Facing the Monkey: take the banana or hug the monkey?

Sloth monkey

Image via Wikipedia

Rarely do I teach a “contained” yoga class, so the transition I’ve witnessed this week has never been so clear as it is now. These people inspire me. Many have never practiced yoga, and some have been wildly sedentary. Every one of them who attends is transforming radically. And that means that every one has faced monkey mind and decided, “Do I take the banana and run, or hug the monkey and invite him to practice with me?”

By “contained” I mean a class lasting a certain amount of time with a plan. Currently, I’m teaching a class for Presbyterian Health Plan in an exciting experiment: 12 weeks, 2 hour and a half classes a week, vital signs and stress scale monitored before and after the first, 13th and 23rd classes (we’re taking Thanksgiving Day off). Participants signed a contract committing to attend from beginning to end with no more than 3 misses and participate in the vital sign and stress scale monitoring. For this, they receive classes and a mat free, where they work, and the Health Plan pays me. The syllabus is below.

Last week were classes 5 and 6, “Forward Folding: The Turn Inward.” Before the sixth class – so only 5 classes under our belts – six different people came up to me at separate times with stories of lost pain and found calm that bring tears to my eyes even now. At this same juncture, nearly an equal number dropped out. What gives?

Even the people who dropped out had stories of transformation. So why quit now? The reasons given overwhelmingly had to do with family commitments, but the trends and the timing make me wonder if there isn’t something deeper going on.

During my first morning practice yesterday, I was churning and turning in preparation for next weeks’ “Twist” classes, and you would not believe the endless clumps of unrelated and mostly unimportant detritus my mind heaved up. But occasionally there would be an “important” bit and I’d catch myself about to run off and “take care of it” before taking a deep breath and recommitting to the pose.

And it occurred to me: this is probably what the students are experiencing, too. Probably not the first class, or the third, but maybe by the fifth they’ve had the experience of both Sivasana Bliss  as well as the monkey mind taunting them, something like this: “Really, 3 hours a week? How important are your hamstrings when you haven’t returned that book or done the shopping for little Lisa’s party this weekend? Aren’t you special, having  your special yoga class, what makes you so special?” And so on. At least that’s what my monkey sounds like. Annoying little primate.

When we engage something new and potentially transformative, the first decision is to begin, and this requires a certain activation energy, curiosity, and acknowledgment of a need.  The next decision is to continue and requires balancing the original need being met by the activity against other needs and the ability to regard them all dispassionately. This second decision probably happens for most of us after the first one has been made repeatedly, because those prior attempts are how we build up the space in our minds to make the second decision.

So I’ll count even the dropped students as successes, though they won’t add to our “experimental” results. Each one of them has built up their stock of experience in choosing health and transformation, and learned something more about their own responses to stress and quiet. Here’s to the monkey dance! When we’re full of bananas, we each learn to hug our monkeys.

Yoga of Alignment: The poses

1.  Principles of alignment: standing poses

2.  Back bends & heart opening

3.  Forward Folds: the turn inward

4.  The Twist: churning the pot

5.  Breath & Bandhas de-mystified

6.  Core: where it is, what it is & how to work it

7.  Downward Dog: Transitional pose

8.  Arm balances: from plank to taking flight

9.  Sun salutations: putting it all together

10.       Vinyasa: finding the flow

11.       Finishing poses: shoulder stand & full wheel

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Equanimity

watching Shinzen Young videos on the iPad = ub...

Image by ~C4Chaos via Flickr

Just completed a fabulous mini-home-retreat. Usually I design and create these for myself, but I’ve found a meditation teacher who has honed the content and delivery to a “T”…. or maybe “M” for mindfulness. Shinzen Young‘s basic mindfulness home retreats feature his program of methods for mindfulness and are awe inspiringly powerful.

One of my “aha” moments during the four hour combination of didactic instruction, interaction, and sitting meditation made communal by the use of the internet (I use Skype to connect, quite happily) was Shinzen answering a question after the first technique was practiced. “Equanimity” is one of those words you’ll hear as often as “cool” in yoga and meditation circles, so hearing Shinzen apply his scalpel like mind and bring the discussion back to the definition is always refreshing. One of the many things I appreciate in his teaching is that he is truly a philosopher in the Socratic sense: philosophy is a practice as well as a system of interrelated definitions supporting clear thinking.

He reminded us that equanimity is the skill of allowing images, thoughts, feelings or sensations to arise “without push or pull,” without moving toward or away from them, without craving or aversion. Equanimity is what we exhibit when we allow these experiences to arise and pass away without our interference – perhaps without even our explicit notice.

