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 🙂

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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.

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

Look ma! It’s my ego (again)

“When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something … but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen.”

— Joan  Didion

Training for Vipassana

I am doing my first Vipassana (silent meditation) retreat this January! I’ll be at the Dhamma Simanta retreat center in Lamphun, Thailand for 10 days to practice this ancient form of meditation passed down from the Buddha. It’s a pretty intense schedule: 4 am wake up and 10 hours of meditation a day. Silence is part of the practice, so that means no talking to co-meditators. Furthermore, no reading or writing, much less surfing the web. Phew. Dress code is loose, comfortable clothing and light meals and accommodation are provided. Oh, and it’s free!

But far from a free vacation, I’m looking forward to this time of deep reflection. I mean, there will literally be no distractions. No alcohol, drugs, sex, or even exercise beyond taking a stroll on the grounds.

I started training for the retreat this morning by meditating for 45 minutes, a good 20 minutes than my usual. It wasn’t that bad. Actually, knowing I’d be in it for awhile allowed me to relax into it and not think about whether I was getting close to finishing. Confidence boosted 🙂

I’d been pretty terrified of the idea of being stuck with my thoughts nonstop for 10 days, but as the days draw closer the fear is not so daunting and there’s excitement and hope for the experience that I’ll have.

 

 

On Stillness

Imagine a spinning top. Stillness is like a perfectly centered top, spinning so fast it appears motionless. It appears this way not because it isn’t moving, but because it’s spinning at full speed.

Stillness is not the absence or negation of energy, life, or movement. Stillness is dynamic. It is unconflicted movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action. It can be experienced whenever there is total, uninhibited, unconflicted participation in the moment you are in — when you are wholeheartedly present with whatever you’re doing.

– Erich Schiffmann, Yoga: The Spirit and  Practice of Moving into Stillness

This morning, I meditated in my hosts’ garden. It is filled with trees, flowers, fruit, and herbs, and butterflies and hummingbirds often come to visit. As I closed my eyes and began to listen to my breath, I also heard, smelled, and felt the alive-ness of my surroundings. The soft grass and uneven dirt underneath my feet, the smell of the flora around me, the hum of a hummingbird’s wings (so I imagine with closed eyes), the gentle fullness of a summer breeze grazing me as I sat. I felt at peace and at ease.

Afterwards, I sat on the patio overlooking their garden and read those words above. It’s been awhile seen I’ve seen or even thought of a spinning top — is there an app for that? — and I’d never thought of stillness that way. Stillness to me was the calm surface of a lake or the quiet of the deep ocean. But Erich’s words resonate. Because after all, doesn’t a lake, pond or ocean always have little waves, no matter how calm the winds? Doesn’t the deep sea move in a conveyor belt fashion and transport nutrients to the upper layers? In fact, a big misconception of meditation is that you’re supposed to empty the mind, quiet it of all thoughts. Good luck with that! Meditation is actually the practice of allowing thoughts to pass through, letting go of the holding-on of these thoughts and the feelings that follow. Meditation is about checking in with your internal weather and allowing that weather to exist.

And so it is with yoga asana. I do the same poses over and over again to practice being in the moment, letting go of judgments or assessments and honoring how my body is feeling that day. I practice being uninhibited, unconflicted and fully present in what I’m doing. I get better at it each time I try.

I’m intrigued, Erich. What else will your words teach me?

Happy Spring! Outdoor meditation

My partner and I are dogsitting this week! We both love puppies but due to our frequent travel and upcoming round-the-world trip, we do not own a dog now. So the last day and a half that she’s been here has been amazing! It’s wonderful to be around the warmth and positive energy of a dog, even if she does open your fridge and eat two chicken breasts while you’re out watching Captain America 😉

This morning, I took advantage of the outdoors as the pup and I were walking through the park . I spied a bench underneath the shade of a sycamore tree, and I made my way towards it, my furry companion sniffing and trotting happily beside me. After I secured her to the bench, I sat down and closed my eyes and began my meditation practice.

I started with nadi shodana, or alternate nostril breathing. This helps slow my breath down and my thoughts so that I can focus and hear my True Self. This was my first time meditating outside, and I felt a little self conscious: do I look weird? Will the dog bark or eat something she shouldn’t or try to tug away?

After I finished my breath work, I let my hands sit gently in my lap and continued into meditation. Currently, I’m practicing Merging Breath meditation: focusing on the pause between exhale and inhale, which represents the stillness that’s always there in our Selves. Though my thoughts were jumping around more than they would have if I was in my usual spot, I enjoyed the quiet and the sounds of birds chirping, the water splashing in the fountain nearby, the sound of the dog sniffing intently her surroundings. It was also nice to feel the gentle breeze and enjoy the scent of grass floating by. Most importantly, I wasn’t judging myself for having more thoughts and being more distracted (I admit, I peeked open my right eye to make sure the dog was still there).

I think the pup got something out of it too. This is her after we returned home:

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Are you attached to your yoga practice?

A few days ago I was working on my asana flashcards for yoga teacher training, and I realized it was almost time for meditation class. I was in a good work flow: I was feeling the music, knocking out the flashcards and feeling accomplished. But I felt the obligation of meditation pulling me. I didn’t want to go. But I felt guilty for not wanting to go.

Meditation is good for you. Asana practice is good for you. More of a good thing is always better, right?

I realized that I was feeling attached to my yoga practice. I was attached to the idea that more yoga would make me a better yogi. And that didn’t feel right. So I thought about it and realized…Saying no to asana or meditation is yoga too! Because yoga is about balance, self-awareness, and vairagya (non-attachment). Rather than following a set routine no matter what my situation or condition is, changing the routine based on what’s going on today allows me to live my life more fully and more true to myself.

So I skipped meditation practice that day, and enjoyed accomplishing my task at hand. No regrets 🙂

Me? Calm? A brief pause can do it!

Tibetan master Tsoknyi Rinpoche has a powerful and accessible tool for creating calm in your busy and hectic day: meditate! No incense, quiet space, or chanting needed 🙂

Although I have a regular meditation practice, that doesn’t mean I never feel overwhelmed or anxious during the day.  Far from it! And when it happens, a brief pause in my day makes a big difference. Taking a deep breath and noticing where in my body I feel tension is the first step. Then, I let myself sit with whatever I’m feeling,  giving attention to each breath I take when it gets overwhelming. That’s it!

Slowing down the breath brings the body out of “fight-or-flight” sympathetic mode and into parasympathetic mode, a relaxed and resting state. That’s part of the magic behind meditation. The other part is cultivating awareness: of your thoughts and feelings, and how your body responds to them. By taking even a few seconds to do this, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed, will help you reset your thoughts and calm your nervous system. And the more you do it, the easier it gets! Happy breathing 🙂

Yoga and low back pain

NPR posted an article on how mindful meditation, yoga, and cognitive behavioral therapy can reduce chronic lower back pain and stress related to it.

As my practice of yoga continues, I am able to experience the intelligence of my body in new and eye-opening ways. Tension in the back of my neck can indicate that I’ve been at the computer too long, and also that I’ve been carrying and holding onto stressors in my day-to-day life. Asana practice teaches me body awareness so that I can hone in on exactly where I’m feeling pain or sensation. Meditation teaches me how to listen to my body and connect the physical sensations I feel with how I am feeling mentally and emotionally.

By developing mindfulness of my body, I can use its great intelligence to help make informed decisions when it comes to my physical health. Yeah, sometimes that means a visit to the doctor and a prescription to help my body in the fight. But I also have a powerful tool that I carry with me at all times, tailored to tell me the big picture of what the physical sensations I feel mean for me.