Showing up (for backbends, Capitol lawn protests, etc.)

Right-to-work protests at the Michigan Capitol buiding today. (Photo by Romain Blanquart via the Detroit Free Press.)

What is it that you show up for? I mean, really show up for? Your yoga practice? Your job? Your kids? Your marriage? Your church? A cause? Why do you do it? How do you do it?

I’m thinking about this on a day full of people showing up in vastly different ways. I started my morning at the yoga shala in Ann Arbor, rolling out my mat for Mysore practice at 6:15 a.m. The collective energy was, as always, powerful and grounding. All the ashtangis around me have had their own journeys of training themselves to change their lifestyle enough to show up at ridiculously early hours to practice, and why they do it week after week is like a fingerprint — unique to them. Yet the collective feel of a group of people working toward a similar goal is palpable in that space.

The 60-minute drive back to mid-Michigan, where I live and work, took 90 minutes this morning, thanks to cars clogging the highway as they headed toward Michigan’s capital city to protest right-to-work legislation. I work two blocks from Lansing’s Capitol building, so my coworkers and I — a mix of former journalists and news junkies — couldn’t help but to follow what was happening as thousands of protestors and two branches of government did their thing. The sound of helicopters above only added to the day’s heightened feel, but the most notable feeling for me, as I walked through the crowds in the bitter cold, was how upbeat the collective energy of the protestors felt. This was absolutely a politically driven event, but I’m not making a political statement here. To me, it was interestingly apolitical that the men and women who showed up in Lansing today seemed to believe that their presence in that very particular spot of the world was vital, even though all the pundits and analysts said it was game over for their side (and it was).

After work, I headed straight to the athletic club where I teach a beginning-level vinyasa-flow class. Tonight there were twice as many students as usual who were ready to challenge themselves with a mind-body practice. Some students I have seen every week for a year, and several were new. The feel in that room was one of determination — yoga may not necessarily come easily to them, but they weren’t going to give up and walk away.

I suppose what I’m saying is that in every setting I was in today, I was surrounded by people who had to make a conscious decision to show up — which is sometimes the hardest part. True, the shala and the gym’s yoga room aren’t divisive spaces like the protest grounds, which had an intense police presence, riot gear ready. Yet the collective feel in each was one of a group of people willing to do what it takes to show up to help create what they believe to be a set of better circumstances.

(What’s pretty inspiring on the yoga front is that it you can’t just marshal up that motivation once; it’s not a one-shot deal the way a protest might be. But I think that’s where collective energy can be so helpful to keep you fighting the good fight against laziness, inertia or a crazy schedule.)

So back to the questions. What do you show up for? I find that showing up to my yoga practice helps me be more present in everything else I do — my work, my marriage, my friendships, even how I process the feel of something like a right-to-work protest. And how do you go about being present once you’ve shown up? For me, I think that lately I’ve been working on putting forth the effort but trying to avoid clinging to what I want to happen (e.g., “I want to feel my body to feel light and my spine to feel supple this morning”), which allows me to be more receptive to what comes (note the emphasis on “trying”).

By the way, on the point of receptivity: Working on deep backbends — can you say kapotasana? — seems to help with the whole surrendering process (no kidding, right?!), which in turns seems to help me with the whole receptivity process.

That said, every new day is a test. I failed a couple of tests today (post-practice) and I passed others. We’ll see how tomorrow goes — starting with those backbends.

The Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor Mysore space (2011) (Courtesy of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor)

(Photo links: Free Press aerial shot; Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor Mysore space)

© 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

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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.

Florence travel journal (part 5): Itineraries + essential guides + getting there

YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 5: Itineraries + essential guides + getting there

This is the final installment of the barely tangentially related to yoga 😉 travel series on my trip to Firenze over New Year’s Eve. This one is all about getting there and getting around. (I would have finished it by now, except I’ve spent much of the past week KO’d by a bug I’m convinced we picked up on the flight from Amsterdam back to Michigan. As I’ve said elsewhere — I’m not complaining about this. All I wanted was to not be sick in Italy, and I felt great the entire trip.)

>>Getting there (or, why we <3 our travel agent more than we can tell you)<<

So here’s the deal. Scott and I have never ever used a travel agent. We were under the impression — that, we have found, many of our friends were under as well — you have to pay travel agents to do things you can do yourself online. Not true. We didn’t pay a dime to book our flight and hotel through our travel agent — and here’s the killer part — we paid half what we would have paid on our own. Half. We went online and checked a package that included the same number of nights at our hotel, on the same flight (departure and arrival day), and I’m not kidding, this trip was half that price. So, had we done this on our own, one of us would have gotten to take this trip (we joke that we both know which one of us would get to go), or we would have been able to afford three nights rather than seven.

We worked with Classic Travel based in Okemos, MIch. Joy Thrun and the excellent team at Classic Travel literally made this trip happen for us. Scott and I can’t thank them enough. And part of the reason, I think, is that Joy and her husband, Tom, truly love traveling, and sharing that passion. Here’s a snippet from the Classic Travel website:

Time flies when you are having fun. Probably the oldest cliché in the world, but for us at Classic Travel, it certainly holds true. It does not seem possible that we have been selling travel and all the exciting things that come with it for thirty one wonderful years. And thanks to you, our well-traveled clientele, we have had the pleasure of sharing in your globe-trotting adventures for the past quarter century.

Over this time we have witnessed events that have changed the world and impacted our industry. Travel is our business, but above all, it is our passion. We believe that travel contributes immeasurably to the overall quality of life. No matter how well traveled you may be, each trip you embark on brings knowledge and new experiences. Travel is continuing education and we will never run out of exotic places to go. One of the most precious rights that we have is the ability to move freely around this fascinating world of ours. To experience the diversity and richness of far away places creating memories that will last a lifetime, we are proud to be one of the most experienced travel companies in the entire industry, but we continue to grow in many different areas.

We also have to thank Sara Metz, whose trip to Morocco with her husband, Will (catch him live here), inspired me to ask her about traveling. She promptly put me in touch with Joy.

So if you’re reading this and thinking you’ll never visit Italy, I want to say that I didn’t think I’d get there either — at least not any time soon. Life works in strange ways sometimes. Stay realistic, but hopeful, that you’ll eventually find a way to make the trips you dream about.

