The key to home practice: Desire before Duty

A little pink never hurt anyone

Image by Darwin Bell via Flickr

Committing to home practice is such a transformational step that it’s very easily turned into a goal, an item on the to-do list, a get-through-to-get-done: in short, a duty.

And setting aside the time on your calendar or to-do list can be an effective method for keeping this promise to yourself. But how to maintain the practice mind and not slip into goal seeking?

Here’s what I mean: One morning you set your alarm a little early – 20 or 30 minutes to start – and feel triumphant because you kept this promise to yourself. And the practice, short though it was, transformed your day and was filled with moments of sunlight and inspiration. Three weeks later, the alarm rings again, you find yourself on the same mat with the sunlight streaming in, but can’t keep from pushing yourself through the poses you’re working, measuring your progress from yesterday, and none too flatteringly. What a way to start the day!

What happened to that first morning’s lightness and joy in the practice? What happened to that blinding insight from the Bhagavad Gita, something about releasing the fruits of action, putting your heart in but non-attachment to outcomes?

If the “goal” is to meet yourself on your mat every morning, you’ve satisfied “duty” by arriving. Before you do anything, ask yourself one question: “What do I really want?” Maybe it’s more sleep. Fine, take legs up the wall, or yoga nidra. Maybe you’re feeling a backbend. Cool, warm up with some gentle heart openers like sphinx and cobra. Or maybe you need a good laugh or cry. Nice, that’s pranayam.

You might even find that when you follow it, your desire changes, transforms into something that supercedes goal, need and thought.

You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your DESTINY. ~Upanishads

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Twistin’ the night away…. 3 rules for Revolved Poses

 

Seated Skeleton

Image by creepyhalloweenimages via Flickr

 

Revolved Poses are my favorite core strengthening poses because they build flexibility at the same time as strength, and because they work the entire core, not just “the yabs.”  Keep yourself healthy for many more twists to come by following these three rules:

  1. Stabilize your pelvis by drawing your hips toward one another: I know, my class today collectively got their Scooby faces on for this one. They’ve grown used to me giving the instruction to press their sitting bones or upper legs apart, but drawing together? Eyebrows go up,  spines come out of poses, lips purse. No problem: same muscles as pressing the legs apart, but draw together. Draw pelvic floor up…. yes, this is the beginning of Mula Bhanda.
  2. Inhale, lengthen the spine by lifting the ribcage up equally from the pelvis,
  3. Exhale, begin to turn from deep in the belly. Drawing your core muscles closer to center, draw one side back and draw the other closer to mid-line. (Find your mid-line by drawing all your muscles close to center on each of 7 successive outbreaths.) After you’ve turned in your belly, begin to use internal – not external, like pressing away –  shoulder strength to turn through the thoracic spine, and only then turn your head.

Revolved poses are regenerative alone, and can be used to counter-pose both back and forward bends. Great for digestion and releasing low back and hips, they make for a great night’s sleep. Move slowly and with deep respect for your whole body and your intuition, and you’ll be twistin’ the night away.

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

When you hold your breath…. The 3 causes and 1 Solution

A sober message about competitive breath holding.

Image by cristyndc via Flickr

You may not realize you were holding your breath until you let it go. And in that great whoosh of exhalation you have an amazing opportunity: what was going on in your internal environment leading to that impressive subversion of sustaining rhythms?

Breath holding, as the sign says, can be detrimental, though perhaps not often deadly. Because of the interruption of normal exchange of nurturing and toxic gasses, you’re retaining the very stuff your body so wisely was prepared to let go. More importantly, you can’t receive the next breath. Mind rides breath, so you remain stuck in that moment, unable to move forward because like the monkey with a peanut in his fist, you can’t get your hand out of the jar.

Whether you’re on your mat or in traffic with that near miss, or in a meeting  – “Yeah, those words just came out of his mouth…” – the moment when you let your breath go, give yourself the gift of wondering what that was all about. I’ll wager a week of yoga class that in every case it’s a reaction to one of three things: novelty, fright or exertion.

Novelty: ever been taken by surprise, even a pleasant surprise? A room full of unexpected people, a man on one knee with a diamond ring or an unexpected visit from a friend: any of these can trigger a rapid, rushing intake of air with a potent pause.

Fear: the unexpected discharge of a gun; a rapid, unexpected motion when you are either very relaxed or very wary; watching the car in front of you spin out of control all can trigger a frozen or elongated moment and the breath can become hostage to the halting motion of time.

Exertion: You didn’t wait for help to move that massive walnut bureau, and so it’s no surprise when you’re over matched and noticed the squealing grunt of strain. And in some forms of exercise, such as kettlebells and boxing, breath holding is a technique – but accompanied by specific and intentional exhalation. This kind of breath holding creates an internally stabilizing pressure in the center of the torso which is then converted to force with a rapid and full exhalation. The key is intentionality.

Solution: Awareness and Intent The next time you find yourself holding your breath, treat yourself and your breath gently, kindly release and exhale fully and completely. Wonder: was I scared, surprised or exerting?  Bring your awareness and intent to the moment, ask yourself the question, and then just listen. You’re extra lucky if you have a chance to practice this on the mat, because you have a great chance to notice and loosen a pattern, referred to in yogic circles as samskara. Samskara are the ant hills of repeatedly going around a place of resistance, rather than investigating and remaining with the resistance itself.  Noticing breath holding is one way down the center of hill to find the source of the resistance, the source of the work around, and clear an open path for moving forward, letting go of the residue of prior experience and becoming present for all that this moment holds.

