Music! “No room for doubt”

It was a sunny day in Fez, and after wandering the narrow Medina streets this light-hearted song by Lianne La Havas put me in my happy place.

A gentle reminder to set perfection aside and appreciate – even pay homage to – the mistakes we make as we create our purpose.

Happy day 🙂

———————

Image Credit: La Blogothèque

 

My first Ashtanga practice

Truthfulness isn’t safe, but it is good.

— Deborah Adele, Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice

I woke up this morning before sunrise in search for truth. I climbed the stairs up to the rooftop, put on Ashtanga Master Sri K Pattabhi Jois’ (Guruji) instruction of the Primary Series back in 1993 (which looked more like the ’70s to me…was VHS that long ago?) and started following along.  As I warmed up with Surya Namaskars (Sun Salutations), the sun rose, turning the black sky deep orange, then light blue, revealing the Atlantic Ocean and other rooftops of Asilah, Morocco’s Medina before me. I got through about a third of the seated sequence and decided to skip to the finishing sequence.

First impressions:

1. So many jump throughs!

2.  There’s more to this than the poses. Drishtis (gazing point) and bandhas (“locks/gates”), for example.

I’ve decided to explore Ashtanga Yoga. It’s known as a physically challenging practice with 6 total sequences. Practitioners spend years, decades even, on the first one (called the Primary Series) and most people don’t move past the second series. What does an Ashtanga yogi’s practice look like? For 6 days a week, it’s the same 90-120 minute sequence. Moon days (new moon and full moon) are off. So are the first few days of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Practices are best done in the morning, according to Guruji.

As me and M’s round-the-world trip draws to a close, I’m looking to what’s next. In my professional life, I’m planning to apply for a physiotherapy degree in Italy next fall. In my yoga practice, I realized I was craving discipline and consistency. I wanted a practice that that would strengthen me physically, mentally, and emotionally. Well how about doing the same practice 6 days a week in the early morning?

When I looked into what Ashtanga Yoga was, I was intrigued. There’s the gross practice; that is, the physical challenge of expanding what I believe is physically possible for my body. But underneath that is the subtle practice: the drishti, which is the visual focus point of each pose, the bandhas, or energetic “locks” which direct the energy of the pose, and the moving meditation aspect of an Ashtanga practice: once I learn the sequence, I can focus on breath and energy flow rather than being distracted by what the next pose is. Not to mention the mental challenge of coming back to the same sequence each time and practicing mindfully, adapting to how I feel each day. The challenge of practicing safely, listening to my body rather than my ego. Of coming back to a pose that I feel stuck in. Or moving on to a pose that brings up fear, and rising to the challenge of gazing at the fear and releasing it This is what I’ve been looking for.

I believe my Ashtanga practice will help me reveal my truth. It will give me courage to look the tiger in the eye and pursue the next steps in this nonlinear life. The truth is not safe, but it is good.

Bonus: the practice also travels well. No matter where I am, the sequence is the same, and it seems like the Ashtanga community is a supportive and accessible group. This is a big plus because I’m not sure where I’ll be in the next few years.

So I’m going for it. Once we are stateside again, I’ll attend class to learn more about technique and how to direct my subtle body. For now, it’s me, Guruji, and the Moroccan sunrise 🙂

On balancing: “be here now” or “work for your future”?

I’ve been thinking lately about Effort vs. Being Present. Which is it all about anyway? Is it about being accepting and enjoying where I am? Or is it about working hard for what matters to me?

Lao Tzu, the author of Tao Te Ching, says

If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich

On the other hand, there’s a Zen proverb that states

When you reach the top of a mountain, keep climbing

So which one is correct?

.

.

Then this game changer came along: both are correct. WHAT. These are conflicting viewpoints, right? If my mindset says productivity is what matters, then doing nothing=being unproductive=laziness. Or I have the mindset that enjoying the present and letting go of the attempt to control things is where it’s at, and effort seems like fighting against the current of life.

Yet this new perspective rings true because I experience the truth of them both: there are days when “just being” feels right, and there are also days when working towards my goals feels great. I hadn’t before thought that both could co-exist in harmony because from the outside I’d heard people telling me either one way or the other. Work hard! Relax! Reach for the stars! Sit back and enjoy!

It’s like Yin and Yang. The moon and the sun. Chandra and Surya. Rest and effort. Both are needed to provide balance. Many of us have experienced too much of one or the other: the feeling of burnout when we don’t get to restore and recharge, or the feeling of stuck-ness/laziness when we’ve been inert for too long.

I’ve identified two new skills to practice based on my new perspective:

1. Discerning which action is appropriate at any given moment

This means tuning into where I am at a particular moment and then figuring out what it is I need. This applies to both the physical body (exercise and movement vs rest) and the mind (thinking/planning/analyzing vs meditating/releasing control). In terms of the spirit, that’s still being explored 🙂

2. Embracing the two distinct energies within

It’s no longer an inner conflict between two sides or a battle of right over wrong. Instead, I now practice accepting that there are two rivers that flow in opposite directions, both of which are necessary for a balanced life. Most importantly, it’s about loving whichever energy is flowing that day without the voice of the other side singing the shoulda-woulda-couldas.