And if you do go to Florence, here was our itinerary, along with some tips on finding the right guides.

>>Itineraries<<

We flew out of Detroit two days after Christmas, stayed all seven nights in Florence, but took the following day trips (one-way travel time by fast train in parenthesis):

  • Venice (two hours)
  • Rome (1.5 hours)

In addition, we devoted an entire day to taking a 12-hour tour aboard a comfortable bus that allowed us to visit the following towns in Tuscany:

  • Sienna
  • San Gimignano
  • Pisa

I don’t have travel stats to bear this out, but I have this idea that Americans tend to gravitate more toward Rome and Venice. Before this trip, I had very little sense of geography of this boot-shaped country, and probably would have been happy to spend seven days in any of these cities. After this trip, I thought Florence was the perfect — truly, the best — home base for me. It’s a compact but lively, walkable city (apparently it was once rough for pedestrians but has, thanks to car-free zones, become quite pedestrian-friendly — though you still have to watch out for that crazy Italian driving!). Florence is home to the Renaissance and a cultural cradle. Seeing Michelangelo’s David in person is awe-inspiring. You’re a hop and skip away from fascinating and gorgeous Tuscan towns. All the culinary Italian specialties I’m so enamored of — like tiramisu and pappardelle — have roots in the Tuscan region. What’s not to love?

>>Essential guides<<

Rick Steves’ Italy 2012

It got to be a joke at some point that every American we met on our travels toted a dog-eared copy of the Rick Steves Italy book like their travel bible. We bought Rick Steves this time because his London guide served us so well last year, and his Italy book proved to be every bit as useful as the London edition. In addition to the overviews, tips and details you need from a good guidebook, I really appreciated the extras — like the appendix that includes an annotated copy of an actual train ticket so you know what each part of the ticket says.

 

Rick Steves’ Italian Phrase Book & Dictionary

This pocket book was the one I pulled out of my purse most frequently. I’d argue that you need this compact little thing even if you get the Rick Steves country book. The phrase book has a menu decoder divided by theme — desserts, wine, etc. — and sections on hailing a taxi, getting a room, and so on. There are also handy Italian-English and English-Italian dictionaries tucked inside. I was happy to see that this book included phrases such as “I’m allergic to” (“Sono allergico[a] al…”) and “Sorry for the mess” (“Scusi per il pasticccio”).

 

Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Florence & Tuscany

This slim number was a wonderful reference to check on everything from masterpieces of art located in the Uffrizi Gallery to masterpieces of the culinary kind brought to your dinner table.

Great Eats Italy

I really liked this book for the introduction, which gives some great tips for finding good eats throughout Italy. The book then provides specific recommendations by neighborhood.

Hotel concierge

A guidebook can only get you so far. The concierge at the Grand Hotel Baglioni got us a reservation at what was, hands down, our best meal in Florence (Buca Mario). (By the way, there doesn’t seem to be a standard recommendation for tipping for concierge services, but I recommend tipping, especially if they book something for you.) This hotel, which is ridiculously centrally located and a place we really enjoyed, would normally be way out of our price range — see the travel agent section above on how we managed that.

Your tour guides

I highly recommend paying the extra however many euros it takes to see the Uffrizi and Accademia Gallery with a tour rather than on your own. For one thing, you skip the unbearably long line and go right in with your group. For another, especially if you’re traveling as a couple, it’s a nice way to get out of your couple bubble and meet fellow travelers. We met a great family from Pittsburgh on our Uffirzi tour, and if we’re ever in Pittsburg, we’ll be dropping them a line. Maybe we just got lucky, but every single one of our tour guides were awesome — full of character quirks and full of passion for their beautiful city. Tour guides are also great sources for general tips and restaurant recommendations.

>>Random travel tips<<

Some of my random travel tips:

Tell your friends, family members, colleagues and travel agent about your fantasy trips.

You never know if a tip they might hear about and send your way could get the ball rolling for a getaway. If you have the kind of lifestyle where you could leave quickly for a trip, sign up for notifications about last-minute deals. Ask around for good travel agent recommendations, and let them know your parameters.

Barter presents at home for better meals abroad.

This year, Scott and I agreed: No Christmas presents. Believe me, every bit we saved on that, we spent in Italy. Knowing that our families would insist on getting us Christmas presents, we told them about our plans, so that they could get us something related to the trip, thus decreasing our expenses that much more. Scott’s parents got us fantastic luggage that could handle the abuse of international travel, and my parents got us the gadgets that we couldn’t live without (namely, the converter for our iPhones and iPad) and a great Italian Berlitz CD set and computer program that taught us how to properly say, “Parla inglese?”

Avoid credit cards if it’s possible (and safe)

Credit cards typically charge you a percentage of each transaction (a small percentage, but it adds up quickly), so if you’re traveling in a pretty safe area, see if you can roll with cash. Exchange a chunk of currency before you go (in the Lansing area, we got great rates at Liberty Coin), limit the number of times you use the local ATMS, and try to avoid credit cards. Scott and I didn’t pull out our credit cards once in Italy — and again, every bit we saved on transaction fees, we spent on meals. :-)

Keep your info handy

Electronically saving your passport information via a scan using Google Docs, Evernote (thanks to Kate Tykocki for this idea) or by dropping in Dropbox, just in case you’re in a jam and need it. Perhaps online security experts will tell me this is a bad idea, but I think not having access to your info is also a bad idea. And hey, here’s a recent story about a guy who had to resort to using a copy of his passport scanned on his iPad to get back into the country — honestly, your personal odds of getting back into the U.S. with a scanned passport is probably a big fat 0.0 percent chance, but it’s an interesting tale if nothing else.

The little things

Ask your hotel concierge before you leave home how much a trip from the airport to the hotel by taxi should cost, so that you’re not scammed by drivers who claim a different flat fee (not all airports post the mandated flat fees).

Travel like you won’t be back

Rick Steves likes to say in his guidebooks that you should assume you’ll return. I think he’s saying it to encourage Type-A American travelers from rushing from point A to point B so much that they don’t actually experience the trip. I say, however, travel like you won’t be back — so if you are wondering what something tastes like, by all means, taste it. Spend the extra euros to skip the two-hour-long line to get into the museum, so that you’ll have two more hours to wander, explore and be surprised. You can eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for as long as you need to when you return to make up for the extra little flourishes that you’ll remember for years to come.

