Notes From the Mat

Please come see me at BadlandsYoga.com, where I feature free audio, special events, class information and where I blog at Notes from the Mat! Ask your yoga questions and get answers, support and inspiration. New posts weekly! Thanks for reading! Christine

Real yoga for real people for real life.

What is “real” yoga anyway? And what do “real” people look and act like? And where does “real” life start?

US Army 52840 Soldiers learn to connect mind, ...

US Army 52840 Soldiers learn to connect mind, body, soul through breathing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Real” yoga is all about listening. Sure, it’s about listening to your teachers and your bestie and your kids and your boss, but all those get better as you learn how to listen to you. And not that “nya nya nya” voice that has a stock list of 100 phrases playing your head, because that is not you. That is habit, that is programming, that is trauma, dear. 
You may not sound like anything at any given day and time. The you you learn to listen to is the you of your breath: what does your breath tell you when you listen for more than an inhale? It is your body: step onto your mat and find out what it has to tell you. The lessons are deeper than words. 

For my money (and time and soul), “real” yoga is not a matter of lineage, tradition, trips to India or ability to do the latest iteration of a one armed, pretzel footed peacock (though those are fun, too). “Real” yoga has to do with what you find, learn, listen and respond to on the mat, when it’s just you. No leading voice, just your experience and intuition.  “Real” yoga is your home practice. Yes, in conjunction with all kinds of outer teachers, but the one ingredient no yogi can miss is home practice. It’s what you do on your own, when no one is looking, in private and without facebook, instagram or twitter that is your yoga. “Real” yoga is the home practice of yoga. 

Think about it this way: the rail thin, leather-skinned dude who lives in a cave and sits in lotus pose 10 hours a day, the 1970s avatar of what yoga looks like… how did he find his yoga? Sure, he probably had a teacher somewhere, but that teacher told him, “Go away, put it into practice. Talk to me in ten years.” And so he went, he practiced. Maybe he found the same teacher again, maybe another. But the teacher didn’t say, “Come to my class for an hour every day, or maybe just twice a week.”

And real people? They look like you, of course. You’re as real as it gets. Someone should really listen to you. That’s a powerful thing to do. Attention. Your attention. It’s the most powerful thing there is. Don’t lavish it all over everyone else and forget to include you. 

And real life? It looks like yours: with bills and friends and family and cars that break down and hearts that soar and hurt and trust and learn and bodies that live and run and hurt and heal. Bodies, hearts and minds that need yoga when they need yoga – maybe in the middle of a meeting (breathing is best here) or first thing in the morning, before you’d realistically leave the house. How long they need yoga: 15 minutes a day has a profound effect. How they need yoga: some days restorative yoga trumps everything. 

Real yoga supports people like us, you and me, listening in the midst of a life that isn’t as simple as living in a cave and may not be near a yoga studio. Heck, yoga studios aren’t always the best places to listen. But where you are – right now? That’s a good place to listen – to you. So roll out a mat, stand at the top and find your Mountain. Then do the next thing. Keep it going and you’ll learn a lot. About you.

For solid support, information and short practices to get you started (you get to riff on them), visit the other Badlands Yoga blog. And leave a comment here or there to tell us about your practice and how you own it. 

 

 

 

gift with ribbon

I’m moving and you’re invited to the housewarming!

Badlands Yoga has a new home and will be growing with online courses, ebooks, and more. You can already download free guided practices and meditations! There’s a survey to let me know what you’re interested in knowing more about and even a forum where you can receive personal answers to your questions!

Want more?! Come on over and check it out 🙂 Sign up for the newsletter on the last tab to be updated with all the news coming this year 🙂 You’ll get free gifts and undying love! Okay, you already have that, but gifts are good, too 😉

I’ll still be writing over here and even at eleJ, but for now, let’s hang out over in the badlands. Let me know what you think!

Where the Wild Things Are: Monsters and Angels are Made So by Words

360 Wild Thing

360 Wild Thing (Photo credit: John Brownlow)

I write from doing, not from thinking. Words come out my fingers, but for that to happen the rest of my body has to have moved. When I’m stuck it’s probably because I’m trying to know: to find that certainty that will bring everything under control; to find the naming that will put life in its place; to let me return to previously scheduled programming. I have appointments and projects and deadlines, don’t you know. Oh, you do. And you don’t care. I see.

When I need to know, I go to my mat. Well, really my yoga room. It’s true, I’ll start on my mat, but there’s no guarantee I’ll stay or end up there. I’m more a choreographer than a researcher. More applied than theoretical. I move to find stillness and close my mouth to find words that are true.

