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It may be argued that these days, our society is much too focused on “self”– the self has become the important idea, and community has been forgotten. However, in contemplating this, one realizes that self-esteem and self-confidence– or what I like to refer to as strong inner posture – is far beyond “selfishness”. These ideas are deeper than the modern-day definition of “ego”. When we speak about raising our children to love themselves and be strong within, we don’t mean to encourage undeserving accolades and award or to have children link success with external reward. Building self-esteem and self-confidence – though these words can be overused – requires some planting and gardening at the very core.

Self-esteem, in my opinion, runs much deeper than simply “feeling good about one’s self” (and we could also argue that selfishness, self-entitlement and self-centeredness may actually stem from feelings that lay on the opposite end of self-esteem). I want to extend self-esteem to include self-belief, self-trust, faith in one’s self… strong “inner posture”.

Yours is the energy that makes your world. There are no limitations to the self except those you believe in. ~Jane Roberts

As a naturopathic doctor, I get to meet a lot of people and learn a lot about causes and contributors to disease and dis-ease. Something that I come across quite frequently is a hard outer shell, but a deficiency within. A deficiency in trust in one’s own abilities and capacity – sometimes physical, sometimes functional, and often mental. A deficiency in the sincere belief that we can attain our visions (truly can) and achieve ________ (insert vision here – good health, success, a good partner… etc.). Faith in our bodies and mind and the human capacity. Respect for our Selves and for all that we are. And THIS, to me, is strong inner posture, self-esteem, and self-confidence.

Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are. ~Malcolm S. Forbes

This week, I challenge you to assess, understand, and strengthen your inner posture during your yoga practice. I challenge you to see beyond the hard outer shell, and begin to cultivate not only vision, but trust that you have the resources required to achieve that vision. Let’s marvel in the human body and mind and it’s capacity to overcome so many obstacles. And then, we will take it off our mats to achieve even greater things.

When I’m trusting and being myself… everything in my life reflects this by falling into place easily, often miraculously. ~ Shakti Gawain

Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-break on. ~ Unknown

Asana of the week:  To achieve this week’s asana of the week, it is important to work from the bottom up to find stability, security, strength, and, most of all, trust. The first chakra, located at the base of our tail bone, is responsible for feeling grounded, safe, secure. With a deficient first chakra, the core cannot fully form. The first chakra is where we learn to trust. So, take a seat today, before your practice, tall and perched on your sit bones. connect to this first chakra by rocking back and forth, left and right, to find your sit bones. Breathe here to begin. In any core conditioning posture, first bring your attention to your inner thighs and pelvic floor, firm those areas, and then move up from there. This approach will help you more effectively activate your core and will help ensure proper spinal alignment as well.

Kakasana (Crow) and Bakasana (Crane) are our apex poses today. For many people, this can be a tough one. “I don’t have the arm strength,” “I’m going to fall flat on my face,” – these are comments every yoga teacher has heard a thousand times from students. And those are the comments that are expressed aloud. I like to start with kakasana (crow) pose, as there is a very slight difference (which I cannot seem to find a resource for anywhere online) from crane, and requires more core, less brute strength, and can be a little less scary.

I like to start in a wide-knee squat, toes and heels together. Take the time to stretch here – walk your arms forward… way forward… while you press your sit bones back. Then drag one hand back, bending your elbow towards the back of the room, and snuggle the upper arm (tricep) into the upper inner thigh. Try to get it as far back as you can, as high up the arm as possible (yes, this is a big hip opener too). Drag the other arm under the other thigh, and get compact. Use those strong inner thigh muscles to squeeze the arms.

Then, look past the front of your mat, and start to move forward in space. Don’t think “up” with your hips yet, and don’t think “down” with your face (whatever you do!). Slide along a horizontal plane with the earth. You’ll reach a point where there will be no more movement.

Experiment by picking one foot off the floor – but keep squeezing those thighs! Try the other foot. And then, with courage and trust in your heart, see if you can bring both feet off the floor, heels and toes together. Keep thinking “forward”, not back or up or down. Keep the body compact, heels and buttocks close – don’t aim for lifting the buttocks high. Keep using the strength of the legs to secure you to your arms. The more you engage your inner thighs, the more you engage your core.

The next step would be to squeeze those thighs so much that your abdomen and bottom start to rise up towards the sky. Here is where I say bakasana (crane) begins. In bakasana, the hips are raised higher, the spine rounds forward, and the knees are sitting on the shelf of your triceps. BUT, you are still looking FORWARD. Then, for the full expression of the pose, you start to straighten your arms.

