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When we think of core strength, our society often envisions hard, flat abdomens. This, somehow, has become the embodiment of a healthy physique in our culture and sells everything from yogurt to underwear. But is this healthy? And most of all, is this important? If we look at the most prominent yogis of the past (including the Buddha himself), we see that not one is “blessed” with a six-to-ten-pack. In fact, many have quite the ‘Buddha belly’. But does that make them weak? According to yogic, Ayurvedic, and even traditional Chinese medical philosophy, it is quite the contrary.

The belly, or the abdomen, is a centre of power, and where a large reserve of energy/qi/prana is held. Thus, if one has worked to develop a supple, flexible, and innately strong midsection (not tense, hard, and blocked), they can tap into an infinite resource of energy. This does not mean that the bellies we see in IHOP or at a buffet are healthy – too much belly fat is detrimental to health. However, the opposite – overworking the abs to eliminate all fat and harden the muscles beneath- is also detrimental to health. Women, especially, are not usually made for six-pack abs naturally. And striving for this is quite unrealistic. If you think of a healthy muscle or muscle group, it is at it’s optimal strength when it is both strong AND flexible – springy and elastic. A tense muscle, especially a stabilizing muscle, cannot attain its optimal strength.

Not only does overworking the abs harm us physically, but it also creates some psychological blockages as well. It only overemphasizes “control” – making our bellies hard to try to “keep it together” and avoid vulnerability. It causes a sort of “mental constipation” – where we are not following intuition, only rules and order… where we are not free to act on our will, but according to standards or society. Yogis, though also warriors and soldiers, require a supple belly in order to connect to a strong core of space and calm within.

In addition, the core encompasses much more than just abdominals. Our posture is greatly determined by the balance of local and global muscles around the spine. Some shorten as they weaken, some shorten as they are overused. Some become overstretched, while others need a good stretching. It is the balance of these muscles that determine what our default posture becomes. And often, in our society, it can be an ugly balance. Again, yoga practice does not only physically attempt to bring the body back into alignment, but in strengthening the core, we are also strengthening a mental core as well. Our internal strength translates in our integrity of character and the ability to remain stable, calm, and authentic despite external conditions. By reconnecting with our body’s optimal alignment and strength, we take stress off of the nervous system, we create space within, and we feel good about ourselves.

Asana of the week: We begin with breath. Our asana this week, is easy seated pose (or Sukhasana). We are going to connect to our core with breath. A supple (but strong) belly is needed to use one’s full breath capacity. Activated core muscles are required to sit tall, without back support, with our legs crossed. (If you feel as if your sit bones are rolling forward when you sit, roll up your mat, use a blanket, or a cushion/bolster to prop up your bottom. Your knees should fall below your hip bones, and you should be seated right on your sit bones, spine long.) Keep in mind that deep, diaphragmatic breathing does not entail pushing your belly out deliberately. Full belly breathing just requires a naturally alternating engagement and release. To assure deep diaphragmatic breathing, first engage the abdomen in a complete exhalation, then allow your lungs to fill up naturally, relaxing the abdomen but not pushing it outward.

Place your right hand on your abdomen so that you may feel your breath moving your diaphragm, your left hand at your heart centre. Breathe slowly and deliberately, sensing the strength of your inner core as your obliques and deep transversus muscles compress to expel the air from your lungs completely. Then enjoy the flow of oxygen that fills your chest as these muscles release, creating space for prana to stream into your heart like water flowing into a basin. After a few minutes, allow your breath to resume its natural pattern. Observe it without criticism or effort. Imagine your abdominal cavity as the fluid container of your deepest wisdom and feel the energy at your navel radiating throughout your body.

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While finding myself falling into an old pattern, rushing frantically to teach yoga this evening, I realized that it was no big surprise that most of my yoginis had “balance” as a part of their yoga vision for 2012. Whether it was physical balance – one-legged poses, arm balances – or balance in other forms, I found an essence of this theme in practically everyone’s goals. And for a good reason: yoga IS balance.

Yoga literally means “to yoke” – to yoke two opposites together, to yoke together mind and body, to yoke together sky and earth. It is the practice, the discipline, that helps to join these together. I like to interpret it further and to apply it to modern day life – to me, it is the discipline that we can use to aid in balancing our spiritual life and our day-to-day life. It helps to create balance between effort and relaxation, between suppleness and strength. And most of all, it helps to reach more of a balance within our bodies – a balance of the elements, of health.

What is balance within? We all have constitutional types, and we contain different proportions of the elements within. We each have individual susceptibilities to individual imbalances. Some of us tend to over-accumulate fire (stress, overwork, migraines, heat symptoms), some, tamas (sluggishness, weight gain, lethargy). Some of us have too much air/wind  (anxiety, lack of grounding, constipation), some may have an overactive water element (oedema, lack of drive, emotional). Our constitution makes us individual, gives us some character, and determines our body types. However, we CAN reach our optimal health within these different tendencies and constitutions.

