Sunday, January 6, 2013

Intentions 2013

So, I'm back to teaching yoga at the YMCA. Not that I ever stopped. It's one of the highlights of my week. Everyone is so appreciative there and it is a pleasure to go through the class. However, I find myself in need of some soul searching at the start of the year. And, as someone doing some soul searching, I'm at a bit of a loss how to start or what to do. To sum up, in an act of frustration and anger, I acted in a way that was not remotely appropriate. It wasn't appropriate for anyone, let alone someone who supposedly teaches yoga (I will have to leave it to your imagination what that lashing out consisted of). It was not the first time I have behaved in this way. It was a behaviour I have resorted to only at times of extreme frustration and anger. Nonetheless, it reminds me that I am not as immunized to my own faults as I believe. In fact, it makes me wonder if I am by nature a very different person than I think I am. Or, perhaps, yoga does nothing to reign in my worst nature. I don't know the answer to these things. Hence, the soul searching. Nonetheless, it is a new year and new years are always times for renewing commitments and evaluating old ones. I love making intentions and seeing where they carry me. Many of my intentions this year are just continuations of old ones. My 2013 intentions so far are as follows: 1) Continue to take care of my health and well-being through running and yoga. 2) Cultivate my friendships more through making plans and contacting my friends more frequently 3) Continue to write with the intent of producing a publishable piece of work and improving my work as a critic 4) Say "No" when I am overcommitted -- accept that less may be better for all concerned 5) Continue to be of service to everyone I interact with. 6) Continue to improve my baseline happiness level and strive to be the most optimistic person I know. 7) Take more yogic principles off the mat (i.e. don't hold stress where it isn't happening; be easy)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Re-Firing The Commitment to Practice

Yoga is a commitment. The thing about a commitment is that it isn't a choice we make once, but a choice we make over and over again. I don't always find it easy to make it to the mat. Sometimes, all I manage is a down dog. Maybe I don't even manage that... maybe I just manage one whole and complete watched breath. An inhale, a pause, an exhale. Fortunately, those days aren't terribly frequent, but they are there. And more of then than not, having a not-into-it yoga day often translates into a not-into-it yoga week. Or two weeks. But I always have my commitment to practice. It doesn't go away if I stop for a period of time. Having a commitment means that at any moment, I can come back to yoga and start again. Sometimes, though the hardest part about starting or getting past a slump is finding th mental energy to practice. I've found that if I don't want to guide myself, I make use of the world's yoga resources. There are classes, flash mobs, magazines... you name it. For a very satisfying free yoga "class", I make use of whatever comes my way. I've got yoga podcasts (yoga journal rocks my world!), yoga DVDs with my favorites (Rodney Yee and Kundalini guru from Alaska Nivair Singh Khasla), free online yoga (Yoga Today has a free weekly sequence), yoga with Hilaria Baldwin on Plum TV at my parents house when I'm there. Yoga can be found everywhere. Good yoga. Solid yoga. And I find that reading about yoga does a lot to keep me inspired and invigorated. More on that in another post.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Toe Rolls

One thing I like about yoga is that the road is never ending. There is always something to work on, to improve, to better align, to better open, to try, to practice. At the same time, the place where I am at is absolutely perfect because there is no end (only a beginning, I guess). Where I am at on a particular day IS the end. So, I always incorporate into my daily practice a few things that are poses that I am not able to get into fully. I also incorporate refinements to poses that allow me to better feel out the ones I am in. One thing in particular I have worked on is rolling over my toes in the transition from push-up pose (low plank) to upward facing dog during sun salutations and vinyasa. This ability is gradual for me. As it should be, I suppose. I recall being too afraid to try. I recall trying one foot reluctantly at a time. I recall when I began to do it more than once a practice. At the moment, I can roll over my toes. I still need to think about it when I do it sometimes. My right foot is not as fluid as my left. Usually my left rolls quite quickly and my right is a more gradual transition, still tinged with anxiety that I will somehow destroy my foot in the process by breaking all my bones. I watch the right toes roll over and am always mildly surprised when I get them into the right position. I have yet to break my foot or my toes. The new position does allow for a more open upward facing dog and a bit more ease. I like the idea that it brings a kind of fluidity and flexibility to the sequence. I'm sure I'll report back in a few more weeks with the latest on the state of the Toe Rolls. The yoga road is, fortunately, a long one with many branches.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


