of calm and self-inquiry in my life — some of the new Ashtanga yoga blogs just added to the blogroll. They include (in no particular order:

I know these situations are mine to take control of. That said, I’m looking forward to going to bed tonight, putting an end to today and starting over tomorrow with Tim’s suggestions in mind. Not being obsessed with getting from point A to B…that’s a hard one for me, but I’ll make a renewed effort.

© 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.)

End game? Untethering the act of practicing from the feeling I want from practice

It’s a bumpy plane ride back to Michigan–so bumpy they’ve had to discontinue the beverage service. I really wanted my ginger ale, but I guess I’ll have to be content with observing my sensation of thirst rather than observing the sensation of that thirst being satiated. It should be a little easier to do now that I’ve finished reading The Mirror of Yoga by Richard Freeman, which dwells quite a bit on the process of, and benefits of, making room for clear observation rather than seeing everything through the prism of preconceived ideals.

On the way to California to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my family, I blogged about Freeman’s story about the misguided man digging his wells. On the flight back, I want to touch on one paragraph in the book that speaks to how to free yourself from “the game you have constructed in your mind of what practicing is.”

What makes this topic particularly interesting to me right now is thinking about what the process of unhooking ideals from experiences might say about the possibility of doing the same for other aspects of our lives–from our body image to our careers to our most intimate relationships.

In “Cutting Through Fundamentalism,” the last chapter of the book, Freeman writes:

Practicing yoga is not always easy. Sometimes the biggest difficulty is arranging a time to do it: starting the session of practice. But if you can trick yourself into just beginning, it often works out. If you have arranged a time to practice but do not really feel like practicing, the trick is to convince yourself to simply stand up in a samasthitih, to take three breaths, thinking that you will allow yourself to go off and do something else after that simple ritual. Then after standing in samasthitih, it often turns out that the idea of taking a big inhale, raising your arms and doing half of a sun salutation is alluring. Having done that, one full sun salutation before quitting may seem reasonable. Soon you may find yourself doing two, and then three sun salutations; and then all of a sudden, you are in the groove and the practice continues. (p. 203)

First off, I think this is true of anything–hitting the gym, doing exercise videos at home, learning how to play an instrument, and on and on.

A few years ago, before I started a more regular yoga practice, I used to let my car decide if I went to class after work or not. By that I mean that I usually *wanted* to go to class after work, but often I didn’t *feel* like going to work. Usually, it was because I was so drained (it was a very taxing job) that even though I knew I would feel better after moving my body in coordination with my breath for 90 minutes, I also knew I would feel better if I simply went home and collapsed. But as time went on, my car pointed me in the direction of the yoga studio more and more consistently, to a point where it was routine to go to studio after work, even if I didn’t feel like it.

One reason the practice can be difficult is that the mind is a very strict taskmaster, and it often creates images of what practice is or it should be. The parameters your own mind sets for the practice may erode the foundation of the practice itself; if you cannot do a ‘good’ practice, why practice at all? (p. 203)

Once I started going to the power yoga studio two or three, then four or five times a week consistently, I knew the next phase of my practice journey would be to try to establish a home morning Ashtanga practice. A big hang-up there was that I hated how my body felt practicing in the morning–my muscles felt ice cold, for one. That first uttanasana (standing forward fold) was always awful. On the flip side, my mind wasn’t as cluttered as it would get in the evening after work, which meant I felt I had less mental chatter to try to quiet down–again, less motivation to practice in the morning. I sort of thought I should save practicing for when my body and my mind appreciated it more.

You may think to yourself that if you are going to sit in meditation, you must sit for forty-five minutes. If you are going to practice pranayama, you should practice it for one hour, and that if you are going to practice asana, two hours is the minimum. When, in fact, if you were to do any of these practices with true concentration even for two seconds, you would open up the core of the body and have remarkable insight and a sense of freedom–particularly a sense of release from the game you have constructed in your mind of what practicing is. Again, we run into the notion of drawing a circle (defining the parameters of our practice) and erasing that circle (having mercy on ourselves if we cannot meet the standards we set for ourselves). For beginning students, allowing some leeway in some of the parameters we set for ourselves about the structure and consistency of our practice can be the golden ticket to jump-start a routine of practice that, once it is going, automatically draws you back day after day, year after year. (p. 204)

As I’ve chronicled over the past few weeks, I finally, a few short months ago, started a six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice (not a moment too soon either, considering I took my first Ashtanga class around 1999 or 2000 and have loved it since). I was doing it for the discipline more than anything else. I’m experienced enough now (read: old! :-) ) to know that a guaranteed way to fail would be to say that if I couldn’t practice for at least 90 minutes, I wouldn’t start to practice. On most days, that means I practice for an hour. Once or twice a week, I get nearly two hours. Maybe once a week, I might get as little as 50 minutes. But as I’ve said in recent blog posts, I don’t beat myself up for it.

