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What does “living yoga” really mean?

Yes, yoga is a way of relieving stress. We can all attest to this. by calming the mind, taking it off of “flight” mode and into a more focused space, we give ourselves that hour to clean house. in addition, the physical activity and opening is always good for us.

On a deeper level, yoga opens our energetic bodies. The things we cannot see are sometimes those that have the biggest effect. We can all fell the difference after class, that intangible feeling while laying in Savasana, the body grounded and alive. Not only is this the physical effect of increased circulation, re-oxygenation, and elongation of the structures within, but also the effect of energy flow. this is what helps us combat blockages, or dis-ease, in our body.

Yet, there are other ways we live yoga. Besides the physical postures we learn (and can practice, even at our desks, throughout the day!), the breathing techniques (which help especially in times of anger or frustration), and the stress relief that ensues, there are key lessons that we learn and cultivate through this practice. If you scan through our themes of the last 10 week-journey, you may recognize a few overarching ideas to help us flow through life with more grace and joy…

  • For ourselves: we learn to live fully, to cultivate happiness, by:
    • living gratitude
    • cultivating the ability to step back and gain perspective on life
    • tuning into, and accepting, our own bodies, strengths, limitations–
  • For others: we become better in our relationships, by:
    • allowing us to better understand and accept others through self-reflection
    • cultivating presence
    • practicing non-judgement

This class, we celebrate all we have learned, and all we have to learn through yoga. this class, we resolve to LIVE YOGA.

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This week’s theme was a personal glimpse into my life… I would not usually discuss personal things like this on such a blog, but it was very relevant to my choice of themes this week. Although this was not on my original list of resolutions, it seemed very appropriate that I would “spontaneously” add it at the last minute.

I am most probably described as a more “stable” rather than “spontaneous” person. I have never really been one to pick up and leave on vacation without arduous planning, nor do I even feel comfortable ditching an evening’s plans for a night on the town. i have never had a surprise party, as i think my loved ones fear that I may not even be surprised (trust me, if it was a good secret, I would). and i also know that, for me, this is probably due to a fear of losing control. Yet, the week of this class, I found that losing control could actually give you much insight and perspective into life, freedom, and your emotions.

I was utterly surprised by my 8-year partner/sharer of life/companion/best friend/lover, and now, fiancee, with a proposal for marriage. You might say, “Eight years? Didn’t you see it coming?”… and to be honest, I did not see it being this much a surprise. But there I was, in tears, in the middle of a restaurant after a romantic Earth Hour Anniversary Dinner, overcome with surprise. At the mercy of my happiness and of my tears. And for once, I was okay with this lack of control. I felt more in the moment than I have in a long time. Being surprised, having a spontaneous change dropped into my life…. these were welcomed, and joyful.

Finding joy and adaptability in many different situations is one of our goals with yoga. We become flexible in body and mind. This is why this week’s theme “spontaneously” became “spontaneity”. Embracing all life has to offer and going with it’s flow is the epitome of freedom… even when life throws us a fast one! There IS a time and place for spontaneity… even for a control freak!

*I apologize that it took me so long to get this up here… in consequence, I was not able to post an Asana column for this week! So sorry!*

In our “Room to Breathe” class, we used heart openers and twists to open up our chest cavity and our spine to enhance this “room to breathe” within our bodies. We stretched out our spines and opened up our hearts, creating space within the physical body, enhancing movement through our energetic channels, and encouraging that big, clear, empty blue-sky mind to appear.

By starting with elongating poses such as Crescent Moon(s) (see here and here for the two versions we performed) and Cobra, we started stretching out our rib cages and creating space and heat to further open our hearts.

From here, we started twisting– remembering to always twist from the tallest spine possible, we wrung out our bodies to increase the blood flow and oxygen delivery to all organs, all muscles, all joint spaces and tissues. Starting with simple partner twists, we progressed through standing pose twists (like Parivrtta Parsvokonasana) and into luscious seated twists (like Marichyasana).

And what are we accomplishing by twisting and getting our bodies all bound up? Well, exactly the opposite. More room for expansion, dissipating tension, and liberated minds.

Unfortunately, this resolution necessitates my confession about a part of me that I really do not like too much. I am chronically late. Well, I am not late to yoga classes,  but I am a few minutes late to everything else (unless my partner is in charge and pushing me out the door). This year, instead of resolving to “Be on time”, I decided to celebrate the times I am early and remember how great it feels to have “time to breathe”.

In our society, we seem to be constantly rushing. Add a 5-minute-late start time to this and you start to feel like you are running everywhere. What does this do to our bodies? The constant high levels of cortisol (and not to mention many spurts of adrenaline NOT induced by a sabre-tooth tiger chase) not only induces mental-emotional stress, but starts to stress out every tissue, every cell in our bodies. THIS is not desirable. THIS is what ages our cells, what makes it difficult for them to repair when damaged, and what creates unfavorable conditions for health. And THIS is why we have to give ourselves room to breathe: through yoga, through taking time off, through being on time (in my case, at least!).