I know that when I sit to write and am overwhelmed with by the enormity of the abyss, my place is not writing: it’s on the mat. I know that when every time I open my mouth gooey, difficult, sticky, hang-in-the-air-and-wish-I-could-reel-back words come out (words like cry and death and sad and how) it’s time to go in, close the door and find out what happens next.

It doesn’t mean that the abyss and the gooey words retreat right away, or even soon. But jumping in makes the abyss less other and strangely allows its native stickiness to permeate and nourish my tissues so I don’t have to pin it down in words. The words that will come later will be truer for this foray into the void.

Yoga is my version of “Where the Wild Things Are.” They are here, all around, waiting for us to shut up and see that they don’t care about our schedules because they care so much about what we have to give.

Improbable Blessings: How People Become Love Warriors

You want something. You wish, long, ache for that something. You wish for such a long time, the ache becomes part of who you are: it has a location in your body, you can feel it’s boundaries and when they change. It maybe even has a flavor. It becomes familiar, so familiar it fades into the air you breathe. It melts into your tissues so completely that the wish no longer seems like it’s for something outside you. It exists in its own right and no longer reaches forward. The aching wish has just become a fact, like another organ. So much so that when someone, a friend, asks playfully, “What do you really want? What would make you happy?” you name other things, because you’ve come to accept living with the wishfulness of this wish and no longer imagine it happening.

It happens. Seemingly against all odds. It’s reality creeps up on you because you’ve substituted the reality of the want, which you could have, for the reality of it existing outside you. You misinterpret the cues and clues that your improbable magic dream has come to be, in real flesh and blood. Until one day something stares you in the face to say, “I’m here.” It’s here. The thing you’d thought couldn’t be, could only be in your heart, could only exist in a rarefied world of longing, has come to be in the world of death and decay, life and becoming. Holy. Shit.

You re-arrange your entire being – no. Your entire being begins to dissolve in the moment your dream’s reality dawns on you, and it begins re-arranging you. You are the wish now, it is the reality. But that means it is in peril. This is the world of life and death, being and becoming, being-with-dying. It’s vulnerable to wind and rain, love and indifference, blows and embraces.

You harden. Trying to protect the dream that is not a dream. Willing it to be as invulnerable as it had become when it only lived in your heart. Oh. My. God. What if I lose this most amazing thing? You resist becoming a living wish because the blood coursing through that living wish could run cold in an instant of loss. Because blood is now running through your dream, which makes it  a real dream: it can bleed. But it can also dance.

You thought you were a living wish before, because you’d absorbed the dream that seemed impossible. But it was a living void, which is very poignant, but not the same. You have the chance now to become a living wish: to hold a space of love and ferocity and tenderness for something not-you to grow in. This is much more risky. We all have a living void – it is at the heart of being human. But to choose to become a living wish: to tend a dream that will inevitably become bigger than you, will not bend to your will, have a life and death you have no say over, to hold that space patiently, fiercely, acceptingly, knowing that just because you assent to this adventure doesn’t mean it will turn out any of the ways you’ve wanted, that it will likely read and manifest the very things you are most threatened by, that your care and love cannot keep your beloved – or yourself – from harm, that the fulfillment of your desire and will can only lead to their own dissolution: to choose to embrace and get caught up in this madness is the hardest thing I’ve ever contemplated.

This dream may be a book or a business, an empire or a family. We all have our improbable blessings. It is so very human to bow their improbability, to have cakes or cars in their place when the improbability of the beautiful thing that lives in your soul asserts itself over and over again. And this resignation – relinquishing our illusions and attempts to force the improbable things into being – is itself part of their re-arranging us. Ceding power is part of the adventure it seems. Absorbing the longing, saying yes to living with it, even if it never reaches into the world we share with all the others, is perhaps part of the dissolving process.

But then – joy of joys! – we are called upon to resign our resignation. This penultimate step of re-arranging our being is perhaps the most heart-breaking, so far, for me the most difficult to accomplish. Can you step into the reality of that longing? To dissolve enough to become the thing that contain the waiting and joy and the tenderness and the pain and the love all in one house? Are you strong enough to yield to this coming true? Can you feel all the joy and love  and electricity of your most cherished dream wriggling toward the light, knowing that you may lose it again, for good, irredeemably, in an instant? Hop on that train now, because that loss may be just around the bend. The loss will be no less devastating because you weren’t on the train, but you will lose so much more: the time you could have been in heart-rending, soul-tearing love.

And who knows? Your improbable blessing may grow to full heart-breaking reality. To be the bigger than you thing that brings things you never could have even dreamed. New things to grow and break your heart. Could you be so lucky?