>>Smart phones and iPads<<

Verizon vs. AT&T

Finally, if you are considering an iPhone or an iPad and don’t know whether to go with Verizon or AT&T, you might consider how important it is to you to be able to use the device when you travel abroad. Verizon and AT&T devices are built on different technologies, and AT&T devices are more likely to use the the same GSM technology used in European countries. When I bought my iPad, I chose AT&T over Verizon, and that was one of the main reasons. Before we left, we added an international data plan and took what we needed from the Apple World Traveler Adapter Kit my parents had gotten us. For more on this issue, because I don’t have the patience to think any more about it, see The New York Times‘ “How to beat roaming fees while traveling abroad.”

>>Worth the trouble?<<

There’s alway that moment in a trip abroad when I am remember how much work it is to travel. How awkward it can be. How exhausting. And then there’s always that moment when I remember why it’s worth all the trouble — all the scrimping and saving, all the research, all the harried, last-minute (in my case) packing.

At the end of our Uffrizi tour, Antonio, a very proud Florentine who spoke with a heavy Italian accent, said, “May you travel a great deal. The best money is spent on holiday.”

He is absolutely right.

As for us…I know we said we wouldn’t be heading back to Italy any time soon. That is true. But when we do, we already know the area we’re most interested in making our home base for exploring — with at least a day trip to Firenze, of course.

Arrivederci!

(Graphic credits: Florence’s Porcellino: Via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PorcellinoFlorence.jpg, Why this statue? Tuscany map: Screen capture of map from http://www.italyguides.it/us/italy/tuscany/tuscany-italy.htm. )

© 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.

Need a yoga travel agent? Check out my itineraries. (Or take a yoga staycation right on your mat.)

I ran into two fellow yoga instructors the other evening when I was at the Michigan Athletic Club (MAC) to teach my weekly vinyasa yoga class, and both of the separate conversations somehow flowed toward fun discussions about visiting yoga studios while traveling and about traveling to yoga trainings.

This had me wondering — for a hot second — whether YogaRose.net could branch out into the yoga travel industry. It reminded me of a day last year — a day when I was already daydreaming about finding a less stressful career — when a colleague sent me a link to a New York Times “Practical Traveler” article. My buddy John had found the dream job for me — teaching yoga at resorts around the world. How glorious. I still haven’t figured out how to apply to any of these places, but I’ve got that yoga resume ready to go.

I’m of course mostly kidding. While I would love to start traveling year-round to “research” national and international yoga retreats and the like (Which resort truly has the warmer water? Which has the deepest hues of turquoise?  Which offers the widest ranges of massage options? Trying to resolve tough questions like that), I somehow doubt that starting the YogaRose.net travel agency will be my ticket out of working full-time and praying that this country still has some social safety net when (if) retirement comes. Plus, it wouldn’t even be the most advisable yogic path.

Fantasies aside, I always try to connect people to a dreamy yoga destination or a deeply fulfilling training. Let me know what you think of some of the itineraries I find myself frequently recommending:

The yoga ‘staycation’

For most of the days out of the years when yogis can’t afford the time off or the money to travel, I remind them to consider time on their mat as a “staycation” for the body, mind and spirit. A 90-minute yoga staycation may not feel quite the same as practicing on the beach in a Caribbean climate, but most of the time, it’s the most practical, and the overall best, option. Yoga is about quieting the mind and turning the senses inward — sun, sand and Swedish massages are not technically mentioned in the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita when discussing the aim of yoga.

But even the most dedicated yogis need a spark of inspiration and practical, hands-on guidance to deepen their practice. The most affordable way to achieve this is with a weekend workshop that’s within driving distance.

One-gas-tank getaway

After visiting the fantastic Yoga on High studio in Columbus, Ohio for the first time last year to take a workshop with Ashtanga instructor extraordinaire Tim Miller, I returned to Lansing and spread the word about how much I enjoyed the programs and the people in this town that’s a relatively easy four-and-a-half-hour drive from mid-Michigan. A few friends returned with me later that year for a workshop with the incredible Maty Ezraty. A few ashtangis made the pilgrimage to Tim Miller when I returned this year, and a fairly sizable contingent of Hilltop Yoga students went to Columbus last month to study with Maty Ezraty this time around.

In short, I like instigating one-gas-tank yoga caravans. But sometimes, there are events so powerful that I have to recommend students make the sacrifices they can make in order to plan for a big trip — like the one taking place in San Diego next March.

Converging where powerful streams of influence come together

I’ve been sharing my excitement — over Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr and, of course, here on WordPress — over the prospect of the first annual Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. I think at least a few folks from the greater Lansing area are already intending to make the trek — how very cool. Whether you are attending or not, I highly recommend getting in the spirit of the drumbeat leading up to the gathering by checking out The Confluence Countdown blog.

Ask a fellow yogi

When I can’t sleep, I am usually up reading (or writing) about yoga (most of my blog posts are written between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. — no joke! It’s the only real time I have to blog). When I travel, I try to find a local yoga studio to visit as a way to get to better know that place. When I get mischievous, I start plotting how to get to my next yoga retreat or training (such as the one I embark on in just over a week — working on Ashtanga second series with Tim Miller set against the backdrop of sweeping Mt. Shasta).

If we know each other in daily life and you have thoughts on a yoga getaway but don’t know exactly where to go, try me. If we don’t know each other except through this blog, try me anyway! Throw down a comment — the blogging community will certainly have ideas where I don’t.

Can yoganidrasana (“yogi’s sleep posture”) make dreams come true? 

If nothing else, let me know what you consider your dream yoga getaway. If you know me well, you probably know that mine is to be able to take the required month off of work to make the pilgrimage — and it is a pilgrimage — to Mysore, India, to study Ashtanga yoga in the city that serves as home base for this challenging and brilliantly designed practice. (There are pretty strict rules governing the  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, including the rule that you study for a minimum of a month at a time — no drop-in sessions or weekend workshops here!)

If I ever do get the chance to make this trip, I am all set because fellow Ashtanga yoga blogger Claudia Yoga, who is based in New York, has already created this guide to traveling to Mysore. I love the Ashtanga yoga blogging community dispersed around the world — they are some of the best built-in yoga travel guides you could ask for.