This has meant that since August, I have slowly but surely started to untether the act of practicing from the feeling of practicing. I no longer turn off my alarm after hitting snooze a couple of times and tell myself that despite my best intentions, I won’t be getting up to practice because how good could that practice feel if I’m this tired, if it’s this cold, and if I have such little time. I no longer step on my mat at 6:30 a.m. thinking, “Well, this won’t feel very good physically, which means it won’t feel as beneficial mentally or emotionally.” I just get on my mat and start.

It is what it is–and for that, I have started to realize that if there is any tethering, it should be to connect the act of practicing with the feeling of contentment and gratitude, no matter what kinds of sensations arise in the muscles, joints and everything else.

Getting back to what prompted Freeman to dive into this point, it’s an interesting exercise to think about what other games we have constructed in our mind of what ____ (fill in the blank: acceptable physique, ideal spouse, etc.) is–and how our practice might be able to free us from it.

(Photo credit: Tether ball by gzap 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.)

 

Dig, or all dug out? Reading Richard Freeman’s ‘The Mirror of Yoga’

20111124-145745.jpg

I have this bad habit of buying plane tickets in the middle of the night when I’m tired and only half-alert (part of the multitasking reality of my life) and not looking at the itinerary again until the morning of departure. I’m on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles right now, and because I didn’t pay enough attention to the ticket I bought, I am only now realizing that (1) I’ll be connecting at LAX with a really short stopover in which I have to change not just planes but airlines entirely–a pretty inadvisable thing to do during the heavy Thanksgiving holiday weekend traveling period and (2) this flight is a lot longer than I expected (we’re on our second beverage service already).

The good news is that I’ve had time to read the first half of Richard Freeman’s The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind. I think a smart, well-written book is an extremely fruitful way to fulfill the 1 percent of Pattabhi Jois’ “99 percent practice, 1 percent theory” advice. A few favorites are B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life and Guruji (although admittedly, I have only bounced around in Guruji,waiting for that international flight when I can have an uninterrupted period of time to start reading in earnest).

I’m enjoying Freeman’s as well. Where Light on Life is breezy (not to be confused with light), The Mirror of Yoga is heady, intellectual. Perhaps they are serve as good counterposes to each other.

Freeman writes that the purpose of The Mirror of Yoga isn’t to make the reader a “premature eclectic” or an “armchair enlightened being.” Its aim–obviously–isn’t to add confusion:

Instead it is to allow us to slow down a bit so that we can delve deeply into the subject rather than skidding along the surface side to side, from one school back to another. We are aiming at the core of the teachings. By sticking with it and going deeply, we find that the jewel at the heart of every valid school is that we are eventually invited to face ourselves just as we face reality. (p. 9)

Freeman then dives into the story — the allegory, really — of the man digging a well.

He would begin digging down and after five or six feet of digging, which is very hard work, he would find no water, and so he would climb out of the little hole he had made, move twenty feet over, and dig another hole for his well. But after digging about six feet down, he would give up again, move twenty feet in another direction and start digging again. This went on, and on, and on, and he never found water. So it is with the relentless ego pursuing yoga, seeking ornaments for an improved self-image and new ways of feeling better, but avoiding the true facts of life.

When the school or practice becomes difficult–which is precisely the entry point into reality–it is at this crisis point that you really have to drop your pretenses and keep digging deeper into the experience. However, all too often, it is right at this juncture that we tend to give up the practice.

We move on to a ‘better’ teacher or a ‘more interesting’ school, rather than sticking with it and investigating the inner work that is the purpose of the school and the teachings in the first place. (p. 9)

Much has been written in the Ashtanga blogging community about a recent New York Times essay in the Fashion & Style section by a purportedly formerly “addicted” (to the practice) ashtangi who found, after a decade of practicing Ashtanga, that personal training performed better at the task of shedding pounds than her practice had.

The writer, Deborah Schoeneman, seems to relish admitting that she initially lied to her L.A. yoga instructor about why she wasn’t attending practices. These days, she only practices yoga once a week — “for meditation, stretching and community.”