Adjust Yourself

The steering wheel of World War II Chevrolet f...

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I learn something new about yoga every single day. Lessons and teachers are everywhere, and the challenge of maintaining equanimity is ever present. Right now, my husband and I are in Mountain View, California and he’s interviewing for a new position. Now, we live in Albuquerque – in the middle of the desert, in the largest small town you’ll ever find. So this would be big. Huge. Tremendous.

Being the planner and the mapper, the finder and the schemer this gives the monkey in my mind whole new rain forests of possibilities. Last night, after wonderful husband gave another dry run of his presentation today, I discovered he’d not packed a tie. Off I was in the rental car I’d not yet driven, in search of a blue tie in a city I’d never seen. Did I mention he declined GPS? Anywho, one of the skills my job demands is navigation, and though I’ll never win any awards, I get the job done. Another of those skills, driving, is something I’ve always found a comfort and a joy.

So the discomfort I felt upon embarking was puzzling. The car was lower to the ground with a deeper cabin than I’m used, but that wasn’t it.  I was so uncomfortable I could barely pay attention.

So, of course, I gripped the wheel a little harder, opened my eyes a little wider and thought, “Wake up Girlie-pie! Pay attention! This is no time to be wandering aimlessly!” As I pulled my back up straighter and pressed my sitting bones down, it struck me: I hadn’t adjusted the car for me to drive.  The seat was way back and not upright the way I like. The steering wheel was too low. The mirrors were reflecting sky.

After a few more intersections of nearly veering into other lanes, intense anxiety and a feeling that all was not right with the world, I finally pulled over. I found the seat adjustments, the mirrors, the wheel. When I got back on the road, it was like the world had changed. I could tell where I was going, I had control of the car, it was even fun to drive. But it wasn’t the world that had changed: it was me. My first reaction was to harshly tell myself to buck up! Sit up! Get right! But no amount of bearing down was going to change situation.

But softening, getting curious, making some minor adjustments and fine-tuning made all the difference in the world. The key was getting curious instead of furious. Not furiously mad, but furiously grasping and controlling. The difference was softening instead of gripping. I can’t wait to take this lesson into my vacation yoga class.

Grace

Landing with grace

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Grace lives somewhere between denial and dissolution.

In the land of denial, the truth tickles our imagination, possibly irritating like a feather, or a fly. But instead of becoming curious and investigating, we wriggle away from the tickle and  white-knuckle through whatever we’re doing, resisting the actual experience of the truth – usually to “get-things-done.”

We usually get to the land of denial through fear of dissolution, but years of denial can indeed lead to a large dissolving event. In dissolution, we are so incredibly overwhelmed by the truth that we melt like sugar into a puddle of goo, in the very spot upon which we were struck by the full force of the truth. In the land of dissolution, there is no “getting-things-done” and not only the list, but the very structure of our lives can lose meaning. This is scary in ways that can keep us in list-making and slaying mode.

Yoga, years of yoga, have helped me wend my way between these modern manifestations of Scylla and Charybdis.  As an athletic, all-out life-loving, really geeky and slightly loner kid, I learned early that “grace” was not a quality likely to be admired in me. I was clumsy. I was the kid with bruises on her shins from climbing trees and jumping fences. Born with an appetite for everything, and not one to shy away from challenge (think bull, red flag, and yes, china shop comes next), I did a lot of white-knuckling and brushing away of tickles for the first several decades of my life. No regrets, either. I have a lot of experiences that are hard to come by and full of the nectar of life.

That life, too, led me to many moments of dissolution, some transitory, others full-on halting stops to the hustle and activity of life. And through the churning in the passage between the extremes I’d created, I became quiet with life and easy with the quiet. And in this quiet arose a voice like that of a child asked to say grace for the family before dinner: thin and reedy at first, finding it’s channel and finally flowing quietly back into the silence.

That voice was the tickle of the truth I’d swatted away so persistently before. I learned to laugh at the insouciance of tickle, and that lightness allowed space to open around the experience.  By actually having the experience, I never had to dissolve. Rather, the experience itself dissolved into another, and often into realization, and into natural action.

Grace is the moment of presence, pure opening, creating space in the now for simply “what is.” Grace can be cultivated in meditation and on the mat by watching, feeling, diving in. Once cultivated, it has a tendency to pop up in the strangest ways. Sometimes the dawning realization of how the body is feeling, and the space to adjust “the plan” ever so slightly to accommodate. Or perhaps it’s the presence of intuition about when to stop or start, or when to speak up or just listen. Grace comes in silence and doing that is not-doing, but actively reveals the truth more eloquently than wrestling and bending to our will.

I’ve always wanted “it all” and never accepted that this was impossible, or even that hard. I just had a different notion of what was included in “all.” Grace is merely opening to the all in the moment. Grace is the union of the opposites into which we try to split our experience. It’s taken a lot of swimming in the churning pool between “balls-to-the-wall” and “puddle-on-the-floor” to find my way to flow: to finding that “all” is not something I do, not merely a gathering of juicy experiences, because all the experiences in the world are meaningless but for the space to drink them in. And that everything I ever sought is here, now, for the price of a breath and a grateful and perhaps-momentarily silent mind.

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.

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