(Photo credits: YogaRose.net/iStockphoto(andreart) (top); “Acro Floating Yoganidrasana” via Yogable (bottom))

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YogaRose.net Explainer Wordle

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

What is a vinyasa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the rest of it Ashtanga yoga?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

© 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.

Get your ‘shanti’ on this Memorial Day

Ashtanga closing prayer -- Sanskrit
Ashtanga closing prayer -- English

This is the Sanskrit closing prayer, along with the English translation, that ends a traditional Ashtanga yoga practice. When I practiced today here in Lansing, I dedicated my practice, and especially this closing, to the reason why we celebrate Memorial Day — the men and women (and I also think of the service animals) who sacrificed their lives to protect our peace.

I just returned this morning from spending the Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C. The annual National Memorial Day Concert took place just three miles from my hotel, and it’s hard to be in that town and not have an intensified response to the weight of the two wars being fought by armed forces such as those featured in this 60 Minutes” piece by Lara Logan that aired yesterday.  (I can’t mention Lara Logan without at least mentioning her incredible heroism as a journalist and a woman.)

The beauty of yoga is that by balancing out our body, mind and spirit, we are contributing to the greater good and we are in a better position to do even more. Think of the Thich Nhat Hanh quote about the “most basic kind of peace work“:

If in our daily life we can smile, 
if we can be peaceful and happy, 
not only we, but everyone 
will profit from it. This  
is the most basic kind 
of peace work.

But if you want to do something that feels more immediate and concrete today, Mashable offers four ways to support troops — including contributing to Dog Bless You, a cause that aims to donate dogs to servicemen and servicewomen who return from battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Make this holiday something more than a day to bask in the kick of summer, or a day to practice yoga on a more relaxed schedule — make this day bigger than you and your reality.

Shanti (peace).

(Credits: Sanskrit and English versions of the closing prayer: Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute website)

© 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. 

My Planet Telex moment in Ashtanga second series (or, how to find relief from the posture pictured below)

Tittibhasana B

I hate this posture.

Let me rephrase. I loathe this posture.

It’s called tittibhasana B (insect posture), and it appears in Ashtanga second series, a practice heavy on backbends and extreme hip openers as a way of liberating energy coiled at the base of the spine. On good days, second series feels like Pop Rocks candy on my spine — tingly, refreshing and a category unto itself. Most of the time, though, it is still a practice that I struggle to enjoy (unlike primary series, which is full of forward ends and is designed to bring the body into balance), and in no small part because of the extreme hip openers found in the middle of the series. My body and mind love hip opening postures as a category, but the ones that appear in second series are intense and make me confront seeping feelings of anxiety, frustration, impatience and irritation.

Needless to say, I have never found anything liberating about tittibhasana B, except the part when you’ve finished your five breaths in the posture and get to come out of it. (If this sounds familiar, I also like to come out of virabhadrasana A. Warrior A is a posture you often see in flow-based yoga practices. You don’t see insect posture much unless you do Ashtanga second series, so I don’t usually cite this as my nemesis posture. But it is quite possibly the single posture I hate the most — the posture I would edit out if I had an asana eraser.)

In tittibhasana, my arms don’t just drape around the back of the legs to find a clasp the way the yogi in this photo seems to effortlessly do. When I do this posture, my legs can’t straighten and my arms can, at most, reach my butt — I mean, I basically feel as if I’m trying to feeling up my own ass when I try to wiggle into this posture. When I’m in it, I often think, “Yoga teaches us humility, but really? Seriously? Is this necessary?

But something happened during the led Ashtanga second series class at Hilltop Yoga in Lansing’s Old Town this evening, and it prompted me, after finishing class to, check in to Foursquare and tweet this:

The opening line of Radiohead’s “Planet Telex“: “You can force it but it will not come.” Welcome to Ashtanga second series.

The reason? To explain, I have to talk about the posture that comes a few postures before this one. It’s called eka pada sirsasana (one-leg-behind-head posture), and it looks like this:

Eka pada sirsasana

I’ve been practicing led Ashtanga second series since last summer, and I usually can’t get either leg behind my head. On occasion, I can get my right leg behind, but I can’t leg go without the leg coming with me. (In his book on second series, Gregor Maehle describe his posture as “a peculiar mix of hamstring flexibility and hip rotation.)

I wondered during practice today whether all this time, I had been unable to approach this posture the right way because I was tense. There are times when I know I’m unnecessarily tensing a group of muscles — for example, the gluteus maximus or the shoulders. It’s hardest, though, when you don’t even know you’re holding on somewhere. So before going into eka pada sirsasana posture this evening, I tried to inhale relaxation into my right hip. I moved very slowly. I more or less had a conversation with my whole pelvis area, trying to coax it into relaxation.

Viola, both my right leg and my left cooperating with me.

Fast forward a few postures to tittibhasana B. Before I went into it, I once again tried to focus on breathing release into my hips. On not wanting this posture too much. For the first time ever, this posture did not sting in my lower body the way it normally does. I felt equanimity. I felt calm.

I saw a tweet the other day from @MeredithLeBlanc. I liked a lot:

If U notice Ur hips feeling tight while walking – stop, breath deep into the pelvis & feel the fluid flow in Ur body. Vam Vam Vam

When I was in New York a couple weeks for the Public Relations Society of America’s Digital Impact conference, I took Mysore classes at an excellent Midtown studio called the Yoga Sutra. One of the instructors kept coming over to tell me to relax my hip in standing postures.

So you might say I was primed for this moment tonight to finally, after all these years, relax my hip. In yoga, there’s the idea of sthira sukham — steady comfort.  You find strength, but you also find surrender. Being strong enough to let go is the moment that you free yourself. I’ve always loved that the first line of Radiohead’s “Planet Telex,” which is also the first line on the group’s 1995 album The Bends, is an indictment against trying to push through. What’s true for life is true for our yoga practice and vice versa, and it makes me wonder in what ways I might be holding on too tightly to something in my life off the mat.

(Photo credits: Both via www.ashtangayoga.info)

© 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.

Dancing with the Deities (A Not-So-Epic Overview)

How can stories of Hindu deities enrich a yoga practice? I wrote this blog post to accompany a two-hour workshop I gave to Hilltop Yoga teachers on May 15, 2011. But it’s meant to serve as a stand-alone post — so whether or not you were part of the workshop, I hope you enjoy the post and share your thoughts by commenting below or on the YogaRose.net Facebook page. I plan on doing future posts that take a look at the stories of individual deities, including Hanuman, the monkey king. I had thought about including Hanuman in this post, but decided, man, he needs a blog post all to himself!