You are very powerful, provided you know how powerful you are. ~Yogi Bhajan

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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.

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!)

Sometimes, I feel as if I’m a broken lamp. Flickering, unable to shine out a constant, stable stream of light. My light bulb isn’t burnt out, I’m plugged in correctly. Jiggle my cord a little, and… *WHOA* – there she is: I’m shining as bright as ever. Find the right position, and I’m back to my radiant self. Our bodies are wired “like” electric circuitry. (I put “like” in quotations, because I HATE to reduce the complicated and fantastic nature of the human body to something so simple as a man-made electrical circuit.) Prana, qi, ki, blood circulation, neurologic impulses, mana, and vital energy flow through the body in complex circuits with linear and circular paths. Whichever medical system you subscribe to, you will find evidence of these organic manifestations of  circuitry. You can call these meridians, nadis, channels, networks, circulatory systems – the point is that our bodies contain communicating paths of ‘substances’ that provide us with energy to move and act and live. Thus, it only makes sense that if properly aligned (like our finicky lamp) we will find our optimal luminescence.

As the first law of thermodynamics states, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed to another type of energy or lost as heat and work. This is surprisingly the basis of many ancient medical systems. If we are constantly adding energy to our system, via breath and food (Kong Qi and Gu Qi), then we always have energy at our disposal – in theory. (This is ignoring the innate energy that we have within our body as well – in traditional Chinese energy we call these Essence and Original Qi – these we deplete via ‘work’ with age.) If we always have energy at our disposal, why does it sometimes feel like we’re nearing zero, regardless of how much we breathe or eat?

In an inefficient electrical device, sometimes it’s friction that is causing a loss of energy though heat. Sometimes there is a slight break or kink in the wiring. Sometimes an injury to the outer shell skews the alignment of the internal wiring. And we can’t ignore those devices that are just used beyond their capacity. All of these “defects” can be analogous to our bodies. This is why activities like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are said to optimize our internal energy and life force.

Putting ourselves in proper alignment, fixing our posture, strengthening our stabilizing muscles, and stretching out the compressed parts of our bodies are all “jiggles” that our wiring needs. This is not to mention the mental strength and coping strategies that we develop to handle stress (a HUGE energy-sucker), difficult people (who can certainly feel like they are robbing you of energy at times), and life’s obstacles (speaking of friction…). We learn to reduce the external losses of energy (avoiding overwork, minimizing stress, learning to say no, reinforcing our boundaries, slowing down), maintain our innate energy (remember, we cannot “create” extra energy), optimize the energy we obtain through breath and food (are you a shallow breather? are you getting your nutrients?), and keep our circuitry in line to encourage proper energy flow through our systems. Who knew yoga class is really just a physics class?!?

With the holiday season approaching, I suspect that many of us are thinking about our energy levels (or lack thereof). How can we possibly give our time and energy to others (think: office party after family get-together after open house) if we don’t feel as if we have enough for ourselves? In class today, we focused on our breath and the proper alignment of our bodies in order to optimize our energy levels. We worked on getting our circuitry in the right position to better handle the flurry of holiday parties, shopping, and activities.

Pose of the day: Last post, I spoke of my nemesis: Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. I eluded to a fantastic supine version of the pose: Supta Hasta Padangusthasana (with a strap). Well, this is our pose of the day. If this pose does not rejuvenate your legs and align their circuitry, I don’t know what will. When done with a yoga strap, ANYONE can get into a life-affirming version of this asana and reconnect with their hamstrings, hip abductors, hip adductors, and peroneals. There are three stages to the pose we practice in class:

  1. One leg is extended on the ground (we’ll start with left), toes pointing up to the sky; the other (right) is flexed at the hip and aiming towards the sky or beyond (but without sacrificing the grounding of the bottom leg and hip), strap looped around the ball of the foot.
  2. The left leg stays put, both ends of the strap move to the right hand, and the right leg opens out to the side (again, without sacrificing the grounding of the bottom leg and hip).
  3. The right leg now comes back up, through first position, we switch the belt to the left hand, and the leg crosses over the body. At this point, the left leg can now roll over onto it’s outer edge, but the upper body continues to face the sky.
Hold each of these for 5-10 breaths, then switch legs! Note how much longer your right leg feels before you go to your left. Now, how can we optimize the alignment in this pose? A few tips:
  • Activate the feet by flexing them as if you are standing on the ground. Activate them more by concentrating on pushing out through your big toe mounds and pulling up on the pinky toe. Our tendency is to sickle our feet in the opposite direction. It takes effort to prevent this, but it will strengthen the muscles we need to keep our knees and ankles healthy!
  • When in stage 1 of the pose, bring the leg away from you slightly, and then feel both hips ground equally. Don’t move your top leg unless you can move it without lifting the right hip and the left thigh!
  • Keep the legs STRAIGHT. This is not to say LOCKED – engage your quad muscle and keep those feet working!
  • When the leg opens out to the side, only open it so far as your opposite hip stays put. Use the strap to keep your femur bone integrated into the hip socket. Continue to work your feet.
  • When the leg crosses over, work on pulling the hip back and away from your torso to increase the stretch. Hello, IT band!
  • Throughout this asana, BREATHE. Relax your shoulders (they should not be involved) and your face.

“love life, engage in it, give it all you’ve got. love it with a passion, because life truly does give back, many times over, what you put into it” ~ Maya Angelou

We have options when it comes to how we live life. As we all know, life isn’t always smooth and simple, nor is it always exciting and stimulating. Sometimes we have to work a job that we don’t like, we need to use up weekends for chores, we need to commute to work. We encounter traffic, unreasonable bosses, lulls in love life, tears and anger. Yet, it is still our life, and it’s ours to live. I can’t say I understand anyone’s pain, or boredom, or despair, or discontent; but I can advise to live fully, in whatever life you have. You are the captain of your ship.

We can choose to engage, or disengage. We can choose to act, or to float through. We can participate, or watch by the sidelines. We can interact with those around us, join yoga classes, make connections; or disconnect and isolate. And just like in life, we can do so in our yoga practice.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.“ ~ Henry David Thoreau

So today, check in throughout your yoga practice. Are you watching, or living? Is every muscle participating in your warrior I? Is your mind present and listening to your body through sun salutations? Are you enjoying yourself? It’s impossible not to check out every once in a while; but our challenge with yoga, as in life, is to train ourselves to resuscitate the light inside.

“I will live this day as if it is my last.

Each hour of this day will I cherish for it can never return.  Each minute of this day will I grasp with both hands and fondle with love for its value is beyond price. What dying man can purchase another breath though he willingly give all his gold? What price dare I place on the hours ahead? I will make them priceless!

I will live this day as if it is my last.“

~adapted from The Greatest Salesman In The World by Og Mandino

Pose of the day: Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Yes, it’s a mouthful. The mere mention of this pose sends me into a downward spiral of anxiety and negative thinking. In English, this is Extended Hand-to-Foot pose. It’s about balance, it’s about hamstring and hip flexibility, it’s about leg strength. And it is intense. You can read up about the pose in a detailed article here, and see a quick picture here. As the article states, you can practice this pose laying on the ground with a belt around your tops foot, as an option. In fact, this is my FAVOURITE pose. But bring it vertical, and I feel it.

In this class, we did this pose standing, but with a belt at the wall, as the picture to the left shows. Easy? No. If you’re doing it right, you are WORKING. You are engaging your legs (ESPECIALLY that bottom leg), you are feeling the burn, you are standing tall, and you are feeling ALIVE. Tips to help you engage:

  1. Make sure that your bottom foot (on the ground) is pointing towards the wall, at a perfect 90 degree angle to the wall. It will want to turn out. Don’t let it.
  2. Keep that standing leg STRAIGHT. I’m not saying to hyperextend the knee, I’m telling you to work it. It’s tougher than you think.
  3. Have someone check your position (or use a mirror). Your legs should form a perfect 90 degree angle to each other. Make sure that standing leg is not too far away from the wall- as this is cheating. 🙂 You most likely want to thrust the pelvis forward, especially on the side of the leg that is on the wall. Push the hips back to the middle of the room. Square off your hips to the wall. And NOW tell me you don’t feel it.
  4. Your upper body is standing tall and straight. Don’t lean back – you are not driving a horse and carriage. Make the side body is tall and long.
  5. Smile. This may be the hardest part. If you feel it, it means you are engaged. You are alive… celebrate this. And celebrate tonight with a hot epsom salt bath. 🙂

Note: This is a class from the past. I am letting go of my procrastination today, and catching up on my yoga blog. I have skeleton posts in place, which I will try to fill in the best I can. However, I’m also trying to let go of my other “p” default pattern: perfectionism. So please practice understanding and forgiveness for any non-sensical entries. You will gain some insight into how my mind works…

Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.  ~Chinese Proverb

This summer, I have had to learn and relearn A LOT. Studying for board exams, you realize that though nothing you are reading should be new, there are going to be things that seem new. So, instead of reacting with stress and frustration, I have chosen to react with celebration. Thus, in celebration of learning today, we are looking at yoga as a learning experience.

