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Why I Practice Yoga

As I was healing from surgery during this summer of 2018, I had the great fortune of my mindfulness practice helping me enjoy weeks of down time. What a gift!

A particular treasure was finding a book called “Bringing Yoga to Life” on my bookshelf at home. I really have no idea where it came from (some suspicions of course). It was written by Donna Fahri, whose writing spoke volumes to me – as though we were sitting together for a long visit. When I try to explain to my family why I practice and teach yoga, I can use no better explanation than this from Ms. Fahri:

Over two decades of teaching, I have witnessed again and again the power that Yoga has to shift seemingly intransigent negative patterns and to awaken the body, mind, and heart to other possibilities. No matter who we are, or how long we have been entrenched in self-defeating behaviors, through daily Yoga practice we can become present to our own fundamental goodness and the goodness of others. Rediscovering who we really are at our core opens the way to experiencing our most basic level of connection with others. This connectedness lies at the heart of the practice called Yoga.

I am so grateful for this reading about a practice that has become my work. And I will tell you daily practice may well be terrific, but so is once a week.

Namaste

The Hallway is Hell

Last spring I attended an inspirational workshop with Todd Norian titled “A Touch of Grace.” Along with other wisdom, Todd encouraged us to remember that “when one door closes, another opens.” A voice came from the back of the room: “yeah, but the hallway is hell.”

Indeed. We’ve all been in that hallway some time or another. Sometimes we choose it, sometimes we’re pushed headlong. Either way, we have to go through it. There’s no shortcut through the hall.

But we don’t have to suffer alone. We can remember it is part of our growth, part of our quest for freedom to pass through that hallway.

We have support in our endings and in our beginnings. John O’Donohue encourages us to embrace the journey. With big gratitude to him, here is his Blessing for a New Beginning, quoted from his book of blessings: “To Bless the Space Between Us”.

You can listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with John O’Donohue here: OnBeing

Blessing for a New Beginning
by John O’Donohue

In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you

Coming Home

There is a concept in yoga called “Coming Home.”

I remember the first time I experienced a few yoga poses. My husband and I had signed up for a stress reduction class. We did just a few yoga movements on the floor. When I stood up at the end of the class, I could feel the pulsing of blood flow in my spine. It was heavenly…and I wanted more.

So we signed up for an 8-week yoga class for the back with Peggy Cappy.

And then another, and another.

Sometime during that first year, I felt without a doubt that I wanted teach yoga. With Peggy’s encouragement, I took my teacher training at Kripalu in Lenox, Mass. At that time, I understood yoga only as a physical release. It feels really good to stretch, and it feels really good to relax.

During training, I began to notice how light I was feeling after class. Physically light, as though a weight had been lifted. I was carrying myself differently. Made sense… I was learning how to align my body and use my muscles in new ways. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my pathways of energy were becoming unblocked. Things were moving more freely. I felt happier, more centered. I realized my yoga practice was changing the way I interact with the world.

Hmmm… that didn’t come just from physical movement (I’ve been physically active my whole life). But yoga is meditation-in-motion and it was bringing me into contact with a place deep inside, a place that is the best part of me.

As it broke through physical barriers, It was also breaking through emotional barriers and zeroing right into my heart center. More importantly, I was becoming aware of this… I was beginning to live mindfully. I was becoming more myself.

Once back at my desk job, I started to notice how much less stress was affecting me, how much less small stuff bugged me. It started to sink in that Yoga can be more than physical, but it doesn’t have to be. The Kripalu tradition encourages each of us to find our own practice. It talks about the union of body, mind, and spirit, but without dogma… This was perfect for me.

Back to that yoga concept of “Coming Home.”

Coming Home means finding your authentic self. It means being in touch with a place inside that is beyond the reach of anything, or anyone. It is beyond language, beyond thought. There is no judgment, no striving, no ambition, and no despair. It is a place of simply being. And when I touch it, I know it is good. I know it is what I am. I know it just is. It is from this place that the best of me emerges. And in that place spirit lives. From that place, we touch what is real. It is intensely personal, and it is universal.