Thus, this year, I am trying hard to be conscious of that space I can leave for myself… and NOT cramming in as much as possible at the last minute.I am going to recognize- and enjoy- this room: the extra time I can use to sit down before class and enjoy a coffee with someone. The extra breath of fresh air I get by strolling– not running- to the streetcar in the morning. And, most of all, the extra space I can create for my breath through taking the time to practice yoga– stretching, twisting, creating movement and reducing the adhesions that stress brings to our bodies.

A yoga class with the theme of discomfort? That sounds painful!

This class may have been focused on discomfort, but NOT pain. We used a structured class to strengthen the weak spots and loosen the tight ones until we found ourselves in poses that would have otherwise seemed painful.

Highlights of the class included standing splits, where we challenged our flexibility and our strength while holding a leg as high up as possible… and adding in a toe raise at the end!

At the wall, we stretched out our quads and hip flexors with Eka Pada Rajakapotasana preparation. See here for a reenaction of this intense wall stretch. We grinned through the discomfort, with the hope of leaving class with more inner strength and adaptability.

Last, but not least, we found ourselves in Hanumanasana – whatever version of splits called us on that particular day. Without judgement, we found the most life-affirming variation of the pose for us, and held it with breath, determination, and optimism.

Let us not forget a final seated  discomfort known for bringing unpleasant but wonderful opening to all the tight-hipped yogis of the world… Agnistambasana (shown above), or fire log pose. This is a fabulous (and hilarious) blog entry about this pose.

The other day, I was thinking about personal growth. What is it about age that makes us wiser, stronger, more experienced? Having recently celebrated another birthday (a milestone this time: 30), it was interesting to think back to ten years ago and how much growth has happened… but also to think about how much growth can still happen.

It was brought to my attention that there are things ten years ago that I would have never have done, things that caused fear, anxiety, discomfort… things that today, I do almost daily. There are things I thought were beyond my reach because of inherent “character flaws”… things that have now became attainable. Then, when I think about how these barriers were broken, I realize they were not necessarily easy. Growth can be a slow process; it is the process of putting one’s self into uncomfortable positions, over and over again, until that particular situation becomes progressively easier.

Sound familiar? Funny enough, when I was saying this the other day, I actually didn’t even realize what I was saying until my beautifully perceptive and ingenious partner started laughing. I looked at him, and he smiled and said, “That’s yoga.”

When you think of it this way, anything is attainable (yes, even Hanumanasana) and the growth one can achieve through a lifetime is limitless. This year, one of my resolutions was to avoid shying away from discomfort, as these experiences are what help us to continue growing, long past those important developmental years of childhood.

For example, feel shy about expressing yourself in groups? Give talks. Start small, with a group of friends, work your way up until it is second nature (or just throw yourself in and become a yoga instructor). Do you hate talking sales and self-promotion? Take every chance you get to get into a sales-like position. Of course, everyone may have things that they just never want to do: but don’t let your (sometimes false) perception of yourself be the reason you avoid it. Remember the strength we talked about (and cultivated) last week… if something calls you, dive in!

Most importantly though, remember that growth is a process. In yoga, we don’t jump right into intense positions in our first class ever, nor in the first 10-20 minutes of any class. As in yoga, discomfort is not pain: stay present, listen to your body and your heart, and remember to breathe.

Despite what a “strength” class may sound like, we did try to incorporate all kinds of strength in this class, not only physical strength: mental strength, emotional strength, and energetic strength. Yet, I’m sure the muscles would disagree the next day!

Our physical strength component of the class included upper and lower body, back and front body. We worked our back muscles not only in our weekly baby Cobras (this link also has good pictures to show the difference between the different backbends) but in holding Warrior II with a new “cactus arm”, meant to strengthen our back stabilizing muscles and remind us to keep our hearts open!

Our front body and core were worked hard in Plank and Chataranga Danadasana: everyone’s favorite challenge! Here, we experienced a little workshop at the wall with this pose transition: with the heels at the wall, we aimed to take some of the weight off our arms and hands and more into our core stabilizing muscles all the way down our body.

We worked our legs and cultivated our inner ball of energy with a Qi-Gong-inspired flow in which we held our Horse stance through a series of breath to ground, stabilize, and build. Through working with the breath, that which brings us life through oxygen, we are able to enhance the energy we have within. The best part is that breathing can be incorporated into your day at ANY time. And no one will look at you funny, as they might if you start doing yoga in the office.

Finally, after opening the shoulders a little more through some Dolphin poses, we gathered the last of our strength to attempt some Bakasana (I apologize for this man’s outfit (or lack thereof!) but it is good instruction!): a pose that, in my opinion, requires much more mental strength (to try, try again!) than physical strength!

Most importantly, we always must remember Child’s pose as the ultimate pose for cultivating and conserving our strength. Remember to take metaphorical child’s poses once in a while through day-to-day life… it does wonders for the aura!

One of my favorite questions to ask in a naturopathic intake (for more about naturopathic medicine in Canada, see here) is: “Do you feel strong?” Yes, it seems very broad. And that is why I love it.