Why do I love my old stained, torn, lumpy bolster?

bolster

bolster (Photo credit: maclauren70)

I have new, sleek, white and blue, rounded edge bolsters. Just waiting in my closet. Part of the reason they’re still new is that I keep reaching for my first massage oil stained, slightly lumpy after too many times stuffed back into its laundered cover, ripped in one seam bolster. When I look for something to drape my spine over in either a restorative forward bend or gentle back bend, I’ll go across the room to grab my ratty old blue bolster, even if the new sleek ones are close by.

 

Sedona Ridge

Sedona Ridge (Photo credit: quinet)

Maybe its the memory of toting it all over Sedona the summer I spent a week doing yoga on the most improbable sandstone spires, or of my happiness when the motel where I’d absent-mindedly left it shipped it back to me. Or the one of my first restorative seated forward fold over my very own bolster at home. Not a sofa cushion, not three pillows: a bolster. Made for supporting forward folding and hearts. Made for yogis who take their practice to heart. Or the times I’ve wept into it. Or the smiles I’ve melted into over it.

 

But it’s probably just that all those lumps offer infinite variability and new ways to experience my poses. Put your forehead here and it’s perfectly centered. Here, and it’s ever so slightly turned to one side. Rest your arms at this angle and melt. At this one and feel your edge. The lumps are probably from substandard stuffing or maybe just age. The stains and small seam tears are from living. I’ll never take this bolster for my students to use: it looks like it needs a bath even when just out of the wash. I’ll keep it at home, my personal support, organically molded by my practice and my life.

 

 

Does the mental/physical distinction make sense regarding health… or yoga?

https://www.facebook.com/GlitteringGems?fref=ts

Lately “Mental Health” has been getting a lot of play. There’s a Mental Health Foundation page on facebook that promises to help you manage stress. I’ve been listening to some of the speakers on Recovery 2.0, an innovative conference on addiction and recovery organized and facilitated by Tommy Rosen. I even wrote a piece for Muse in the Valley during Canada’s “Bell Let’s Talk” week on how yoga helps me with PTSD. I recently had a Twitter convo with Ben King of Armor Down, discussing how he came to found this revolutionary organization for helping soldiers armor down after deployment.

So perhaps you’ll forgive me a moment of confused frustration with the term “Mental Health.” In Ancient Greece, there was no distinction between mental and physical health: activities benefitting and destroying your body were assumed to have corresponding effects for the person’s mental function and outlook, and visa versa. Sometime after the Enlightenment, when we stopped referring to “humors” to explain illness, we began to look at physical ailments as a class separate from purely “mental” ones. The shift was complete by the time Freud adopted the diagnosis of “hysteria” for his female patients suffering from a variety of symptoms. Though even he used physical images to describe what he surmised was causing his patients’ suffering, and much of it came down to disorders of the “nervous system,” these were used as a metaphorical correlates for the very distinctly physical system.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We currently prescribe drugs and investigate the impact of exercise, mindfulness and diet on depression, addiction and other “mental health” diagnoses, however it doesn’t seem that those suffering from these imbalances are accorded the same latitude as those affected by “cardiac health,” “metabolic health,” “musculo-skeletal health” or other health phenomenon. Which is strange. Because there’s an equal and growing recognition of the psychological effects of cardiac ill health, as well as all other forms of disease. Yet insurance coverage, work policies and social stigma persist regarding “mental” health.

Truth is, being sick can make you sad. Being sad can make you sick. Trauma sucks and has lasting results on the nervous, hormonal and cardiovascular systems, effects that can be mitigated and reversed through lifestyle choices like meditation, yoga, group therapy and, yes, medications. Depression is a physical illness, affecting  body chemistry in known ways. So, too with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The brain – hold on for the revelation – is part of the body. Whoa. I know, deep, huh?

No underestimating the profound effects of addiction, depression, PTSD, bipolar and schizophrenia here. Just questioning setting them aside as “mental.” There are two possible assumptions behind setting aside some illness as mental, so far as I can see:

  • A simple taxonomy of providers and research that allows specialists to group together for professional and training reasons. Emergency Professionals train together, as do Cardiology pros (surgeons, nurses, etc), as do Psych pros. 
  • A classification of some symptoms as originating from a different mechanism than physical ailments. Mental symptoms are caused by ideas, while physical ones are caused by electro-chemical reactions within the body on which we can have meaningful impact with diet, exercise, surgery and drugs. Symptoms caused by ideas skip this physical mechanism and are healed or helped by other ideas which similarly skip physical causation.