 

Music! Moby’s 4 hour yoga & meditation album

Moby’s 4 hour album has been out for awhile, but I wanted to cook it in my practice for a couple weeks before saying anything about it.

First, it’s an ambient album, so it was best on days I wanted to be really focused (sorry Drake, Views is great but my booty needs a break). It doesn’t have a sweet beat or an energy building flow, which means I used it to work on my alignment and pay attention to energetic lines and breath rather than to let creative movement flow.

Second, even though it’s good background music, I didn’t like it for meditation. It didn’t add to my mindfulness-based practice, and it didn’t take anything away either. I prefer to listen to the sounds around me or do a guided meditation session.

Overall, I recommend that you give his album a try (it’s free to download from the link above). It’s great for introspective or technical days and provides a seamless quality to your personal practice, especially if you want to study-jam for a couple hours.

Today = possibilities

“What day is it?”
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favorite day,” said Pooh.

— A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Winnie-the-Pooh’s got wisdom. (See Tao of PoohTe of Piglet)

We’ve made it to our last big stop  in our round-the-world adventure: Asilah, Morocco. Here we’ll stay for a month, at the edge of North Africa in a quiet artistic town with a fusion of Arab, French, and Spanish culture. It’s a good place to reflect.

What did I learn on this trip? (So many things.) What I’m most grateful for is…gratefulness. Because this trip was not perfect. I’m not perfect. But now I can appreciate the imperfections because they give life texture. And no matter where I am in the world, Today means Time. And Time means Opportunity to do-something-see-something-make-something.

That’s a pretty good deal.

Common cues: “pull your shoulder blades down”

You hear it all the time. “Pull the shoulder blades down the spine”. For years I did this, but I felt like I was missing out on some range of motion. Then I watched this video by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (love her!), who developed physiologically-informed movement dubbed Body-Mind Centering. She explains the anatomy of shoulder blade movement and with one sentence changed how I approach lifting and reaching my arms.

Here it is: think of your shoulder blades as a wheel rotating around a pivot point.

Wow. *mind blown*

Here’s a comparison. Shoulder blades pulled down:

33070792520_91eabd15aa_o

Notice the curve in my arms and the width of my upper back as I try to pull down the lateral (outer) part of my shoulder blades down along with the medial part (towards the spine).

Now if I rotate my shoulder blades:

33413743836_05f9a3f9fb_o

The lateral edge of my shoulder blades are allowed to rotate upwards (to me it feels like a wrapping upward motion towards my front ribs) as the medial part of the shoulder blades come down. My arms are straighter and overall it feels like I’m working with my body, not against it.

Try it! Stand in tadasana (mountain pose) with a neutral pelvis (your ASIS and pubic bone are approximately on a vertical plane) and feet hip width apart. Take an inhale and swing both arms in front of you, then up and overhead. Now try the common cue and pull your shoulders down your back as if you had imaginary strings attached to the inferior (bottom) edge of your shoulder blade. Notice how this feels in your shoulders and upper back. Soften the front ribs (i.e. resist the urge to arch your back and puff out your chest), then on an exhale release your arms down by your sides.

Then try it with rotation. Check in with your tadasana. Imagine that your shoulder blade as a rotating piece about a “center of gravity” or pivot point. Then inhale and swing your arms overhead, allowing the the lateral edges of your shoulder blades to swing upwards. Notice how the medial part of the blades naturally glide down. Soften the front ribs. Stay for a few breaths and notice how this feels different than the first way. If you’ve got a full length mirror handy, try both ways again and see the difference.

This perspective shift was a game changer for me; I can’t count how many times I reach my arms overhead or away from by body even in one practice. It’s even helped my handstand practice, taking the forcing out of the tops of my shoulders and gliding into alignment instead.

 

 

Meditation affects your brain’s age

Here’s an interesting article about a recent study done at UCLA School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology. I’ll let you read the article for all the juicy details, but they found that long term meditation makes your brain look younger structurally. For long term meditators, every year past age 50 shows an additional 1 year and 22 days “off” of their brain age. Now, the results of the study don’t show how long someone needs to meditate to achieve these effects, nor does it show whether these structural changes translate to changes in behavior or cognition.

In my personal experience, meditation has helped me slow down and be present. I would even say that I’ve learned so much appreciation for the present that it influenced my decision to take this one year round-the-world trip!


Image Credit: Maria Kazanova

Teaching my first yoga class

Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.

— Margaret J. Wheatley

Happy International Women’s Day!

I’ve learned in my life that reflecting back helps me appreciate my journey and recognize what I’ve learned. Today I’m honoring the first yoga class I taught a year and a half ago.