I guess in terms of this particular personal tale, I’m not terribly interested in the science of which method helps you shed more pounds. (For the record, I would have no problem believing that personal training, which is focused on burning calories and building muscles, drops more weight faster–but that’s not really the point of a yoga practice anyway.)

What interests me more is why the writer made that move when she did. Ten years is a long time. Why not after five years? Even seven? She mentions a few important developments in her life–a new career (a writer in Hollywood), a return to a life of wining and dining, an engagement and an upcoming wedding.

Was it that a juncture had been reached, and it had come time to start digging deeper?

In any case, back to the book. I’m looking forward to the second half. And at the rate this flight feels like it’s going, I might get through it by the time I see my family this evening.

(Photo credit: foamcow’s Flickr stream)

© 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.

To the (full) moon!

By 7 a.m. this morning, I was aboard a Cessna flying from Grand Ledge, Mich. to Houghton, a little town on the state’s Upper Peninsula, for a client meeting. I have an aversion to mornings that early, but starting the flight out while it was still dark had its benefits. Yesterday was a full moon, which meant we were treated to a gorgeously radiant sphere this morning. It seemed for a while that the four of us aboard this flight were channeling Peter Pan, poised in our little plane to fly straight into this lunar dream. When the sun started to rise — as we were cruising, I assume, about 7,000 feet up — we had the moon ahead of us to the left and the sun behind us to the right. An incredible and rare view.

In the yogic tradition and in Buddhist cultures, the moon’s phases dictate important milestones. In Ashtanga yoga, a full moon and a new moon are occasions to take rest.

Why? Tim Miller explains this on his website:

Like all things of a watery nature (human beings are about 70% water), we are affected by the phases of the moon. The phases of the moon are determined by the moon’s relative position to the sun. Full moons occur when they are in opposition and new moons when they are in conjunction. Both sun and moon exert a gravitational pull on the earth. Their relative positions create different energetic experiences that can be compared to the breath cycle. The full moon energy corresponds to the end of inhalation when the force of prana is greatest. This is an expansive, upward moving force that makes us feel energetic and emotional, but not well grounded. The Upanishads state that the main prana lives in the head. During the full moon we tend to be more headstrong.

The new moon energy corresponds to the end of exhalation when the force of apana is greatest. Apana is a contracting, downward moving force that makes us feel calm and grounded, but dense and disinclined towards physical exertion.

The Farmers Almanac recommends planting seeds at the new moon when the rooting force is strongest and transplanting at the full moon when the flowering force is strongest.

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga over time makes us more attuned to natural cycles. Observing moon days is one way to recognize and honor the rhythms of nature so we can live in greater harmony with it.

That’s in general. Read Tim’s latest blog post on our just-passed October full moon to see why this might be a great time for professional advancement and taking on new responsibilities.

In the Theravada Buddhism tradition, the October full moon marks the end of what is sometimes referred to the Buddhist lent — a three-month period that coincides with the rainy season in Asian countries:

During this time Buddhist monks remain in a single place, generally in their temples. In some monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation. During Vassa, many Buddhist lay people reinvigorate their spiritual training and adopt more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol, or smoking.

You can read more about this (scroll down to “Vassa”). This Saturday at Wat Dhammasala, a Thai Theravada temple in a little town called Perry about half an hour from where I live, there will be a celebration of the End of Rains Retreat ceremony.

This is quite a bit of significance to hang on this month’s full moon, don’t you think? Have you been feeling the moon’s pull this week?

(Photo credit: “Full Moon” via Windsordi’s Flickr stream 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.

Transformations: Relating a WordPress.com –> .org switchover with how yoga changed my life

One thing about me — I’m high-risk analogy taker. I will take on an analogy that’s really out there if I think there’s even a chance it might help make a point. Sometimes my analogies work, and sometimes it’s a big FAIL. Let’s see how it goes here, as I attempt to explain my blog’s new hosting arrangement with how a yoga practice can transform our internal mental and spiritual lives.

And if this analogy fails, then you can just skip over it to the end of this post, where I talk about the new Ashtanga Yoga + Social Media Grid curated by yours truly.

First, the analogy.

Relating a WordPress.com –> .org switchover with how yoga changed my life

Last week, if you wanted to come to my blog, you typed “YogaRose.net” into your browser and got here. This week, if you wanted to land here, you would do the same. Nothing has changed, except that you see a new header now.

But this past week, everything has changed under the hood, so to speak. The YogaRose.net blog you’re on now is built on WordPress.org. YogaRose.net blog started out as a free WordPress.com blog, which meant all I had to do to start blogging was sign up for a WordPress.com account. I paid a little money for the YogaRose.net domain name and redirected it to my WordPress.com URL.

