‘Hurry, take a photo of me in this pose!’: The view of a yoga journey from the one not on the mat

If a yogi lives in your home — doesn’t matter if it’s because you’re roommates, family, dating or married —  congratulations and condolences. Congratulations because you’re living with someone who practices a way of life (yoga is designed as a whole system, or eight limbs) aimed at mitigating human suffering and liberating us from attachments. Yoga improves physical health while centering and calming a person.

The condolences part comes because — face it — a yogi’s significant other, roommate or even close friend or colleague tends to get sucked into the world of asanas, mantras and what I’ll describe as “mat talk.”

In the spirit of poking a little good-natured fun at how serious we yogis can take ourselves, let’s break down the learning curve experienced by the person who’s not on the mat. And, in an ode to the cheekily irreverent tone of YogaDork, I will make an exception to my aversion to irresponsibly spreading fresh celebrity gossip by hereby sharing links to reports about charming funnyman Alec Baldwin reportedly dating yoga instructor Hilaria Thomas. Do you think it’s possible that Baldwin could benefit from this YogaRose.net post? I just exhaled a deep ujjayi breath just thinking about the possibility.

So, whether you’re the star of NBC’s “30 Rock” or not, check out my list of five signs you’ve been made an involuntary honorary yogi proponent (in the case of friends or roommate)/partner (in the case of a relationship) — or IHYP for short — even though you didn’t get the official memo announcing this change:

5. Your relaxation gleaned from soaking in the sun while chilling on the beach is interrupted when Yogi Partner (YP) suddenly shoves a camera into your hand and says, “Can you take my photo? I’m going to try a handstand!” 

For whatever reason, yogis cannot resist doing yoga postures on the beach. Something about the combination of the sand, sun and waves triggers a hormonal response in YPs that compels them to try out poses at the beach — particular arm balances and inversions, such as handstands and headstands.

4. You find yourself defending your basic photography skills (in the case of smart phones) or the shutter speed and aperture (in the case of nicer cameras) after you unsuccessfully tried to snap a shot of YP in an upside-down orientation or while balanced precariously on bents arms. 

Inevitably, YPs will try a pose they can’t master on land — postures such as adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) or bakasana (crane) — thinking that trying the yoga posture on a far less even and stable surface will magically help them achieve the posture. The problem is, since they can’t do this pose on land, even if they do luck into the posture, they inevitably fall out after about a second.

Once they fall out, however, they turn to the IHYP with a look of heightened expectation. “Well? Did you get it?” As the IHYP, if you say, “No, I couldn’t catch it in time,” you will likely be sent a look of disappointment and frustration, which inevitably causes you to blame yours skills (or the camera settings) rather than the YP’s ability to maintain this posture for more than two seconds.

The good news is, YPs appear to have unending patience with trying the posture over and over again until the IHYP finally figures out how to get it right (all the while, a YP may be secretly patting his or her own back for extending such yogic patience to the IHYP).

3. You find yourself defending your skills as a yoga consultant.

Let’s say you finally snap that photo. A YP will be elated and ask you to scroll through the digital images so he or she can see the shot. On occasion, a YP will stare into the screen, furrow the space between the eyebrows (the third-eye space, in mat talk) and say, “Oh. Why didn’t you tell me my right hip wasn’t in line with the left?”

At this point, as the IHVP, you will realize that you are terribly lucky in that you managed to get a shot at all. So you cannot, for reasons of diplomacy and maintenance of domestic peace, say, “Well, you could only get into it once and for two seconds — how was I supposed to have time to tell you?”

Instead, even as an IHYP in training, your survival instincts would be intact enough that you would know to reach for a good talking point. Popular ones include, “Oh, I didn’t even notice that until you pointed it out!” and “I thought you wanted to show imperfection, since you keep saying, ‘Yoga is a practice, not a perfect.'”

If your YP smiles at your comment and even hugs you, telling you that you’re the most awesome ever, feel the energy of your throat chakra (space of communication, in mat talk) suddenly becoming warm and illuminated. This is a big achievement; such a big achievement that if the journey of an IHYP could be mapped onto an Angry Birds game, you would now have the little black bomb birds at your disposal.

2. You find yourself saying, ‘*(name of Sanskrit word you don’t understand) — that’s great, honey!’ a lot.

Very early on, an IHYP realizes a new pattern. After work, YP heads straight to yoga class. After class, YP pulls into the driveway at home, opens the front door, barely mutters hello, and says, “Guess what posture I got into tonight?!” and then blurts out, before the IHYP in the room can muster a guess, “*(insert sirsasana/bakasana/pincha mayurasana/kurmasana!”

You know you’re becoming a professional-grade IHYP when you seamlessly parrot the Sanskrit name even though you have no idea how it’s really supposed to be pronounced or what it means, and say, “That’s great, honey! I know you’ve been working on that for a long time!”

IHYPs out there, here’s my tip — free of charge — that will get you extra bonus points with your YP. Before they look at you and (at first apologetically, but eventually, after a few months of taking yoga classes, as a command) ask you to witness the recreation of the posture, beat them to the punch. Say with gusto, “I’d love to see it!”

1. You seek advice from friends and colleagues about how to decline your YP’s invitation to sign up together for a yoga retreat.