Workshop description

Dancing with the Deities

In this workshop, we will explore some of the stories behind the postures that we have encountered so many times in our practice. We know natarajasana as dancer’s pose — but who was Nataraja, and what did his dance signify? Why do we honor Hanuman — the monkey king — by searching for a split? Through stories, we may find that we can spark a sacred energy deep within us. Through myths, perhaps we find a new way to connect our presence in practice to the boundlessness of ancient tradition.

Choreographing the dance

I knew long before I finished the classroom portion (so to speak) of Hilltop Yoga’s 500-hour teacher training program last fall that I wanted my workshop to be on the myths that can transform any yoga practice into a larger-than-life story. (Hilaire Lockwood, owner of Hilltop Yoga in Lansing, Mich., has made it a requirement for 500-hour teachers to give a two-hour workshop to fellow teachers and teacher trainees. I haven’t heard of other programs that require this, and I think it’s a great component of the program.) I’ve long been fascinated by stories and narratives — so much so that I chose to pursue a career as a daily newspaper reporter when I finished graduate school.

Some people become journalists because they have aspirations to write the next great American novel or become a published poet, and they choose a day job that will at least let them write for a living. I did not fall into that category. One of the few things I’ve known about myself since I was young was that what fascinated me most was not what could come out of my imagination, but the true stories all around — the kinds of stories that prompt you to say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” So I went into journalism to discover other people’s stories — whether inspirational, tragic or plain old strange —  and share those stories through the written word.

Over the years, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the incredibly rich stories of Hindu deities. I would often find myself in a posture and wonder, “Why is this pose named after the sage Marichi? What did he do that was so cool?” The more I’ve read about these gods and demigods, these humans and animals, the more intrigued I’ve become. Like with any good myth, these ancient tales hold the power to teach us a lot about our own strengths and weaknesses, fantasies and foibles.

I’m writing this blog post — and giving my teachers’ workshop — not as an expert. Far from it. I am coming from this as a fellow explorer. I want to you tell you what I know (which, in the scheme of things, is not much at all) and who told me, so that if a curiosity is sparked in you, you can start that journey yourself and begin to explore.

Studying the dance

One of my favorite parts of the two-week Ashtanga primary series teacher training at the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, Calif. was story time. You take a Mysore Ashtanga class in the morning, perhaps assisting a second class, and then take lunch. After lunch, when everyone was still digesting and taking pulls from their coffee cups to try to stave off that desire for an afternoon nap, Tim Miller would tell stories from the Mahabharata, Bhagavad GitaRamayana and more modern sources as well. We’d lie down, get comfortable, and enjoy story time like we were in kindergarten again.

But these tales were not for the innocent or faint of heart. Gods and demos would be banished, killed, brought back in other form (or at least with a new head, as in the case with Daksha, who returns to life with a goat’s head. Read more about that story in the chapter on virabhadrasana in Myths of the Asana, described below.). If ever there were epic soap operas, these were it. The Mahabharata is said to be three times longer than the Bible. To make matters more confusing, where in soap operas you might find out someone has a twin, in these tales, gods all seem to have hundreds, if not more, incarnations. How can anyone possible keep up? (Maybe there’s an app for that now?)

Over the past few years, some excellent books and CDs have been published and produced that weave these tales. Here are some of the ones I recommend. (You can buy all of these using your Amazon.com account through the YogaRose.net Bookshop and Boutique.)

Stories about the deities

Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition
Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij

This is an outstanding book that came out last year. It’s beautifuly told, beautifully put together, and is about as relevant as it gets, in terms of how the authors bring everything back to the modern Western lifestyle. I remember one day last year when I had just had a horrible, soul-sucking day. I went home, started crying and pulled this book off the shelf. I started reading these stories about gods and mortals in binds far worse than I could imagine, and yet had managed to find redemption and moved on. It was the most calming and reassuring book I could have opened that day. (In addition to the paperback copy, this book is also available as a Kindle ebook.)

The Little Book of Hindu Deities
Sanjay Patel

I picked up this little gem from Moksha Yoga in Chicago when I attended a workshop with Ashtanga master Lino Miele. The author describes himself as an “ABCD (American-born confused Desi (Indian),” even though he was born in the United Kingdom. He grew up in the United States disinterested in his parents’ culture, but was drawn to these stories after becoming an animator at Pixar. Searching for a way to tell these tales while being respectful, Patel made a connection with “Sanrio’s ultracute Hello Kitty designs and thought, ‘Well, there’s a style no one could be offended by.” The result is a handy guide to deities, with bonus sections that provide overviews of Hindu epics, the Hindu chronology of creation and the nine planets. It looks like a book for children, but looks can be deceiving. Publishers Weekly says the book is most popular with teens and 20-somethings.

Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series: Mythology, Anatomy and Practice
Gregor Maehle

The best way I can describe Gregor Maehle’s excellent books on Ashtanga yoga is “heady.” He is thorough, intellectual and esoteric — but without being inaccessible. I picked up his first book on Ashtanga primary series and his newest book on second series for the anatomy details. But the true gift in Maehle’s intermediate series book, in my opinion, is the section on mythology. A table in this book, for example, lists four categories of postures (lifeless forms, animals, human forms, divine forms), along with the dominant guna of those sets of postures (whether tamas, rajas or sattva) and the asanas in the Ashtanga second series that fall into each category. You will get insights from this book you won’t find anywhere else — starting with pasasana, the first posture in second series, and one which we typically hear of as “noose posture.” Maehle picks up where everyone else would stop: “Noose refers here to the posture of the arms, which are thrown like a noose around the legs. Pasha is also one of the thousand names of the Lord Shiva, who is also called Pashaye, Lord with the noose.” The book is gorgeously annotated. And have I mentioned it’s thorough? (In addition to the paperback copy, this book is also available as a Kindle ebook.)