It was for a practice group with a fellow teacher trainee and two of his friends. Both of his friends were new at yoga and eager to learn. I’d prepared a 60ish minute flow and carefully selected one of Shiva Rea’s flow mixes to play in the background: introspective but not distracting. I was really nervous about what they would think of my class.

As we settled onto our mats to begin, I felt my heart pounding and all (three pairs) of eyes on me. It was thrilling and scary. I asked them to bring their attention to their breath and begin to go within. As their eyes closed, I gazed at my *very first* students with nervous excitement and remembered this: it’s all about them right now. I had a Matrix moment. Time slowed down and I let go of my ego, instead scanning the energy of the room. What did they need today, and how can I help them find it? After they finished setting their intention and we Ommmmmed, we started moving together. My cues were basic and direct and I confused the left side and right side a few times, but it didn’t faze me. I had clicked with them, and I was guiding their energy through the practice. It’s such a high, being connected to my students and feeling their trust in me, trust that I could and would serve them by being their guide. It’s this connection and exchange of energy that I chase. It pushes me to be a better yogi, a better teacher. It motivates me to practice creatively, try new perspectives, read more do more be more. It forces me to say “not now, ego” and listen to the needs of myself and my students.

Here are some reflections from other yoga teachers about teaching their first class. Happy yoga-ing!

 

What makes a good yoga teacher?

What makes a good yoga teacher?  I’ve learned a lot in my first year as a yoga teacher, and in order to keep improving, I check in with a short list of things I believe are necessary to be a good yoga teacher. I’ve created this list from my experience as a yoga student practicing on the East Coast, Midwest, in Mongolia and South East Asia and also as a yoga teacher in the Midwest and in Vietnam and Laos.

Being prepared, but also listening to the room

The best yoga classes that I’ve attended or taught are ones where the teacher had a plan for the class and also read and incorporated the energy of the room into the class. Sometimes that meant checking in with the students at the beginning of class, other times it meant sensing the energy levels/flow of the room. If the students were expressing a need for something other than what was planned, the teacher adjusted their plan to meet the students’ needs.

Making it about the students, not the teacher

As a student, I notice when the teacher is focused on themselves, trying to impress the class and exude “good yoga teacher” energy. As a teacher, I notice when I am thinking about how I look or come off to the students, or whether they will think this is a good class. But when the focus is on the teacher, the students aren’t able to go inside to their deeper koshas and the teacher isn’t able to hear or sense what the students need in the moment. In these cases, the teacher is probably feeling nervous (trust me, I would know), which is a natural reaction to caring about bringing forth a great class. When this happens  to me as a teacher, I take a deep breath and remind myself that I’m here for the students and become more connected and in-tune to their needs.

Putting safety first

This one is really important to me. Providing a safe environment for students to explore is paramount to being a good teacher. For me, this means understanding the physiology of yoga and understanding that every body is different and has had different experiences. This means that poses will inevitably look different on different people. This means it’s important to understand the intent of the pose (e.g. opening the inner legs) beyond superficial cues (e.g. straighten the knee). When students feel safe and supported in class, they can do more exploring and gain a better understanding of their own bodies. They will also appreciate more the quirks of their own bodies and tailor the practice to what they need.

Keeping up your personal practice

As a teacher, maintaining your personal practice means you won’t be tempted to practice along with the class you’re teaching. That’s not your time; that time is for your students (see point 2).  It also means you will continue to develop a better understanding of the physical yoga practice. It means you will have experience in the pranayama (breathwork) and meditation that you lead in class. It means you are focused and ready to teach come class time.

Being a lifelong learner

Finally, being a good yoga teacher (or any teacher) means you don’t stop learning. For me, this means keeping up my personal practice (point 4), attending other classes and studying yoga materials: books, articles, workshops, and trainings. These things build on existing knowledge and sometimes offer a new perspective on yoga.

As my yoga journey continues, this list will evolve. I encourage all the yogis out there to create a list of their own. Knowing what qualities are important to you will help you find your dream yoga teacher or become a better one 🙂

Don’t forget the little joys

Hello from Torino, Italy!

I took some time off blogging as we transitioned from Asia to Europe to soak in the new lifestyle and surroundings and to gather info/make decisions about what comes after this round-the-world trip. Decisions, decisions…

Anyway, I read this thoughtful piece about taking time each day to appreciate what’s around you, specifically the pieces of nature, big or small. I found it relevant and grounding as both M and I are looking to the future, beyond this amazing trip that we’ve taken. As we think about what and where our next step will be, we’ve both found stillness in meditation and walks through Italian streets.

The pace of life here in Europe is one we both appreciate; work to live, don’t live to work. Even though our next year may take us back to the US, this year has given us invaluable insight into being present, appreciating what we have, and enjoying what’s in front of us.

As Herman Hesse writes,

All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.


Image Credit: Sydney Smith