Be a student so long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life.  ~Henry L. Doherty

In life, we are constantly learning. We are also constantly making mistakes, making choices, meeting people. Learning helps us to grow, and it helps satisfy a deeper need to grow and evolve. One who stops learning completely is one who loses their spark. You can see evidence everywhere of our efforts to find new things to learn: joining a new sport, meeting a new person, researching a new “useless” factoid. We are a fantastically curious species.

Which brings us to yoga. Why do we come, week after week, to our mats? We come to our mats to retrain our bodies- to learn and RElearn healthy patterns in our muscles, our posture, and in our minds. We come to train our muscles through muscle memory- gaining strength and stability to take out into our lives. We come to remind our spines how to extend upwards, our limbs how to align in a natural way, our feet how to ground. We come to observe our minds when given the time to just be, when we put our bodies in challenging positions, challenging predicaments. Finally, we come to learn how to bring all of this knowledge off the mat.

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.  ~Willa Cather

Today, let us regard our mats as our own, individual classrooms. Learn about your left knee, the furrow in your forehead, your breath, your strength. We are also going to take some extra time teaching our bodies the best, most life-affirming posture to take off our mats.

Pose of the day: The most common posture problems are usually a slouched upper back (excessive kyphosis) and  excessive curve (lordosis) in the lumbar spine. Today, our focus was retraining our spines into healthy position. A simple, but effective pose to gain back some awareness in the spine is Cat-Cow Pose (or Marjaryasana and Bitilasana). One might think that this would only EMPHASIZE these two curvatures in the spine; however, what is emphasized depends on the practitioner’s focus.

In Cat pose, as we are puffing our backs up towards the sky, we have to bring our attention to the LOWER back. Pulling the belly-button towards the spine (note, I did NOT say “sucking in the stomach”) and imagining puffing up your kidneys (they lie closest to your back, under the last set of “false ribs” at the level of the 12th vertebrae). Don’t focus on your upper spine: your upper, or thoracic, spine knows exactly how to attain this position, as it has a natural curvature in this direction.

In Cow pose, the opposite happens. Here, instead of focusing on overdoing the curve of the lower back (the lower back, or lumbar spine, knows innately how to do this) we bring attention to bringing the shoulder blades together and melting the heart towards the earth. We should be stretching out the heart area, the pectoral muscles that shorten and tighten as we slouch, and activating the muscles that pull our shoulder blades back and down.

Doing a few cat-cows every day will bring awareness to your spine, activate your muscles, and stimulate blood flow. It’s just one simple thing to do to re-learn good posture and learn a few things about your own patterns. Not only that, but its also a great way to wake up!

 

Last Monday was my final plane trip of the summer, ending my final journey before I settle down and hit the books really hard before my Naturopathic Licensing Exam in August. Although some in my position chose to defer travel until after the exam, I decided to intersperse my studying with a hint of fun to keep myself refreshed and motivated.

Arriving home on Monday night made me reflect on the several trips that I have been so fortunate to take part in so far this year: some to familiar places (home), some to far away exotic places (India), and this most recent trip to a much anticipated music festival in Chicago with my sister-in-law. Many people work for vacation: travel tends to be quite high on people’s priority lists, especially now as it has become more available and convenient for those of us in the developed world. Yet, each time I embark on a vacation, I find myself questioning why this is such a coveted activity. Travel is not always (okay, it is rarely) a comfortable thing: we are uprooting to place ourselves in unfamiliar and unpredictable places and situations. When travelling with others, we put ourselves at risk of possible contradiction and confrontation. When travelling alone, there is an element of danger and risk. This does not seem to differ much from life itself- with the exception of more “adventure” being packed into a shorter time frame. It really does make one aware of how life is a journey in itself: fluctuations between comfort and discomfort, ease and dis-ease, feeling grounded and feeling overwhelmed. In addition, it makes one aware that the remedy for all of this is presence, breath, and acceptance- in life as in travel… and in yoga as in life.

Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it. ~ Greg Anderson

In this week’s practice, we paid attention to the similarities between the journey we take through a yoga practice, in comparison to the other journeys we take. As our “flight” departs into the skies of sun salutations, emotions and feelings and thoughts fluctuate between optimism for the journey ahead, to fear, through acceptance. Our body temperature goes from cold to hot, as we begin to self-regulate and adjust to the “altitude”. We experience discomfort (from cramped seating) and flow (once we’ve found a good book or movie to watch) all in one flight. And as we touch down, we face the unknown of what lies ahead. Just as in a good trip, regardless of what has been “planned”, there will always be room for mishaps, blips, and unexpected events. Yet, as in a good trip, equanimity and acceptance help to get us through these twists and turns. We breathe into it- whether we’re facing the fact that we’ve boarded the wrong train, or whether our thighs are fatiguing faster than we expected in Warrior II. We acknowledge the situation, we check in with our own safety and security, and then we deal with the situation at hand.

The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination. ~ Don Williams, Jr.

What makes a trip/journey memorable anyway? There are 2 types of things I remember about my vacations: the times of pure and complete flow- of sattva- and the unexpected (and sometimes unwelcome) twists and turns. A good vacation story is not complete without these two types of events.

A yoga class is no different. We remember how present we feel in that 5th sun salutation flow, when it becomes second nature again. The joints stop talking, the mind slows down, and we are in the moment. Breath seems to come and go effortlessly, the one bead of sweat trickling down our nose is just perfect. I compare this to watching a sunrise/sunset on the beach, pure relaxation; gliding effortlessly through the sand or water; taking a long, deep breath of fresh air.

On the other hand, we also remember THAT pose. Yes, THAT one. The one we “couldn’t do”. The one we never thought our teacher would have the guts to introduce on the second class back after a few months off. It was hard, it was uncomfortable, it was almost mean. The mind started talking louder, expletives start to sneak their way into our peaceful yogic state… until we remember to breathe through it. All of a sudden, there is a flash of acceptance, realization that we’ve made it through the pose. And then those magical words, “… and… RELEASE!” I equate this memory to that memory of the 2 hour traffic jam that you get caught in (“…on my vacation! I’m forced to waste 2 hours of MY VACATION!”), the hotel that has somehow lost your reservations, or the realization that you have forgotten your favourite hat on a blistering day of touring. But, when you think about it, without that traffic jam, you may not have had those two hours to roll the windows down and just rock out to your favourite two CDs with your travel partner. Without the blip in your accommodation plans, you may not have found that perfect little bed & breakfast (where you met the nicest couple from Hawaii, who is willing to host you if you should visit). If you had remembered your hat, you would have never ventured towards the little market to find another favourite hat (and the most delicious coconut to quench your thirst!). After you have taken yourself out of the uncomfortable pose, you realize that you have opened up something that wasn’t there before. You are better for it.

If we approach each yoga practice as a little vacation, we can more easily understand our own reactions to life situations. Consequently, by then practicing equanimity, presence, and acceptance on the mat, we start to gain insight on how to take this off our mats, and into our real life vacations… or even, into our journey through life itself.

Pose of the day: Although I took the students a step further into a challenging Revolved Half Moon (Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana), I find that the pose Parivrtta Utkatasana (Revolved Chair pose) is perfect for illustrating the theme of this class. Nobody (that I know personally) loves Chair pose… especially when held for long periods of time. Thighs start burning, teeth must be coaxed into a non-gritting (smiling?) state… Add a twist, and it’s even difficult to remember to breathe. Your teacher is reminding you to squat lower, while your legs “inadvertently” try to straighten. Shoulders begin to tense up and creep toward the ears (luckily, your yoga teacher is also there to remind you to relax those as well). Then, 3 breaths in, you find yourself twisting a little more. You’ve found your breath- inhale and lengthen the side body, exhale and twist a little deeper. You feel a release deep inside your spine. You find yourself looking upwards, and, though your legs start to tremble a little, you may be smiling. the magic word (“…and… RELEASE!”) comes, and you curl out, feeling wrung out, but pretty darn good. The other side can’t wait. Yoga is all about putting ourselves into minor physical discomfort for the greater good. Time to share your joy with others and twist the night away.

As my students know well, I love to discuss how yoga applies to everyday life. Beyond the physical benefits and the stress relief, the practice of yoga teaches us lessons far beyond the obvious. In my first class back after a small hiatus from teaching, I introduced this session’s theme: How life is reflected in yoga, how yoga is reflected in life.