Elephant Power
MC Yogi

Elephant Power, centered around stories of Ganesh, is actually a really fun way to get to know the stories of some of the most famous deities. MC Yogi, whose father initially got him into Ashtanga yoga when he was 18, grew up in northern California listening to Beastie Boys and Run DMC. He has a unique hip-hop style, and he knows his mythical tales. I was pretty incredulous when I first heard about MC Yogi — I can be a total music snob, and I admit it — but he is the real deal. He’s also got some heavy hitters in the kirtan world featured on this album, including Bhagavan Das, Krishna Das, Sharon Gannon, and Jai UttalSee some lyrics and listen to samples.

Flow of Grace
Krishna Das

Flow of Grace, which came out in 2007, is a book and a set of two CDs. Flow of Grace would have to be a large part of a blog post on Hanuman, but the short version might be best described by Krishna Das’ website: “Krishna Das has been singing the Hanuman Chalisa for over thirty years, and on his newest CD, Flow of Grace, he takes us deep into the heart of this powerful prayer to Hanuman, the embodiment of devotion, service, strength, and compassion.” If you’ve never heard the Hanuman Chalisa, you can listen to the samples found online, but I can tell you from experience that you won’t feel the power of the chalisa until you are sitting in a room full of people chanting it — perhaps with someone playing a harmonium. Pick Flow of Grace up to start to understand why the great monkey king is so revered.

The epic tales

The Little Book of Hindu Deities offers this pithy overview of Hindu epics:

The two great Hindu epics are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Mahabharata is a sprawling history of India’s ancient dynasties’ struggle with one another for land and power. It also explains most of Hinduism’s major gods and goddesses. It has been said that everything worth knowing is found within its pages, including the stand-alone portion called the Bhagavad Gita. The Ramayana is more intimate in its scope, primarily following Rama and his small band of devotees in their quest to rescue his wife, Sita. These sacred texts are the cultural foundation of India and the Hindu mythology.

Bhagavad Gita
Various translations 

If you have the time and the interest, it would be amazing to dig into the juiciness of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I would love to, but I think I’m being realistic in saying that I don’t see myself getting through these texts in this lifetime. (As it stands now, I already don’t have time to read what I want to read.)  I do, however, hope to find time this year to reread the Bhagavad Gita. I had to read the Bhagavad Gita as a freshman in college, and it’ll be a different book now that I’ll be looking at it from an Ashtanga yoga perspective.

Ramayana: Divine Loophole
Sanjay Patel

I literally just saw this book when finding links for the book of Patel’s that I do have, The Little Book of Hindu Deities (description in the section above). On the strength of that book, I’m going to recommend this book, sight unseen. Here’s the Amazon.com review: “Teeming with powerful deities, love-struck monsters, flying monkey gods, magic weapons, demon armies, and divine love, Ramayana tells the story of Rama, a god-turned-prince, and his quest to rescue his wife Sita after she is kidnapped by a demon king. This illustrated tale features over 100 colorful full-spread illustrations, a detailed pictorial glossary of the cast of characters who make up the epic tale, and sketches of the work in progress. From princesses in peril to gripping battles, scheming royals, and hordes of bloodthirsty demons, Ramayana is the ultimate adventure story presented with an unforgettably modern touch.” I’m going to pick this book up soon — can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

>>If you are so inclined, you can buy all of these using your own Amazon.com account through the YogaRose.net Bookshop and Boutique. 😉

A closer look at Nataraja

The photo at the top of this post is of Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. Nataraja is yet another incarnation of Shiva. Perhaps more than any other deity, Shiva is the one I am most enthralled by — his ashen face, matted hair, his proclivity to disappear to the mountains to meditate for hundreds of years, his stamina to make love for hundreds of years (remember, the gods have a different time reference than the rest of us do), his equanimity, his temper. Shiva creates through the act of destruction. He is a study in contrasts — and most of us can relate to dichotomies. It’s particularly the case for me — on so many levels, dualities and contrasts mark my life and my personality.

MC Yogi has an awesome song about Ganesh called “Son of Shiva.” To understand the son you have to understand the father, so this song is a fun way to learn more about Shiva too. My favorite part talks about Shiva returning from his deep meditation on Mount Kailash:

it was at that time when Shiva returned
not knowing that his wife recently gave birth
when Shiva saw the boy he told him to move
but not knowing who his father was the boy refused
now Shiva’s like this, truth consciousness and bliss
but he’s crazy when he’s angry so don’t get him pissed
feeling dissed and dismissed Shiva started a rumble
an epic struggle that shook the jungle
then out of nowhere Shiva’s trident went chop
and that’s when the boy’s head was cut off

Oops.

But all is not lost. Buy the album if you don’t already have it, and listen to the rest of the story.

There’s much more to know about Shiva (another blog post!) and so much more to know about his particular incarnation as Nataraja. Why is does Nataraja appear with four arms and one leg lifted? And what is that creature he appears to be standing on? See how two Ashtangis, Tim Miller and Michael Gannon, interpret this powerful symbol:

Tim Miller on Nataraja

I remember first reading Tim Miller’s “The Alchemy of Yoga” essay while staying at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio. (It’s always interesting to find a spark of inspiration while away from home, staying alone in a hotel.)  In this quick-read essay, Timji — as his students like to refer to him — talks about how he believes “Nataraja, the King of Dancers, beautifully symbolizes the alchemy of Ashtanga yoga.”

Michael Gannon on Nataraja

Michael Gannon, who uses social media heavily, just posted this link to his recent talk on Shiva about 16 hours ago. In “Shiva Comes to Town,” Gannon does a lovely job of sharing how he uses the symbolism of Nataraja as destroyer to make sense of, accept, and move on from personal and even global tragedies. It’s 26 minutes long. If you’re like me and have a crazy schedule and the attention span of a tweet, let me tell you that it’s worth taking the time to listen. Play it while you’re waiting for coffee to brew, or as your’e whittling down your work email inbox.

I titled this post “Dancing with the Deities (A Not-So-Epic Overview)” because — while it’s rather long (probably too long) for a blog post — it hardly skims the surface of these rich stories. Take advantage of some of the labors of love listed here — whether you’re more into the iconized depictions as in The Little Book of Hindu Deities or into the kind of thoughtful, historical perspective you’ll find in Gregor Maehle’s book. Keep searching and uncover sweet wells of tales not listed here. More than anything, I hope you continue to get on your mat and find inspiration for your practice, and through your practice, however you can.