This sign applies to romantic and non-romantic relationships. Inevitably, at some point, the YP in your life will send you a text from work asking, “How about a yoga retreat in August? Wouldn’t it be fun? Soooo relaxing! We need it!”

It would be natural that your first reaction is a visceral one — perhaps an image of the archetypal boyfriend who looks bored out of his mind while his girlfriend tries on one cute sale item after another at Express.

Understandably, you would then start to panic, wondering what you can say to stop this inevitable yoga train from leaving the station.

You may shoot a Facebook message to a fellow IHYP asking for advice. You may Google “reasons not to go on yoga retreat” and become an instant expert on documented horror stories, price ranges for yoga retreats, compatibility (or lack thereof) of yoga teachers and yoga styles, or travel restrictions, in the case of international travel.

Eventually, you realize the best course of action is to play the selfless significant other. “I doubt they’ll take me if I don’t practice yoga,” you text back. “Don’t want to be the reason u can’t go.” You, as the not-yet-master-level IHYP, think you’ve just heard the yoga engine turn off until you see the near-immediate reply, “No worries! U don’t need to practice yoga to come!”

And when, in a few short weeks, you find yourself on a mat practicing yoga during the yoga retreat that doesn’t require you to do yoga to attend, you will realize that you have just graduated from being an IHYP to simply an involuntary yogi (IY). You will be surprised to also realize that while yoga feels really, really hard, and while you don’t dig the whole mantra or chanting thing, you actually feel kind of exhilarated after the practice.

And that, dear IHYP-turned-IY, is when you can continue the vicious cycle and find an unsuspecting IHYP (a colleague, a friend, a sibling) to in turn corrupt. Congratulations! And condolences to them.

Me in a handstand on a beach in Carlsbad, Calif., in 2010. This photo was snapped not because I can do handstands well -- I was up for all of two seconds -- but because my sister Alisa has both great camera skills and a great camera.

(Photo credit: Alisa’s Happy World)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide-mouth-guppy

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

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

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

Clinging

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

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

The dunk

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

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

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

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

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

Testing new waters

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

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

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

Guppies, yoga-style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music for the people — via their yoga mats

Gaiam audio yoga mat

It's a mat. It's a speaker. Too bad it can't give you a massage too.

I was at Best Buy yesterday looking for a birthday present and walked past a short aisle full of yoga and Pilates equipment. A boxed mat by Gaiam caught my eye because it was billed as a audio mat.

What?

My first thought was that maybe this mat spoke to you every now and then. “Breathe.” “Send your shoulder blades away from your ears.” “Inhale, reach tall. Exhale, fold forward.”

I stepped closer to the box — not too close, though, because this whole talking yoga mat thing seemed a little creepy to me — and had reason for relief. Turned out this mat doesn’t actually talk to you, because that would be pretty creepy. What makes it an audio mat is that  you can connect an mp3 player to a little speaker that’s built in.

From Gaiam.com:

Find bliss at home or on the road with this first-of-its-kind Audio Yoga Mat. Designed with a small built-in speaker so you can work out or meditate while listening to your MP3 player or iPod® player. Or download our free instructional yoga program featuring world-renowned yoga expert Rodney Yee as he takes you through an at-home private yoga session. It is like having your own personal yoga instructor in the privacy of your home or when on the road.

What do you think?

My reactionary response to this mat was, “Seriously? Is this how commercialized yoga has become? Does anyone need a built-in speaker in their yoga mat?” But the practice of yoga is supposed us to teach us to be less reactionary, so that’s what this blog post is attempting to do. Am I missing something about the usefulness of this mat? Are there people whose practice would be helped by being able to pipe in music or an audio yoga class? I am open to hearing arguments in favor of this mat.

Seeing this mat made me think about the yoga of music or the music of yoga, depending on how you think about it. I’ll be the first to tell you that I love music. The sounds that come from a Radiohead song, for example, massage my brain and spirit in a way that nothing else in this world can (not even yoga).

Yoga and music is a murkier issue for me. I usually enjoy vinyasa (flow-style) yoga classes where music is played — even if it’s not necessarily music that I like. (I specifically say vinyasa classes because I’m more of a traditionalist when it comes to Ashtanga classes, and prefer to not have music.) I feel as if I get some energy from the beat and the passion coming through the speakers. When the music that’s played is music I like, the energy boost can be helpful to the practice. Music can turn a heavy class into a light-heartened one.

Yet as a teacher, I’ve opted to not use music in my classes. For one thing, I don’t want to assume that my music tastes would work for everyone. If I were to play music, it would probably be albums by artists like Krishna Das and Annie Pace because I’d want to avoid songs in English where a student’s attention might be taken away by the lyrics.

Basically, I am in the school of thought that the music and rhythm found in a yoga class comes from the breath of those who are practicing. And from the Sanskrit counts of a led Ashtanga class: “Ekam, inhale. Dwi, exhale. Trini, inhale.” (“One, inhale. Two, exhale.”)

Yeah, those Sanskrit counts are something else. They massage my brain in a way that nothing else in this world could. Not even Radiohead.

(Photo credit: Bestbuy.com)

More from YogaRose.net:

>>”How do you turn the world right-side up?” — my post about Radiohead.

>>”Vande gurūṇāṃ caraṇāravinde” — my post about chanting and Madonna.