The first is really just practical. The second is really just false, as suggested by exercise and pharmacological suggestions for psychological symptoms and meditative help for cardiac ones. Clearly, if you’re having “the big one” or you’ve sawed your arm off, you have a certain range of therapy you must seek in a finite range of time. This speaks to acuity and profundity of the symptoms rather than their source, however. We know that surgical, pharmacological and electrical interventions are often nearly as  damaging as they are helpful: that’s why we approach, prescribe and consume with great caution. Only when the gain in quality strongly outweighs the loss in trauma and side effects is it wise to engage. In extreme and emergent situations, the gain of life over probable death or profound loss of function justifies using tools that operate rather immediately on a gross level instead of ones that cause change slowly while operating on processes that are less concentrated and longer range tests are required to detect.

As a yoga teacher (were you wondering what all this had to do with that? ;>), the basis of my practice is that breath, body and mind are different ways of referring to the same experience. The experience accessed through sensation, breath, feeling and thought is that of “me:” my identity, history, person, singularity or unity. In Western Philosophy, the fallacy represented by option two above (originating from a different mechanism) is called “The Mind-Body Problem.” It’s only a problem if you think they’re distinct. We can have useful discussions about whether one causes the other, or if one is created by but has no causative force on the other (epiphenomenalism), or if they are identical, but if you begin with an assumption that they’re different in kind, you land in a briar patch that no one in the history of philosophy – in East or West – has ever escaped.

Once you’ve accepted that all well-being and dis-ease have both molecular and emotional (which also have molecular) effects, it’s easier to see that just like cardiac health, mental health is a continuum. And the lifestyle choices we make that increase our well-being on one continuum, are likely to have effects on the other – whether those lifestyle choices are pharmacological, exercise or nutrition choices.

Would we lose anything by ditching the “mental” distinction for psychological specialty symptoms? Nothing except a freakishly outdated notion that ideas are caused by ideas which somehow magically skip concourse with our bodies and directly change our emotions… which are, er… um… wow, this could be embarrassing to admit, huh? Embodied. It’s one thing. Your mind and your body are different ways of relating the one irreplaceable experience of you, and your health is singularly important. All of it. All of you.

Practice, from piano to yoga: what’s it mean?

Aum symbol in red

Aum symbol in red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I’ve recently begun reading Kara-Leah Grant’s The Yoga Lunchbox, a self-directing guide for committing to your own yoga practice. I’ve only just begun, but can say that hers is an enjoyable voice, self-disclosing and up front. The book isn’t a how-to for yoga per se, but rather a worksheeted, stop-and-think, dig in your heart kind of affair, in which she assumes you’ve been to yoga classes and know what DownDog is, but want to go deeper and make it personal. She also acknowledges the familiar struggles when coming to the mat and offers her book as a tutorial for successfully navigating them and getting your feet under you, or over you, as the case may be.

 

I love reading how other yogis guide themselves through their inner thickets, and I’m constantly reflecting on the question of  “What is a practice?” You might say it’s my own personal koan.

 

My first experiences with practice were piano, tap, jazz dance and ballet – and, yes, as I recall, all at once. I think the doctors had suggested I always be involved in dance of some kind after they were finished with my little but growing legs. The piano was a prelude to guitar, and my memories of it are tactile: the finish on the piano my mother

 

English: A split leap performed during an acro...

This was NOT me. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

bought for my practice, the pleasantly solitary “tock!” of the metronome, and the less pleasant buzz of a kitchen timer. I remember a great deal of discomfort with the dance classes: I didn’t care for the stretchy leotards and no one would ever guess my name was “Grace,” if you know what I mean. Looking back, though, the classes probably provided connection and strength that allowed me to forget for so long that my legs weren’t always so workable.

 

 

So I know a little from useful discipline. And I wonder how yoga practice differs from any of these other types of practice, for someone who feels completely at home doing them. Isn’t practice just practice, after all? Isn’t it really a way of meeting yourself over and over and over again in the same place so you can befriend yourself and study yourself in your natural habitat?

Is there a difference, for instance between yoga and meditation practice, beyond the lack of gross movement in the one and the focus in the other? Does yoga also contain meditation practice with the stillness at the end, or does it become the other when you sit up after corpse pose? Or is the common denominator of “practice” what really matters?

And if the rhythm of meeting yourself in circumstances that you control on  a regular basis for the purpose of observing, befriending and perhaps refining yourself is what really matters, is reading practice any different from yoga practice? Or language practice? Or dance? Or shooting?

I think there is a difference in the type of container you’re creating. That’s my hunch anyway. But I’m also certain that having some practice is better than none. And as I work on my own book about yoga, I’m reminded of the dictum that the map is not the territory. If reading a book about having a yoga practice is a practice that gets you to practice yoga, do you already have to be committed to the idea of practice to finish the book? In which case, why don’t we all just meet on the mat?