I absolutely love WordPress — both the .com and the .org variety, because it fits my aesthetic preferences (compared to other blogs and content management systems) and because it is open-sourced, which means developers around the world keep adding to it and improving it. But what a WordPress.com variety of blog or website gives you in convenience it understandably has to withhold in flexibility.

Setting up a WordPress.org blog takes more time, patience and technical know-how, because you have to host your content somewhere. You get the WordPress software installation free, but you have to pay someone — such as GoDaddy — to host your content. WordPress.org is so powerful though — it’s blog that can function as a stand-alone website. The highly regarded TechCrunch is built on WordPress.org. So is something like the website for the new Hanuman Festival. My colleague Andrea Ness is a WordPress/website developer extraordinaire, because she takes the WordPress.org platform and mixes it with creative elixir that flows from her imagination to create incredible websites like the Michigan Truth Squad and Bridge.

In any case, I’ve been plenty inspired by what I could do with this blog if I converted it to the .org platform. But time is an issue. It always is, and I just couldn’t justify everything else I would have to put off to do my own move. This is where some folks whose titles are actually — as far as I can tell — “Happiness Engineers,” come in. You can pay these fantastic WordPress Happiness Engineers to do all the heavy lifting for you so that your readers don’t notice a thing.

WordPress guided transfer fee: $119.
Annual hosting charges: Less than $55.
Finally being able to create the Ashtanga yoga social media database that I’ve wanted to create: Priceless.

Things I couldn’t do without the WordPress.org platform:

Like many other ashtangis have done, I’ve discovered that at some point, there’s a deep internal transformation that takes place from a consistent Ashtanga yoga practice. There are so many little and big things you thought you couldn’t do before that you suddenly could — whether it’s a physical thing, such as floating from downward facing dog into bakasana (crane pose), or whether it’s an emotional thing, such as being able to be less reactive to an infuriating interpersonal conflict.

From the outside, I looked the same — but consider the different way I viewed the world and processed information. Human life is about dealing with obstacles and challenges while trying to stay true to who you are and still trying to improve yourself — and it helps to do all that when you have a more robust life management system built on a platform as brilliant as the eight-limbed path of Ashtanga yoga. Hand in hand with the investment is that it takes a lot more maintenance to go this route. The traditional Ashtanga practice is six days a week, and due to my really intense schedule, I end up practicing by myself much of the time, sneaking in a practice at all different hours of the day. In the end, though, it’s absolutely worth fitting your life around yoga rather than the other way around.

Ashtanga Yoga + Social Media Grid

So I’ve had a busy Labor Day weekend (spent mostly in Traverse City, Mich., with my very sweet future in-laws) that has ended with a marathon 24-hour period of renovating YogaRose.net in general and building this curated Ashtanga yoga social media database.

Let me know what you think of the Ashtanga Yoga + Social Media Grid. In the meantime, I have to catch up on my sleep so that I can dive back into another intense work week tomorrow morning.

© 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.

Economic bubbles, bubble baths and a breath of fresh air

20110810-115403.jpg

This sounds ridiculous — because it is. But I just enjoyed a bubble bath in which I played my Radiohead channel on my iPhone Pandora app (great app for traveling, by the way) as I read about today’s major stock market drops seen in the United States and across European powerhouses.

It’s quite the juxtaposition to read about financial markets tanking while out here in McCloud, Calif. — where you always have a view of Mt. Shasta, considered a deeply spiritual place by Native American cultures — with no real obligations except to feed your body, mind and spirit with Ashtanga yoga practices, discussion on yoga philosophy and hikes that take you past sweeping vistas and natural springs.

There are times when I go on vacation and completely disconnect — not even so much as sending a tweet. There are also vacations such as this one where I feel less taxed if I can touch base with the outside world now and then. As a former journalist, I feel pretty strongly that it takes an informed citizenry to foster a strong open government. I don’t want to pretend that terrible riots haven’t been taking place in London, and I don’t want to miss out on the broader discussion about the role social media played in the unfolding of the violence.

After an afternoon of hiking through beautiful expanses of wildflowers, it’s interesting to think about whether Ashtanga yoga brings heightened relevance to current events, or whether a retreat such as this one allows yogis like me to sidestep the realities of the world for a few blissful days.