As with all “first ____ back”-s, I thought the first class back would be a fantastic way to illustrate this analogy. It is not a “first” for anyone, just like the first day of school after the age of 5 or 6, the first day back to work after vacation, the first day of a new job in the same field, getting back to the gym after a break, first time seeing your family after a while away. We have been in a similar position before; we have past experience with similar events. We can “half” know what to expect… yet, it is actually this element of the situation that can work to our detriment. Unlike something brand new, when we return to something that we recognize, we have preset expectations. Expectations of what may happen, expectations of how others may behave, expectations of ourselves.

As we start this new session of yoga, we may be feeling a little apprehensive. Perhaps it has been a while. There is a conversation running through our heads: “…will i be able to do___?… has Jenn changed as a teacher?… will she make us do ____?… have the others been practicing?…”. There is excitement, dread, uncertainty, with a dash of experience and knowledge. And this conversation in our head we are having, what does it serve? It is partially a protective mechanism- to protect us from disappointment, to guide us through the experience: how we should be acting, what skills we need to use in this situation. However, there is always an element of the unknown as well. In yoga, it is no different. This is why we try to slow down a little in yoga and take note of the thoughts, take note of our body’s response, and weed through the useful and the useless.

In asana practice, we can utilize this and exercise our acceptance and presence in these situations. Flowing through a basic set of postures this week- nothing new, nothing crazy- we can take time to listen to our bodies and our minds. You will notice some new feelings, some old. You will hear that voice again- sometimes positive (“oooh! my favorite pose! I’m good at this one,”), sometimes negative (“I hate this one. Why can’t I stay balanced?”). The trick to finding the flow in yoga is the same as the trick to finding flow in life: listening. Be aware and flexible in your body and mind so that you can adapt to the moment at hand. Breathe, and enjoy.

The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears the truth. ~ Gaston Bachelard

Pose of the day: Warrior II

Stable, familiar. Use this pose to slow your breath and look inside. How do you feel? Appreciate that your legs are grounded, they know what to do here. What happens when your thigh begins to burn? Do you let your mind take over?

Remember that the breath is always there. The earth is beneath to support you. Whether it is holding a pose past the point of comfort, or feeling somewhat out of control on that first day back to work (discomfort can also come from the pile of papers on your desk) you have done it before. Release your disappointment, breathe in the new experience, and tackle it head on. You are a warrior.

Unfortunately, I let too much time slip by this time around before entering our practice for this consciousness-opening class (and, consequently, have forgotten the class!). However, there is one key pose that helps to stimulate one’s 7th chakra, Sahasrara chakra, and to tie up our journey through the chakras, described below. However, most of all, Sahasrara chakra governs the all important practice of meditation. Sahasrara chakra connects us to something greater– greater than the mental insight of Chakra 6, the expression of chakras 4 and 5, and the primal needs and motivation of the first three chakras– it connects us to the pervasive wisdom of all beings, of the universe, and gives us perspective to understand something deeper about the nature of ourselves and life around us. Just as we practice asana to cleanse our organs, and we bathe to cleanse our skin, the busy mind also needs clearing out from time to time.  All the various forms of meditation, including concentration and insight practices, allow the mind to become more present, clear, and insightful. (Side note: Interested in meditation? A nice book to get you started: Mindfulness in Plain English. Also, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn, the author.)

Sirsasana, or headstand, stimulates the seventh chakra quite directly. Called the “mother of all asanas” due to the effect it has on the brain and mind. The inversion of this pose causes increased and unrestricted blood flow to the brain. This brings increased oxygen, nutrient and vitality providing energy to the mind, clarity of thought and ease of concentration. In class, we learned the importance of all the other chakras in this pose: openness in the heart (and shoulders) to allow the hips to come into the proper position, the will and strength of the abdomen, and the grounding into the earth required for this pose.

To end, a wonderful summary care of the Yoga Journal website (www.yogajournal.com).

Focused on transcendence, many people seeking higher consciousness have disregarded the importance of the lower chakras. Yet we all need strong and solid support of our base chakras in order to open to the spiritual in a healthy and integrated way. The lower chakras focus on details such as our home, familiy, and feelings, while the upper chakras develop synthesizing views and wisdom that help us understand the grander order of things. All of our chakras affect one another and ultimately work together. As we learn to use this ancient Indian system to understand our lives, we can gain insight into personal issues that require our attention—and we can use the techniques of hatha yoga to bring our chakras and lives back into harmony.

– By Barbara Kaplan Herring, “Asanas for the Chakra System”

Just me…

2010 Journey

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