What is your definition of strength? Can you recognize it in yourself? Is strength purely a physical characteristic for you? Everyone tends to interpret this concept more heavily in one way more than the others– this interpretation itself gives a lot of information about you. Of course, it is contextual as well: if you are asked this in a gym, then it is pretty certain that you answer from a physical perspective. But what if you were asked in a yoga class?

This is the beauty of yoga: yes, we are building physical strength– anyone can tell that after a long 5 breaths in plank position, or after a struggle to get into bakasana (crow pose). However, we are also working internally… past the muscles, past the bones, right into you heart and mind. That is mental strength and will-power keeping you in Warrior 2 way past the burning thighs begin. And it is energetic strength you feel after class when your whole body is buzzing and you feel like new. and emotional strength? When we balance our body, our mind and heart follow. The clarity and evenness we practice in meditation and savasana are what set the foundation for a strong, even and non-reactive heart and mind.

So, do you feel strong? I am hoping that the answer is yes: that you feel strong mentally, emotionally, physically, energetically. Secondly, I hope that, like me, you recognize these strengths and cultivate them daily. I have a tendency, like many, to focus on aspects of myself to improve, things I’ve failed to do, and skills that I do not have. Although it is always beneficial to work on that in which we fall slightly behind, it is even more important to cherish that in which we excel. That is not to say boast it, but wear it proudly. We all have dharma, a path (or two, three, four), and we have been blessed with individual and unique skills, characteristics, and inherent knowledge to get us there. Use them, love them, and show them thanks… And the rest? Build them without judgement or expectation. You may find out that there are gifts hidden even in those things you have to work on a little more.

This week, we accepted helping hands as much as possible to help us into poses: our fellow yoginis, our belts, our own hands… Sometimes the helping hands helped us just get into a challenging pose, sometimes they simply gave us a really good stretch we couldn’t do on our own, sometimes they deepened the pose we were already in.

Squatting and shoulder stretches began our class; the latter being a bigger favorite than the former! The shoulder stretches are always something we can add into our day if there is a helping hand (well, two) around… and both benefit. Stand arms length apart, grab forearms, step back a little and lean the upper torso over the thighs. Do not bend the knees past 90 degrees… stick your sit bones behind you and pull on your partner. Let your head and neck go. Remember to lean back into it… as long as both partners are leaning, there will be no accidents! And remember, if it doesn’t feel good, there is something wrong!

Squatting… oh where to start. Here is a great article about the benefits (and challenges!) of squatting. Squatting helps to relieve pain and tension in the lower back, it opens up the hips and the inner thighs, and helps to improve blood circulation to the groin. Squatting also stretches the rib cage and chest muscles, strengthens the arms and chest AND helps in improving concentration. Just a few more reasons to practice daily! And remember to use help! Either a friend, or a strap/belt hooked around a door handle (on both sides) works great. As long as it is something stable… or you’ll end up on your behind!  For those interested in the whole list of reasons your body could be making this an uncomfortable pose, read this fantastic article about anatomy and the pose here.

We called on the help of our hands in Warrior 2 to deepen our pose and further open our hearts. By interlacing the fingers behind the head and pressing your head into your hands (again, something you can do throughout the day at work) you don’t only appear to be happy, sunning on a summer’s day at the beach, but you are also helping to bring your shoulders down your back, open those tight chest muscles, and make the heart happy.

Then came the balancing. This time, we called on our belts to help us into Utthita Hasta Padangustasana. Although this pose may seem like something for another lifetime (at least in this form), with the help of a belt and a wall/table (like this!), and even our friends, it is all possible… and can be fun! I think we’ll all remember the last version of this pose… Below is a picture I took of the class before we came out of the pose.

Ever feel like you’re drowning in responsibilities  out of your own doing? All of us have turned down help before… in a work setting, at home, with your bags of groceries at the grocery store… (some of us more than others… not naming names…)

When asking myself why I do this at times (and most often, the times I need it the most), I discover several important delusional core beliefs that come in the way. “A strong woman wouldn’t need help with the door,”  “If I were in control, I could handle this alone,” “If I ask for help, I’m being needy.” Now, it’s true, we are not all control freaks (like some people in this room… again, not naming names), but I do believe we are all guilty of being overly self-sufficient at times. When was the last time you accepted a helping hand? When was the last time you asked for one? Do you find it easy to accept gifts?

Yoga is usually considered a fairly self-centered practice: not in a bad way, but in a “self-explorational” sort of way. We work with our bodies, listen to their cues, settle our minds, and delve deeper within, past external influences and superficial sensation. We reconnect to ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, we often gather in groups, in communities to do this. We speak of the greater good, we think of the earth, and we tend to like to do it together. Yoga is rather a state of mind that we are practicing– the balance between reaching within and without ourselves to find meaning, freedom, and peace in this life. We open up our bodies to open up our minds and hearts to all life has to give us: people, nature, our inner strength and beauty. So, in addition to reaching out to others and setting intentions for the greater good of mankind, we are also practicing how to receive what the earth, our communities, and our closest loved ones have to give us. And believe me, they have lots to give.

So this week, we are going to find that balance… we will give, and receive. We will help and be helped. We will love, and allow ourselves to be loved.

Just me…

2010 Journey

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