You’ll be shocked — shocked! — (guess I didn’t leave my sarcasm in Michigan) to hear me say that I think a yoga practice that speaks to the traditional eight limbs of yoga is not at all a withdrawal from the world’s very real challenges. If anything, what yoga allows us to do is continually improve ourselves on the deepest level, and in that way, make an important contribution to the greater social good.

How does that work?

During our evening class tonight, the discussion eventually led to the question of what the sutras that guide the yogic system say about the causes of vrittis. The most accepted definition of yoga is that it is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Those fluctuations of the mind — the vrittis — lead to a lot of problems. Lots and lots of problems.

What causes the fluctuations? A pretty long list of states, such as illness, stagnation, impatience, incorrect viewpoint, etc.

Tim Miller asked our group about people who are not at all connected to their body. If they are not in their own body, where are they?

Yep — they are solidly in their head.

Tim called it “Vritti-ville,” which made us laugh (yeah, yeah, yoga humor. Trust me, it’s funny if you do yoga. :-) ).

I know it can seem like a bit of hypocrisy to say that yoga is not about contorting the body when the series of Ashtanga get increasingly more challenging and does demand that the practitioner do postures worthy of Cirque du Soleil. But as Tim said tonight, “In Ashtanga yoga, we keep pushing the envelope of proprioception. The point is to cultivate the refinement of proprioceptive abilities.”

Proprioception is basically awareness of one’s own body — the ability to know what the parts of the body are doing without looking in a mirror.

Achieving these increasingly difficult yoga postures requires so much — including focus, practice, patience and not only a deep awareness of the breath, but ability to control the breath and the body’s energy locks. And as Tim reminded us tonight, thanks to the body-mind connection, we can indirectly control the mind by controlling the breath.

I often think about the corporate world when I think about the benefits of yoga. I’ve worked with people didn’t seem to have any idea how to read the signals of their own body, which led to them not being able to create a circuit-breaker for high stress levels. This, in turn, triggered desperate attempts to cope with that stress by being very reactive and lashing out at people around them. I think that if everyone in corporate America had to practice yoga and learn to read their body and connect to their breath, we could potentially create more compassionates cultures in our workplaces — and that would make a real difference in quality of life for millions of people.

I am not so idealistic that I think we would attain world peace if everyone simply started to practice yoga, nor do I think we could eliminate man-made calamities such as stock market crashes if yoga were more popular. But if everyone took it upon themselves to find something in their life to help them connect to their body in a meaningful and disciplined way — be it yoga, martial arts, sports training or dancing — we might have more balanced tendencies as a society.

Like everyone else, I have a long way to go to become a zen master. When I come to a retreat like this one, it is for selfish reasons. Absolutely. Out of that selfishness, however, I am hopefully a better person in general, and hopefully those around me also benefit by having a less reactive Rose on their hands.

By the way, I chose a bubble bath tonight that had eucalyptus and arnica in it to soothe my sore muscles. Don’t let the moniker “retreat” fool you — with Tim Miller, a retreat involves getting up at 6:30 a.m. for 2.5 hours of a physical (asana) and a breath (pranayama) practice, followed by an afternoon hike (some of which kick your asana, as you know if you read my post yesterday), and an evening class built around questions and discussions.

This retreat is work, and what you get out of it depends on what you invest in it. If you were considering coming to this second series retreat or the primary series retreat in 2012 or beyond, I can guarantee that you’ll get a far better rate of return on your dollar than any stock that exists out there.

In this series:


© 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.

‘A thousand little freedoms that we accomplish each day’

Why do yoga? For the health benefits? To try to achieve a particular physique? To escape our daily stresses?

Eddie Stern, who is an author and the director of Ashtanga Yoga New York, wrote this piece last year in the Huffington Post:

While in America there are certainly are many practicing yoga with profound sincerity, it seems as though they are dwarfed by a multi-billion dollar industry that is largely focused on, well, selling stuff that we don’t really need to practice yoga.

Anyway, let it be. That spirit of commercialism and consumerism has helped to make yoga a household word, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. I believe that increased accessibility to yoga is a positive result of yoga’s modernization.

Why do I believe this? Because everyone experiences suffering. Suffering is undiscriminating and it comes to all who live on this planet. Yoga affirms, though, that there is a way to deal with it: by practicing yoga poses, by breathing consciously for a few minutes each day, and by being attentive, thoughtful human beings, we can mitigate the mental torments we all experience.

What I loved about this post in the Huffington Post — one of the most influential blogs out there right now — is that Stern cuts to the chase about what yoga is about to an audience not necessarily primed for it.