Photos (from top)
Nataraja: Photo of Nataraja statue, taken at The Yoga Sutra (a New York City yoga studio), May 2011
Aum: Aum at Hilltop Yoga’s Old Town 2 studio in Lansing, Mich., May 2011

>>If you are so inclined, you can buy all the books referenced in this book using your own Amazon.com account through the YogaRose.net Bookshop and Boutique. 😉 


© 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.

An airplane’s flight and an ashtangi’s float

I was watching Man Vs. Wild the other night and a Delta Airlines commercial came up. I wasn’t even paying attention to what was on the screen, but one of the lines I heard from the commercial caught my attention: “If you run before the wind, you can’t take off.”

I teach up to four Ashtanga classes every week, which means I am verbally cueing a lot of float-throughs — going from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to a seated position — so I think about that float-through journey quite a bit. When I heard this random line from the commercial, I suddenly started paying attention because I thought that it might be a fitting analogy for Ashtanga vinyasa float-throughs. Although Ashtanga yoga can be made accessible for everyone, there’s no question that it’s extremely challenging. And within this practice, the float-through or jump-through can be one of the hardest aspects for new and veteran students alike.

So, inspired by this ad (?!), I decided to break down how I think it relates to floating through in Ashtanga. Here’s what the narrator says in this black-and-white commercial:

What does it take to fly? It takes knowing we have our work cut out for us. Flying brings more challenges every day. But if you ask any of the pilots who work here, they’ll say one of the first things they learned in flight school is that if you run before the wind, you can’t take off. You’ve got to turn into it — face it. The thing you push against is the thing that lifts you up.

How can this imagery be applied to the ashtanga float-through?

What does it take to fly? It takes knowing we have our work cut out for us.

The first step to floating is to understand that it takes a lot of practice. In many cases — my own practice included — years of trying. Not weeks, not months — years. It took me longer to learn how to float through than it did to get through my undergraduate and graduate studies. I think one of the most important lessons we get from Ashtanga yoga is that we need both short-term and long-term patience. It’s not a cliche to say that with this practice, it is about the journey, and not the destination.

Flying brings more challenges every day.

After we find our float-through, then what? It’s just more work, because when we do unlock our personal mystery of how to find this yogic flight pattern, the journey continues to challenges us. Then it becomes about refinement of bandhas (the energy locks employed in Ashtanga yoga) and refinement of form.

…if you run before the wind, you can’t take off.

Here we get to mechanics. As we learn the jump through, we really need to focus on what the hips and core are doing, and how the breath factors into that.

This is what has worked for me. In downward-facing dog, check in and make sure your energetic locks are engaged (mula bandha and uddiyana bandha) by lifting up on the pelvic floor and spiraling that energy through the low belly. (Bandha interlude: If you practice Ashtanga, you know that figuring out bandhas can take years — decades even. David Williams says in his interview in Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students that it took him 10 years to understand mula bandha. My latest eight-word summary of these two energetic locks? Bringing buoyancy to  the base of the spine.) Inhale length into the spine. On the exhalation, bend the legs as if your lower body were a wind-up toy. Look far forward — very, very far forward — and on the inhale, ride the air current of your breath to float your body through.

British yoga instructor John Scott — who came to yoga by way of golf — offers a beautiful breakdown of the floating-through process in his book Ashtanga Yoga. I found an excerpt of this part of Scott’s book, but I truly hope that you buy the book or buy the video rather than rely on this excerpt. For one thing, there’s the whole yogic concept of asteya. For another, they are excellent resources.

You’ve got to turn into it — face it. The thing you push against is the thing that lifts you up.

The breath is what literally keeps us alive. And yet most of us go through the day without breathing to capacity — holding our breath, even, when challenge strikes, as if that will somehow help us get through adversity. For the Ashtanga float-through, become your breath — that wind will carry you farther than you thought possible.

© 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.

Mirror, mirror…

Twitter told me that it’s International Women’s Day and Fat Tuesday. What an appropriate day, then, for me to see this Tumblr post by Penguinslover:

I vaguely remember reading about a study in college (a long, long time ago :-) ) that verified what this animated photo shows — that a woman’s cognitive perception of her body can literally be this divorced from reality.

I teach yoga, and one of the themes that I constantly bring into class is that yoga is not about body image — to a point where I would rather not teach in a yoga studio that has mirrors.

I’ll take a step back here to say that in the yoga community, there are some who believe strongly that students should have mirrors, and others who believe that mirrors serve only to distract. At Hilltop Yoga, where I teach Ashtanga yoga a few times a week, mirrors would never be allowed. At the Michigan Athletic Club, where I teach power yoga once a week, the club’s dedicated yoga studio has two connected walls with mirrors and two connected walls without, to accommodate yoga teachers from both schools. Teachers who want their students to be able to see themselves have their students face one way, and the other set of teachers have their classes face the other way.

My sister, who recently started teaching yoga in San Jose, Calif., and I have had long conversations about this. I think that once a student gets to a point where they have a very keen sense of body awareness — where they turn inward first to feel what their body is doing in space and time — then selective use of a mirror can refine alignment of muscle and joint actions/relationships. Reliance on mirrors before that? I see students every week use the mirror to check themselves out in the same judgmental way they might do in the morning as they get dressed for work.

This brings me back to the animated graphic posted on Tumblr that I’ve inserted into this post. Despite all this, I don’t think I’ve changed enough from my middle school days, when I look at my profile in the bathroom mirror and feel hopelessly frustrated at the size of my belly. After teaching yoga for more than 18 months, I still do what the woman in this picture is doing. I mean, this evening, after taking a much-needed yoga class with Misty Flahie, I went to my local natural foods store and tweeted this without seeing the hypocrisy at the time.

Do I need to lose weight? I could stand to lose a few pounds. All my pants have been fitting a litter tighter since the winter started, and there is a very logical reason for that: since November, my schedule has either been so sporadic (some international travel, which can throw you off for a long time) or so work-intensive — and something has had to give. That something has been my yoga practice, which is all I do to stay fit. I don’t run. I don’t do cardio machines at the gym. If I don’t take a sweaty 90-minute yoga class or find an hour or so at home to practice, then I’m not getting a physical workout. In the last few weeks, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to an actual yoga class that I took, rather than taught.

But do I need to lose weight in the way that I’m thinking about it in my head? The way I think when I look in the mirror. Probably not.