Although the simple act of yoga certainly does inspire balance, I would say that the FIRST effect we see from yoga is likely the AWARENESS that yoga brings us. Yoga gives us the space to observe our own bodies and minds, their relationships with the world around us, our actions and reactions, and, most of all, where we might be “out of balance”. Identifying our susceptibilities and patterns is the first step to knowing where and how to adjust when we’re feeling “off”. This is why yoga is fantastic: regardless of our individual makeup, our practice can be modified to rebalance our unique internal environments. A balanced yoga practice will work on the core requirements for balance: strength, flexibility, endurance, and calm. We will all experience a class differently – within our bodies and minds. Depending on your individual body composition and needs, you will feel a balanced yoga class where you need to feel it. (This being said, it is best to be in a class that is mindful of your individual constitutional makeup and is geared to ou as an individual – smaller class sizes, more attentive, with modifications, knowledgeable teacher. Many classes in our society are only right for one constitutional type… and often not the most needed.)

So, lets hear it for yoga and balance. Let’s toast to our individuality and to the development of awareness within. When you begin to learn more about yourself and understand the way your body works, it makes it that much easier to rebalance – within and without. We strengthen what needs to be strengthened, and relax what requires relaxation. The result: health in body, mind, and spirit.

Asana of the day: Dancer’s pose, or Natarajasana. What a beautiful pose! When you see someone in this full pose, it is impossible not to take in a deep breath of awe. And why? The balance of this pose is impeccable. Not only are we in a asymmetrical shape, standing on one leg, but you can literally feel the balance of energies here- reaching forward and back, stretching toward the sky while grounded below, strength and flexibility. The origin of this pose is exactly this: the god Nataraj dances the dance life – the delicate balance between creation, maintenance,  and destruction. Attaining this pose is all about working on that balance.

Begin always by standing in the most basic form of this pose: one hand on the hip, one hand holding the foot or ankle behind you. This may be your pose. The knee is slightly forward, hip flexors are relaxed. The bottom foot is grounded, toes spread out, connecting to something deeper below. Your head is tall, reaching toward the sky. You keep the hips square, and you breathe. You may reach the opposite hand up to the sky here.

If you want to go further, the foot begins pressing backwards into the hand. Feel the creativity begin to flow – this opens the heart and the front body. As you press the foot into the hand, you counterbalance this backwards movement by reaching forwards with the heart and the hand a little – move slow in order to tune into what is going on within the body. Monitor your stability, know your limits. When you have reached the point of balance, you pause and breathe. The chin is slightly lifted, eyes are soft and focused. Bottom leg is strong and stable, the energy is flowing in an arc from your outstretched arm through your back leg – reaching in all directions. Enjoy. Breathe. And come out as gracefully as you came in – balanced, calm, and strong.

Visioning Drifting, without aim or purpose, is the first cause of (perceived) failure.

Without a plan for your life, it is easier to follow the course of least resistance, to go with the flow, to drift with the current with no particular destination in mind. Having a definite plan for your life greatly simplifies the process of making hundreds of daily decisions that affect your ultimate success. When you know where you want to go, you can quickly decide if your actions are moving you toward your goal or away from it. Without definite, precise goals and a plan for their achievement, each decision must be considered in a vacuum. Definiteness of purpose provides context and allows you to relate specific actions to your overall plan. ~ Napoleon Hill

I often speak about our misled society – especially at the onset of the New Year. I speak about how we are too focused on goals, on moving forward, on failure and accomplishment. Yet, as the preceding quote has identified, there is also something unproductive about living without goals. It can make us indecisive, unsettled, unmotivated. Today we are going to celebrate goals – but goals in a new sense of the word. We will instead call them visions. And this doesn’t mean visions in “The Secret” sense. For these visions, we are delving deep into our authentic selves and seeing ourselves how we are meant to be.

Yes, this can be quite hard work.

However, once we can identify the vision of our Selves – with a capital S – we can more easily understand where our actions today, in this moment are leading us. We can see not only WHAT we are striving towards, but WHY we are striving towards it. We can more easily make decisions by asking ourselves, “Is this in line with my vision?”. It does not only help us say “yes”, but also “no” when necessary. It reduces the clutter of thoughts and miscellaneous, unrealistic “goals” that cause us anxiety and a feeling of failure. So, this class, let’s take the time to visualize our selves as we were meant to be.

You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction. ~ Alvin Toffler

I’d like to entice everyone to think about something you’d like to achieve in your yoga practice this year, and how it aligns with your larger goal. For example, if inner and outer strength is what you see in yourself, and you would like to start to show it to the world, perhaps your goal is something like being able to sit for 10 minutes a day in meditation. Or perhaps you see yourself holding bakasana (Crow pose) for 3 breaths.

Dissatisfaction and discouragement are not caused by the absence of things but the absence of vision. ~ Anonymous

Asana of the day: Though class was full of reaching for the stars with challenging poses today, I would challenge everyone to do 5 mental sun salutations – surya namaskar – today. (There are several variations to sun salutations – use the one that you are most familiar with.) (Here is one version, to refresh your memory.) Watch your body as it achieves length and superb strength through each posture in the series. Imagine how it might feel to stretch as long and tall as you can in urdhva hastasana, open heart, feet grounded. See yourself as an image of strength and beauty in high lunge. Imagine your core in a full chaturanga dandasana. So, close your eyes, and get to it! (You can even add in a few real sun salutations if you’d like!)

Just me…

2010 Journey

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