A vinyasa is a flow of poses, one into the next, that uses the breath in and out as a kind of metronome when to strike the next position. Slowing or speeding up the breath goes with slowing and speeding up the poses. There are several vinyasa that I practice, but the one I do most often goes like this.... 1. Child's pose (Balasana) to Downward Dog 2. Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) to Plank 3. Plank (Uttihita Chaturanga Dhandasana) to Push-Up Pose 4. Push-Up Pose (Chaturanga Dhandasana) to Up-Dog 5. Up-Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) to Downward Dog 6. Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Savanasana) to Child's Pose It's a wonderful sequence. However, if there's a sticking point for me, it's my toes. When going from Push-Up Pose to Up-Dog, in theory, I should roll over my toes so that I go from standing on my toe beds to standing on the tops of my feet. The movement requires a backwards push of the feet with a frontal pull of the sternum. It's an expansive as well as powerful transition requiring strength and, well, a kind of flexibility. I find this a very scary thing to do. I seem to carry a certain amount of fear that I will completely crack my toes in half during this roll. Is my fear justified? I don't know. Sometimes I do it, sometimes I do some kind of quick foot move where I re-position my feet one at a time when I have reached the limit of the pose, sometimes I just stay on my toe beds for up-dog. I haven't quite figured out the solution yet and don't know if it requires one. I suspect the toe roll over is ideal because of its smoothness and also how it helps keep the legs firm between the poses. Nonetheless, this vinyasa, which is one of my favorites, is not one I feel mastery in just yet.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Daily Practice

Most days, I try to be routine about certain things. Brushing my teeth, taking a vitamin, walking the dog, downloading certain podcasts, checking the weather. Yoga is generally part of that routine. I don't manage it every day. But, most days. What I find so fascinating about a daily practice is that every day is different. Some days, I feel strong from alpha to omega, willing to go deeper or try something new. Some days, I just want a few basics. I've even discovered that some days, I need something completely restorative... and forego all the standing poses in favor of something restful. Every day, something new. Having a daily practice helps a lot with the concept of letting go of expectations. If I listen to my body and I honor my mind, it means that I can't come to the mat knowing where the practice will take me or how long it will last. If it lasts fifteen minutes, that's okay. I may not like it, but discrimination of good or bad, like or dislike, is just a temporary judgement. What matters more, I suppose, is the routine of coming back again and again. On a side note, I've been thinking about offering donation yoga by the canal in the summer. If I go out there 3 or 4 days a week, I wonder if I'll get a group of loyal followers. I've thought about applying to teach at some studios, but I'm not really ready for that. I think something more organic and that allows people to pay what they can afford seems more to my needs and goals at the moment. The reason I raise this now is I wonder how that would impact my daily practice. Would i teach in addition to my own practice or instead of my own practice. They say that maintaining your own practice while teaching is essential. I believe it. But, is 3-4 days a week spent teaching others, and 3-4 days doing my own practice enough balance? I may not know until I get there.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dangers of Yoga?

Yoga can cause damage and injury.

So does walking, eating, sleeping, dancing, conversing, making friends, daydreaming...

Everything can potentially cause damage and injury. Life entails wear and tear. The body ages. There are pollutants and toxins and carcinogens all around us, and not just physical ones, but emotional ones.

But today, I want to talk about physical damage and injuries caused by yoga.

I'm not talking about people who injure themselves in obvious ways. Everyone has heard a story (or two or three) about a yogi who pushed his body too long and too hard in an improperly aligned pose and ruined his back. Or, a yogi who decided that if five minutes of a headstand is beneficial, an hour long headstand done daily was better.