And he asserted, if I understood properly, that this is our psyche’s healing mechanism. The intuitive appeal of this theory has me looking into his deeper philosophy, but for now all I can say is that it makes sense to me and resonates with my experience. I had an image of the desert plateaus and canyon floors I spend so much time traversing. After a good rain, an infrequent phenomenon to be sure, bits of the past surface with as much ease as spring water seeping through cracks, to be worn away and converted to light and heat by the wind and the desert sun. What a blissful new way for me to relate to sitting.

How do you define equanimity?

Relaxation Revolution!

Nucleosome structure.

Image via Wikipedia

Revolution is a powerful word, and well applied to Dr. Herbert Benson‘s work.  As a Harvard Medical Center researcher, it is indeed a revolution for him to mention yoga as frequently as he does in his advancement on the Relaxation Response, published more than 3 decades ago. You can watch him in a bookstore talk here, or listen to a wonderful interview by Diane Rehm here. Newest science is overturning the notion that genes are destiny. We powerfully affect gene expression with practices such as yoga, meditation and chi gong.

You’ve heard of the fight or flight response of your sympathetic nervous system, and probably know that stress increases cortisol levels and has detrimental effects on your whole body. Dr. Benson is championing the opposite system indigenous to us all, the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response.

Yoga can be described as one big compendium of methods for invoking the relaxation response. What Dr. Benson stresses and what has been too little stressed in our popular understanding of yoga and ourselves, is this fact: relaxation does not equal passivity. Relaxation does not mean passivity. True, if you relax and you are uber-sleep deprived, you’ll fall asleep, because that’s what your body needs most. Relaxation is an alert and effortless, open expansion of the mind, allowing you to respond in the moment to what is actually arising.

In a state of true relaxation, you respond to the nature of the moment, to what is true in that place and time. If your body-mind is so fatigued that what you actually need is rest, then that response will occur. Similarly, if what arises is profound and deep emotion that you’ve been avoiding with busyness, that is what will arise. Allowing these intense needs to surface and be addressed rapidly brings about a state of equilibrium. Once relaxation has systematically surfaced remnants of stress, injury and pain, you will encounter a  clear field, and enter a state more usually associated with relaxation.

For most people this response is nearly immediate, because as much as most of us like to play the stress-monkey,we really crave the alert, openness of true relaxation. Dr. Benson’s work is emphasizing how simple and close the experience can be. It’s truly one yoga practice away. What are you waiting for? Your practice is as close as your breath.

Finding Core: Body, Mind & Soul

Where is your “core”? You’ve heard the commonplace that “it’s not your abs,” which is true, but doesn’t tell us where to look. The name itself, though, is instructive, and with breath and attention we can find our “core” experientially. While practicing 3 part yogic breath (dirgha), move between the poles of abundance on the in breath, and stillness on the out breath. After becoming established in this rhythm, notice and accentuate all your muscles hugging toward center as you gently press your breath out. Feel the pattern and rhythm, and pay direct attention from the floor, all the way up to the roof of your mouth, 360 degrees. As your body expands and contracts, you’ll begin to feel the center around which your body is moving.

Did you know, that your core is closer to your back than your belly button? That’s why one of the instructions in moving from the core is often to bring your navel back towards the spine.

Did you know, that your core traverses the upper and lower bodies? One of the most used stabilizing muscle sets, the illiopsoas, connects the upper and lower body, attaching about a third of the way down the inner thigh, zigging and zagging up from there to the inside of the pelvic bowl, and back to its midline origin, fanning out along the low spine on either side.

Did you know, that your core can be drawn away from midline by injury and habitual holding patterns? In yoga, we call these “samskara” and they are precisely what we are unearthing in yoga asana by moving in ways unusual to everyday life, with attention and breath. When you practice the breathing above and find your core feels off-center, you already have the tools to use your muscular awareness to bring it back to center. This weakens the grooves of habits and realigns you to increase your focus, energy and awareness in everything you do!

The “abdominals” – rectus (middle front), transverse (lower belly, the one we use in kapalabhati), and obliques (sides) – are part of the core, and when given awareness through breathing, a great way into your true, literal center!

6 Second Alignment

Human female pelvis, viewed from front.

Image via Wikipedia


  • Increase energy
  • Increase alertness
  • Generate Focus
  • Cultivate Concentration
  • Feel Taller!

Place your thumbs on your lower side ribs and your fingers on the bony prominences at the top of your pelvis. Using the muscles in between, gently and evenly lift your ribcage up from your pelvis, centering the oval of your ribcage over the oval of your pelvis, and taking care not to lift more in the front, back or either side. Allow your arms to fall gracefully at your sides.  Cultivate Dirgha, or Three part Yogic Complete Breath, and feel your whole body return center on the outbreath.

Do this any time – at your desk, standing in line, even mowing the lawn – you want to become more present, cultivate your energy or just change your perspective!