I invite you now to experience being present within your own body through focus on the breath. Sit (or stand) with your feet flat on the floor. Sit back comfortably in the chair so you are not slouching, and your hips are in a neutral position (neither tilting forward nor backward).

Feel the weight of your body. Notice how you hold your spine. Gently lift the front of the spine. Allow the weight of the head to be held by the spine, and feel the neck and shoulders soften.

Come into deep, smooth, and slow breathing. Focus on the breath coming in and out of your belly.

Allow yourself to stay with this centering breath for 3 or 4 minutes. With practice, you may enjoy this meditation for a longer time. But “Coming Home” for even a short time each day will open you.

Namaste (I honor the spirit in you that is you.)

Guest Post: Yoga – A Zone of Peace

This is a guest post by Dr. David Connors, whose thoughts about what yoga means to him reflect a deeper understanding than his relatively new yoga experience might have suggested. He gets it, and that makes me smile.

If you would like to be a guest writer in this journal, let me know. I welcome and encourage your thoughts.

Peace of spirit begins, continues, and is completed by the tone and gentleness of a class with Chris.

In our 21st century, the attainment of personal peace is a formidable challenge. There are numerous benefits to be enjoyed through true inner peace, yet few in number are the reliable roads to reaching it. Being a yoga student of instructor Chris Justice provides a substantial opportunity to embrace such peace.

Yoga classically refers to creating a union embracing mind, body, and spirit, each of which contributes to, and is enhanced by, the quiet mindfulness of yoga practice.

Peace of mind is supported by the intensely quiet setting and ambience during Chris’s yoga classes. The personal focus that each posture demands of a student adds to the separation from our noisy world. Yoga practice supports a truly peaceful sense of solitude whether one is in a class or practicing alone.

Peace of physical body is advanced by the centrality of 3-part yoga breathing. Following a practice session there is an established regional body flexibility and strength. This remains with the student for a substantial time period and results in a confident sense of improved physical endurance.

Peace of spirit begins, continues, and is completed by the tone and gentleness of a class with Chris. This blessing is then further supported by the sense of solitude within a community she nurtures. Proceeding with a solo practice afterwards, one finds it easily permeated by this same spirit.

The peace that yoga adds to each of these three components is an intrinsic reality. They are then greatly enhanced by the knowledge, experience, and gentle spirit and style of Chris Justice.

In my early experience as a yoga student, I have found the peace of this mind, body, spirit union to be greater than the sum of the contributing elements.

For this foundation we, her students, are very fortunate and appreciative.

Pax Te Cum,

(Peace be with you)

Dave Connors, M.D.

The Silence

We all carry it. The silence within. Often we fear it and keep it a bay. Sometimes we struggle to touch it through meditation and breath. I want to cultivate my silence, grow with it, radiate from it.

Waking by Matthew SanfordMatthew Sanford was thrown into his silence with great force. A car accident killed his father and sister, and Matthew woke up in the hospital a paraplegic at 13. His body, his mind, his spirit became silent.

It was a long, long time before he made friends with his silence. But he learned to listen more deeply than I am capable of doing. He learned that yoga happens from the inside out.

His book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence is a journey through his silence. It is a courageous affirmation of life, growth, acceptance, and flourishing through the energy of yoga.

His work now is teaching us through yoga to embrace our silence and to find the courage to listen, the wisdom to understand, and the strength to act.

I encourage you to explore your own silence.

And you might want to get to know Matthew Sanford:

Visualize your Vagus Nerve

Your vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure.
Christopher Bergland, Psychology Today

Do you know about your vagus nerve? Know its characteristics?

I didn’t even know I had one until a few weeks ago. Wow, this one is major and perhaps you’ll join me on this inquiry about a fascinating part of us.

Vagus nerveHere’s an early anatomical illustration of the nerve, borrowed from an article in Psychology Today by Christopher Bergland. This should give you an idea of its importance.

Rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem, the nerve branches to both sides of the body and feeds information to and from most of our organs, all the way to the lowest area of our abdomen.

Mr. Bergland’s article is well written, informative, and easy to understand. I suggest you check it out. And then breathe deeply as you visualize your vagus.

The sympathetic nervous system is geared to rev you up like the gas pedal in an automobile – it thrives on adrenaline and cortisol and is part of the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the polar opposite. The vagus nerve is command central for the function of your parasympathetic nervous system. It is geared to slow you down like the brakes on your car and uses neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and GABA to literally lower heart rate, blood pressure, and help your heart and organs slow down.

Christopher Bergland, Psychology Today

Is Yoga a Spiritual Practice?

Sometimes we think of yoga as a physical practice.

There is also a spiritual aspect, and some practitioners of yoga delve into a religious component through Hinduism and/or Buddhism. The history of yoga is vast and sometimes quite strange to me, as well as transforming and peaceful.

Once in a while someone in my class will ask me about this, and wonder about a conflict with their own religious beliefs.

My experience is that yoga can be practiced for many reasons and at many levels.

As for me, I delve into mindfulness and yoga as my path to physical and emotional health. Others focus primarily on the physical benefits. My objective is to cultivate a space that makes it easy for each of us to bring our own belief systems to the practice without imposition.

The closing at the end of my class is meant to remind us to dwell inside in awareness and acceptance, and a way for me to wish us all well.

Here are the words I use at the close of class:

May our hearts be filled with loving kindness.

May we be well.

May we be secure, peaceful, and at ease.

May we always be open to joy.

May each of us follow our path with heart.

“Namaste” means “I salute the spirit in you that is you” (or some variation of that…it is meant as respect for another person).

“Om” is a universal sound of unity. The chanting of it is meant to open our voices and unite us in a positive community.

I hope you all choose your own practice and continue with yoga free of conflict.

Namaste.

Choose Joy

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
~Thich Nhat Hanh

Try it… Smile.

It works. You have found a moment of joy.

Happiness? It’s ephemeral, temporary. I choose joy.

It comes from the inside, from mindfulness, from choosing to see, really see.

Now notice something.

Anything.

A feeling, a sight, a sound.

Notice your reaction to it.

Try not to judge your reaction. Just notice.

“How fascinating.”

Mindfulness reminds us to notice the small things, and rejoice in them.

By choosing joy, you are inviting it into your life.

 

“How fascinating”

Watch a delightful 13-minute video with Benjamin Zander, from whom I’ve borrowed the idea of “how fascinating.” Or just watch the first few minutes.

BRFWA

During my training at Kripalu I was introduced to the acronym BRFWA and I’ve practiced it ever since.

  • Breathe
  • Relax
  • Feel
  • Watch
  • Allow

On the yoga mat it means:

  • Come back to your breath. Watch it moving in and out.
  • Let go of the physical and emotional grip. Relax.
  • Be mindful of how what you are doing makes you feel.
  • Watch what happens as you practice. How does your body move or react? How does yoga affect your mood? Watch without judgment.
  • Allow the pose to unfold, to open up, to expand.
  • Come back to breath.

And it means the same thing off the mat.

Invite mindfulness into every thing you do.

Notice your life.

Loving your Psoas

psoas-muscle_cjweb

Image courtesy pulpbits.net, a biological science picture library.

Loving and caring for your psoas (pronounced so-az) is a worthwhile intention in your yoga practice.

The psoas muscle lies deep within, connecting to the spine and leg bone. It is a large and intensely important muscle that connects the top half of your body to the bottom half, and the back of the body to the front.

A healthy, flexible psoas has much to do with ease of movement; alleviating lower back pain, including sciatica; and healthy breathing.

One of the best illustrations of the psoas and how it works is a post by Todd Norian, linked below. I have taken a number of workshops with Todd. He is terrific, and I thank him for sharing his knowledge.

See Todd’s post here.

Judy Gudmestad shows us how to locate, strengthen and stretch the psoas in this article.

“How to Stretch and Strengthen the Psoas”