These are obvious injuries, the kind that one would get from doing any physical activity too long or too hard. Yoga doesn't require or ask it's practitioners to practice stupidly. If something sounds like it could cause pain or injury, use common sense. Don't do it. Some people seem to want to forget that they are still constrained by a human body and its limitations. Testing and surpassing limits is not the same thing as completely disregarding them.

If we feel pain, we stop.

I suppose, instead, I am thinking about injuries that come about in less obvious ways. For one thing, the warning that we must "listen to our body," is truly the best barometer of safety. However, this warning is hard for beginners who aren't used to listening to and respecting their bodies. But it isn't just the newbie who might get mixed messages from the body. Some poses are uncomfortable because of their newness or the depth to which we take them. Some are fine but then quickly and suddenly become dangerous. Even with the intent not to push too far, sometimes we don't know we've done it until we actually get there. By then, it might be too late.

I don't have the answer, of course. I only recognize the problem.

One solution I have been using is taking the position that we should go to a place that is comfortable and then let our breath carry us deeper. This seems much wiser than going all the way to our edge. A pose held comfortably can be deepened. A pose that is uncomfortable may already have caused injury. I always think that breath itself, taken deeply and fully, will deepen a pose if the body is allowed to rest.

But, in some poses, working with the breath isn't an option. And, at times, one is more inclined to experiment and try something new -- which in and of itself can result in injuries. Some poses almost demand initial failures: tree, crane, headstand. Mastering balance might require a few flop-overs and face plants. In tree, for example, we can rest with our foot on our calf or on our thigh, but not on our knee. There is no in-between. If foot on calf is too easy and foot on thigh requires practice, I'm inclined to encourage practicing the harder pose sensibly. But, at the same time, it carries a risk of injury to step up to the next level.

I suppose that ultimately it comes down to this. The risk of injury is there. However, the benefits of the practice are also there. Sometimes, getting the benefit means facing a risk. By practicing, one learns to minimize those risks, but they never go away entirely. Practice listening to your body and respecting its limits; that will go a long way to reducing yoga injuries.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

There's More than One Way to a Headstand

I sometimes feel like a yoga fraud.

Yoga isn't supposed to be about asanas. In theory, all you need to do is link mind and breath. So breathing, or paying attention to it, is yoga.

However, like many of North America's yogis, I access yoga through the asana practice. And, most days, I practice. With practice comes change. With life comes change. My practice has grown and changed as my life has rumbled along.

But one collective group of asanas escapes me. The inversions. Headstand. Handstand. Their friends and associates. I can muster a teddy bear headstand, but that's it.

For years, I've tried. Most days, I at least endeavor headstand. I set myself up with my arms and head in the base. I walk my feet in, try to get my toes to lift... but can't do it. There was a time when I could get it, but I rolled right over. There were a few false headstands where I flopped to the side.

I've done dolphins and all kinds of pre-exercise poses. I stared at the wall with great longing, wishing I had the gall to kick myself up into headstand against the wall.

Needless to say, I settled on using my couch to walk my feet up to a sufficient height and left it at that. I'd try to pop my feet up a few times, but inevitably came to ground.

That said, I finally broke some kind of barrier.

Visiting a friend, she told me she used to do handstands, and so I asked her to show me one. She did it against the wall. Perhaps inspired by her bravery, perhaps foolish, I tried a headstand against the wall. But the wall, as always defeated me. It was scary to kick up against the wall.

"Let me help you get your feet up," she offered.

"Isn't that cheating?" I asked, "Shouldn't I do it on my own?"

"How do you think I learned to do handstands?" she said. "People helped me get my feet up."

So I let her help me. And, once she did, I could feel the glory of the pose against the wall, my body completely straight and aligned, toes pointing. It was a rush.

Down I went.

I couldn't believe it. I'd done a headstand.

I tried again, this time kicking up on my own, and succeeded. And again, and again, and again.

Of course, this leaves me in a dilemma. I can do headstand against a wall, it's firmness a cradle. But, I am pretty sure that I am not yet able to go on my own power. Perhaps this week as I practice using my couch to help me lift my feet, I'll get there....

There's more than one way to get into headstand.