I suppose one reason is that we can do both, and there’s joy in reading about you love. Writing about it, too. Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Kapala-mula-bhati in the morning: breath + posture = happiness

Bhati

Bhati (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Or should that be “Kapala-mala-bhati”? You see, this morning I lingered over coffee with my Darling Hubs longer than I’d planned and so ended up with 20 minutes or so for practice. What’s a girl to do???

 

 

This is the week of the mad scientist for me, evidently  so I decided the solution would be to combine. I usually begin seated Japanese style with breath observation and then mix in some technique, moving slowly to sacral pumps and up to full Sun Salutations through Malasan (Squat pose).

So I started in Malasan and moved quickly to Kapalabhati, one of my winter morning go-tos because it is warming and creates wakefulness. It was strange at first: the pelvic floor is stretched in Malasan and the transverse abdominus is released. Generally they work in concert during Skull shining breath, and this position privileges the transverse abdominus and restricts the interlocking muscles of the pelvic floor.

It took a few rounds to get the feel of it, but I liked the added stabilization of the torso created by my elbows pushing the insides of my shins and visa versa and it created a different level of connection to the structure of the pelvis. Kapalabhati in this position took more effort and my usual 3 rounds of 100 wasn’t as breezy as usual, but still steady. I think what I like the most is that it helps discriminate between perception of sensation in the pelvic floor and low belly.

Paired with Mula-lifts at the end of practice, this made for an excellent exploration of pelvic sensation and motion. “Mula-lifts” are what I call a version of leg lifts that I learned from Ally Hamilton of Yogis Anonymous (my current fave online source). Instead of lifting the entire sacrum off the ground and contracting the front of your belly, as you would in most fitness leg lifts, you’re really going for a very small – maybe 2 inch – lift of the tailbone from the floor, with the toes pointed straight up to the ceiling and your belly pressing down toward the floor. The focus is specifically on the pelvic floor and not the abdominals.

What do you do when you realize you have limited time for practice? Are you a combiner or a simplifier? Or are you tempted to do what I almost did: “Oh, I only have 20 minutes, better just leave it til later…” I’m so glad I didn’t! Just remember to get your Savasana in. That’s the best part!

 

 

Experimentation and Pranayam: what do you do with “prohibitions”?

My Very Last Breath

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

I started thinking about this last December when I was reading a lot about Brahmari, or “Bumble Bee Breath.” I read in several places to always practice Brahmari sitting upright, but never any reason for avoiding other postures. So I asked the writers and what I heard back was that they were simply repeating what they’d read or been taught.

 

I thought a lot about why practicing Brahmari supine or even prone or twisted or inverted might be cautioned against and wondered if it was because of the mid-forehead focus and pranic flow, or because of the deep, seemingly skeletal vibration, it creates in the torso – or some combination.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori (Photo credit: Reini68)

Many of my students use this technique to power down at night or even to encourage deep sleep and some have asked about doing it in bed. While I know that the ideal for all pranayam and meditation practices is to remain alert, when these techniques are used for what might be considered their “side” effects – calming, relaxing, stress release, anti-insomnia – it makes sense not to fight the very thing you’re courting, right?

 

After consulting the many and varied sources – primary and secondary, dog eared beloved books and websites – and finding no discussion of “Why not,” I decided that the only way to tell was to run the experiment. After all, I thought, I was taught Kapalabhati as a seated practice, but I’ve experienced power and kundalini classes in which we combined with Fierce (or chair) pose and even Ardha Navasana (or half-boat).

 

I practiced Brahmari in corpse (modified for hand position) and Viparita Karani primarily, in bed, on the mat, with a cat and in a hat. (Not really; I don’t have a cat.) Having my back on the floor dissipated and dampened the torso vibration more rapidly, so my guess is this is the source of prohibitions against doing so. However, it also released tension in my neck and shoulders (massive for me) and was the perfect pre-sleep ritual.

 

Going back to my students and reporting my findings after several weeks of practice and experimentation, they told me they’d been secretly doing it, too -and loving it – reporting the same findings.

 

Hence my question: what do you do when you hear a pose or technique is “contra-indicated” for you or a position or whatever? Inversions are verboten women menstruating, goes the common wisdom, but many report loving the practice.

 

I’m all for respecting the wisdom of the ages, it’s part of what led me to yoga after all. But the discipline of heeding instruction is balanced by the wisdom of listening to my body, in my experience. How do you maintain this balance? Is there a line you won’t cross?

 

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