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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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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.

We now come to our middle- the fourth chakra, Anahata chakra. We have spent 3 weeks setting the foundation for growth into a world that is more interactive, in which we are starting to reach out beyond ourselves. With security, desire, and action (Root, Sacral, and Solar Plexus Chakras), we move outward into the world and past ourselves. The heart chakra is the middle ground between Heaven and Earth, between the necessary grounding in individualism built in the lower chakras and the expansion into a universal consciousness that the upper chakras promote. Thus, Anahata chakra is all about balance: taking and giving, loving and being loved, empathy and self-protection.

The Right to Love and Be Loved

As in our bodies, love holds the world together. We have all heard the songs… “Love makes the World go Round…” Without love, there is no integration; without the heart chakra, there is no connection between our roots pushing towards the earth and our beautiful green branches pushing up towards the heavens. The act of reaching out to others to share our life experiences requires a healthy, stable foundation in the first three chakras; yet, it also requires that extra compassion and consideration that comes with discovering relationships. To be loved by another increases our own self-worth and fuels an awakening that has inspired songwriters, artists, authors, poets throughout human history.

Balance

Love is certainly about balance- this is something we often forget when getting caught up in the drama, the ups and downs, and the occasional roller-coaster ride that we experience in relationships (of all kinds). Nature seeks balance. Yet, for a relationship to last, both involved must understand that balance is not static– it is a constantly fluctuating play between anima and animus (a more “gender neutral” masculine and feminine concept), reaching out and taking, self and other, attachment and freedom. When this is accepted and appreciated, a relationship becomes flexible, fun, and completely life-affirming. It is also important to remember that balance within a relationship can not be achieved without finding balance within too.

“Balance is the underlying foundation of longevity in all things.” ~ Anodea Judith

Compassion

Although different spiritual beliefs interpret the concept of compassion on a spectrum- from the complete non-harm of all beings including the smallest of insects, to the reaching out to our fellow human beings- compassion has the potential to support a peaceful existence on earth. If we all “had passion for” our fellow humans, our earth, and our ecosystems, we would be in a much better place. To reach beyond ourselves and try to understand another’s needs allows for an expansion of inner being that holds the space for change to occur. Compassion does not mean that we have to fix things– sometimes we simply cannot– but often understanding and empathy can mean the difference between peace and war.

“And the day came when the need to remain closed became more painful than the risk to open.” ~ Anonymous

Anahata Chakra Homework: Take some time this week to sit with yourself and create compassion and peace within. Start by contemplating the various parts of yourself- especially those that tend to argue or create turbulence within. Give them each an identity. For example, one might have a curious child, a free-spirited vagabond, a practical parent, an analytical worker, and any number of other people within. Write down each person and their desires, their wants. Begin to consider the relationships between your “inner family”. Who relates to who? Who creates the most conflict? How might they relate and converse in real life? And most importantly, how can they come to a peaceful co-existance? Can you create compassion for each to ensure that they each have a place within, that they are each having their needs met? How might this relate to your external relationships? remember, love always starts with love and compassion within. Start with self-love.

Wear Green.

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.

Setting our structure was key in this class… not to harden, but to allow our bodies to soften safely. We set up every pose like a ritual… but then let the beauty shine from within at that moment of pure stability.

The main experience of this class was Vrksasana (Tree pose), as those who attended remember most vividly. This is a beautiful and symbolic pose that encompasses the strength of our muscles, the solidity of our foundation, and the beauty of that moment where complete balance between effort and effortlessness is found. A balance between the upward rising of our spirits and the downwards anchoring to the earth of our bodies reminded us of this constant balance of yang and yin at play in our daily lives.

We ventured from here into the most challenging of Warriors, Virabhadrasana III, to test our structure and adaptability in a final feat of balance.

Just me…

2010 Journey

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