During the week-long training I took with David Swenson in 2009, someone asked him what his elevator pitch for Ashtanga yoga is. I thought then and I still think now that it was a good question — because there are inevitably times when talking to someone who is curious about yoga when you can say the right thing to pique their interest enough that they commit to at least try it once.

Yoga as a system is designed to do nothing less than liberate us. By connecting breaths to movement, yoga helps us to focus on our breath and free us from the relentless invasion of thoughts and worries that invade our mind-space — even if that freedom lasts for a few seconds or for a few minutes while we are practicing on our mat.

Moksha is the Sanskrit word for liberation. The entry for “moksha” in B.K.S. Iyengar’s gorgeous, must-read book Light on Life says, “See freedom.”

I love what Iyengar writes in the chapter “Living in Freedom”:

I have suggested that moksha is a thousand little freedoms that we accomplish each day — the ice cream returned to the freezer or the bitter retort left unsaid.

He also later reiterates that moksha is “training in detaching ourselves from the sufferings of everyday life, in a thousand ways.”

I really like that. Maybe I should make that my elevator pitch for what yoga is and why it’s worth practicing.

I have so much more I would say but I am writing blog post on my iPhone while relaxing at the beach. Moksha indeed.

Hope you find your own little freedom on this Independence Day — and every day.

20110704-024946.jpg

(Photo credit: By Evaporation Blues)

© 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.

‘Rarely do we clench just one thing.’

 

X-ray of a mouth

Clenched teeth, clenched mind?

Pattabhi Jois apparently used to say, “Clenched toes, clenched mind.” Especially in standing balancing postures such as utthita hasta padangustasana (extended hand-to-big-toe posture), the toes of our grounded foot may be clawing into our mats without us realizing it — as if digging in will help us balance. It’s quite the opposite, right? It takes strength to believe that letting go of a tightening action will be liberating. It takes strength to trust that if we let go of what we believe is anchoring us, another source of stability — a more genuine source of stability — will present itself.

In his beautiful book The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar tells us:

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes an asana as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha. Sthira is steadiness and alertness. Sukha refers to the ability to remain comfortable in a posture. Both qualities should be present to the same degree when practicing any posture. (p. 17)

Whether we’re dealing with a career or personal passions, family or friendships, there are times when nothing could be harder to achieve than this feeling of sthira sukha. What seems to happen far more frequently than the perfect balance between strength and surrender is tightening up or drilling down.

Hilltop Yoga owner Hilaire Lockwood has for years worked on helping me release the tension in my shoulders and trapezius, the muscle starting at the base of the occipital bone. Even after an adjustment, when I think I have let go, she points out how much more I have held on to, and coaxes my body and mind to let go of just a little more. (For the record, I also clench my butt in postures such as setu bandha (bridge posture).) During very stressful times, my muscles tighten so much I worry if they’ll ever loosen again. But even during less stressful times of my life, those muscles are so trained that they don’t seem to ever truly release. I’m pretty sure it will take still more years for me to relinquish the hold I have over my holds.

I was recently telling Sue Forbes, co-owner of Mindful Movement and Physical Therapy in East Lansing, about all my clenching habits. It’s not shoulders or the gluteus maximus we’re talking about here. I recounted how, at 31, I was told I had so eroded my gums through grinding my teeth that I had the gums of someone twice my age, which required surgery to graft tissue to my gums. (The surgery is about as fun as it sounds.) Sue smiled and nodded. “Rarely do we clench just one thing,” she said.

Yoga is premised on the concept that there is a natural and profound connection between the body, mind and spirit. The clenching that we habitualize — is it only physical? In yoga, we use the body to get beyond the body. We use the body as a way to still the fluctuations of the mind and to tap into what keeps our spirit going. I find it fascinating to start with the clenching I feel in my own body and work inward. Can I trace the tightening of this part of my body to a particular work project that I’m stressed about? Or maybe I can follow the tracing the other way — if I let go of a particular memory about a past relationship, what, if anything, might let go in my body?

And what about beliefs? Is that a type of clenching? The Ashtanga series present posture after posture that seem impossible when we first start to practice. But we learn, over time, that through the guidance of an experienced teacher and through consistent practice, we eventually melt into those postures when the time is right.

Maybe telling yourself, “I’ll never be able to do this posture” is just another form of clenching. If that’s the case, consistently practicing Ashtanga can be considered a counterpose of sorts — what we do to counterbalance a previous pose in order to bring the body, mind and spirit into balance.

(Photo credit: The Full Wiki)