So, in honor of International Women’s Day, I’ll try (again) to do a better job of walking the yoga walk when it comes to body image. I can’t blame mirrors — it’s how I use them.

© 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)

How to lose a practice in 10 days (or, what Madonna can teach us all about maintaining a yoga practice during the most hectic travel time of year)

Madonna in high heels, with one leg behind her head--because why not?

Madonna--in a bit of a bind?

Between work, family, and just life, it’s hard enough for most of us to maintain a truly consistent yoga practice. But when you throw holidays and travel into the mix, it can seem damn near impossible not to lose the yoga practice that you rely on to keep you grounded.

Maybe Madonna — who is, from what little I’ve read about her practice, a pretty committed Ashtanga practitioner — can teach us a thing or two about doing what you need to do to do yoga. You might have read recently about the outrage that emerged when Madonna was allowed to leave a stranded plane well before the rest of the passengers on her flight bound for London.

What’s worse, some bloggers wondered? Was it that Madonna dared to do some yoga in the aisles before her VIP departure?

I’m writing this blog post 430 miles from home myself, and I’ve traveled quite a bit in the past month — all of which has led me to think about ways to maintain a yoga practice while on the road. Here are five tips for me.

5. Take a cue from Madonna and do some yoga in the aisle.

Granted, Madonna and her entourage surely fly first class, where the aisles are luxuriously wide when compared with coach. But if you’re facing a long layover at the airport or stranded on a plane, I vote for doing whatever yoga you can fit in.

Earlier this year, on the way to the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, Calif., for a teacher training program with Tim Miller, I posted a Facebook status update that read:

Rose Tantraphol highly recommends finding a quiet corner of the airport — esp if your flight’s been delayed for two hours and counting — and taking 25 breaths in a headstand. You’ll feel much better while providing fellow weary travelers with some free distractions.

Several of my friends liked the posts, and a few more gave left kudos as comments. I had found a quiet corner of a gate that wasn’t being used, and made a point to tell the nearest person there that I was about to stand on my head to release some tension. I thought she might be a little weirded out, but she shrugged and never looked up once.

Was the Material Girl being insensitive on that plane? My guess would be probably not. I absolutely understand if other passengers were frustrated that she was able to deplane hours before they were able to, but that’s a different issue than her doing some yoga in the aisle. It’s one thing to do bhastrika if everyone were trying to sleep on a red eye, but based on these accounts, I don’t see how this was inappropriately intrusive.

4. Use the opportunity to travel your yoga and drop in on classes in new studios.

I love checking out new studios whenever I travel. Some people learn more about the new city they’re in by running through local neighborhoods; I do the same thing by visiting local yoga studios. Drop-in classes are typically between $18 and $20 a class—not the cheapest way to go, but if you have the funds, it’s well worth it to spend the money and get to see how different studios have found their unique ways to share yoga with a community. It’s also a fantastic way to get outside your comfort zone and try new styles of yoga.

On this note, I just got a new iPhone, so let me know if you have a favorite app for finding local studios. I’m a planner, so I usually do research in advance of a trip and plan out all my studio options beforehand. But a studio-finder app would be great to have on hand.

3. Pack a travel mat (and maybe a heat source) when you’re prepared to practice on your own.

Especially with Ashtanga yoga, traveling provides a perfect chance to practice on your own. I find it challenging to motivate myself to consistently practice at home while I’m not traveling, because I live in a community with an amazing yoga studio. But it’s much easier to want to practice on my own when traveling.

I’ve practiced on my sister’s L.A. apartment balcony, a wooden dock in back of a beautiful Traverse City, Mich. bed-and-breakfast, a second-floor apartment in Montreal, Quebec, and the list goes on. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every time I practice on my own, I learn something new. When I practiced on that narrow dock in northern Michigan, for instance, I was so surprised to realize that I’m far less connected to the earth — far less evenly grounded in the way my weight is distributed through my feet — than I had realized. Changing where you practice can change what you become aware of in your practice.

Hilltop Yoga, where I practice and teach yoga, is a heated studio where rooms are typically kept between 87 and 94 degrees. That means I am used to heat, and it really affects my practice when that external heat is missing and I feel cold (especially since you don’t have the benefit of other people’s body heat when you’re practicing alone). Whether heat is a crutch is fodder for another conversation, but lack of heat is, for me, probably the toughest part of practicing alone while traveling.

If you’re traveling by car and have room to spare, you might consider investing in a small space heater to take with you.

2. Remember that there are, classically speaking, eight limbs of yoga.

Postures, or an asana practice, represent just one limb of the eight-limb yoga path. If you’re pressed for time in between flights or family gatherings, see if you can at least find 15 minutes a day practicing another of the limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras — pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (sense withdrawal) or dhyana (meditation) seem to make the most sense.

1. If all else fails, and you really can’t practice, roll it with — after all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

In an ideal world, we’re all practicing yoga six mornings a week. Most of us don’t live in this utopia where we can honor this schedule every week of the year. So do your traveling, do what you can to keep up your practice, and if all else fails, use that lack-of-practice frustration that builds — on the level of the body, mind and spirit — to recommit that much more when you return home.

Those are my thoughts on maintaining a practice. How do you maintain your practice while on the go?

(Photo credit: http://ninieahmad.com/category/yoga-101)

[VIDEO] Three Questions ~~ featuring Doug Swenson

Doug Swenson workshop at Hilltop Yoga

Doug Swenson adjusts my parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle)

Doug Swenson spent this past weekend at Hilltop Yoga, offering workshops that touched on everything from the importance of cross-training to kriyas (internal cleaning techniques such as nauli). Doug began his study of yoga in 1969 — the year the Beatles recorded Abbey Road —  and travels the world teaching a unique blend of yoga that draws heavily from Ashtanga but weaves together different styles and influences.

The Old Town studio was packed for each of the three-hour sessions, which began with a discussion and led into a two-hour practice. The Grand River-facing windows quickly steamed up for each session, which stayed light thanks to Doug’s humor and laid-back style.

After the last workshop on Sunday, I asked Doug if he would be willing to spend a few minutes to video Three Questions, a new occasional series with yoga teachers and practitioners. Doug generously said yes.

Why is cross-training in yoga important?

How can someone begin a cross-training regiment?

How does a larger community benefit when individuals practice yoga?

Doug is constantly in motion, traveling internationally to give workshops. Check out his schedule.