Balance, Acceptance & Integrity

Balance comes from understanding the opposing forces in our lives, and how we can integrate them in an expression of our deepest truth and values. Whether those forces are internal or external, chosen or non-negotiable, understanding their natures and contours as well as our deepest core allows us to most efficiently act from integrity at any given time.

Rather than trying to make our roles, bodies or activity fit a pre-determined mold, balance requires us to recognize what we have, choose and examine our foundation, feel our deepest center, integrate our periphery and unify what might at first seem like opposing demands. When we try to balance without practice or without consciousness, it can make us feel scattered and a bit nuts.

Sometimes this is because we’re not acknowledging the way things happen to be, or because we lack support, vision or strength of our core. But when you practice a little bit each day, you lay a foundation of consciousness, strength, awareness and support from which you can act to transform your world through concrete action.

Balance

The four principles of balance are Vision, Grounding, Support & Centering. In yoga pose, we apply these principles intuitively.

From this  

yogi needs help!

Ommmmm!

To this….  

Balanced and free

Balanced and free in Vrkasana

Vision starts literally where your eyes fall – your drshti, focus, chosen part of the world to take into your senses. You must choose one that is steady, not too large or small and cultivate the ability to stay with it. You must know to reality of your chosen focus, or when it moves and reveals itself to be an ant you’ll be surprised and loose your balance! Paradoxically, perhaps, this means experimentation with an open heart and mind – without resistance or anticipation – and commitment to revising and refining your vision over time.

Grounding happens where the rubber meets the road, or the skin meets the mat. In standing poses this means connecting through all four corners of your feet and feeling your toes relaxed and alive. This is the root or basis of the pose, and integrity here translates into integrity throughout your body. Off the mat, this can mean being transparent and realistic about our motivation and investment. Where does the rubber hit the road? How does a given activity, relationship or necessity really function in the context of your entire life? Where are your “feet” for this endeavor?

Support comes from the expression of the pose through the entire body. In Warrior I, we often let the back leg become a little lax, after all we can’t see it and we’re so focused on the arms in the air and not falling over! Well not falling over is specifically influenced by how alive that back leg is! Even effort throughout all the limbs with the muscles gently huggging the bones and drawing into the core, even while we reach strongly out from the heart supports the overall expression of the pose, or any endeavor.

Centering happens when we muscularly, energetically, emotionally, mentally hew to midline. Just as we draw our muscles to midline at the end of a meditative outbreath, centering requires that we draw our core support muscles into the center of the body. Core strength starts in the inner thighs, is felt in the pelvic floor and translates into the 3 major abdominal muscle groups usually associated with core strength, and even requires the finer muscles supporting the spine, connecting the spine and torso, all of which support the smooth and effective function of the diaphragm in respiration.

Whether in yoga pose or traffic, find equanimity by bringin your awareness to your vision, ground, support & center. You’ll breathe more easily, think more clearly, focus more securely and choose with integrity you find it easy to follow through. Breathe, Balance, Be!

Yoga Asana & Weight Loss

Yes, it’s January and the usual topics rear their heads. I’ve railed against marketing yoga for weight loss as much as a stretching routine. I’ve waxed mildly philosophical about contentment & acceptance as more transformative focuses than self-improvement. And yet… And yet.

Weight loss is no superficial matter. Being overweight increases infalmmatory processes in the body, as well as risks for all the major causes of death and disability: heart disease, vascular disease, stroke, diabetes.

Moreover, feeling overweight compromises how we are in the world, what we allow for ourselves and what we imagine. I’ve written here about quitting smoking, I’m writing a memoir about sober vinophilia, and I still write occasionally about my icey fascination with adreneline and extremes. So why not write about my experience with yoga and weight?

Weight has always been a sensitive topic for me. I started serious weightlifting when I was a young teenager & still feel safest, most at home in a spare, bright room full of metal and benches and bars and sweat. When things go really bad, I go to the gym. Because of having built a physique more muscular than the average woman, I’ve often heard extreme assessments of my appearance. Whether appreciative or derisive, it’s always felt intrusive, like someone commenting on your religion.

And of course through the years age, divorce, career change, night shift & the poignant stresses of living have taken their own tolls adding padding here & there, only to be shed as I process the emotions and memories they embody.

And this is where yoga comes in. My practice has given me the structure to observe the relationships between the shapes I embody and ideas, emotions, sensations and experiences I am processing. Yoga specifically addresses how we process and digest energy, specifically our food, emotions, rest and desire. Through breathing, circulation, motion and rest we can intentionally influence the efficiency with which we process our life experience. And this is the most important thing about weight, because even yogis die and in the end it’s always the heart that stops. Even yogis age, and in the end the face is never the same as it was when we were born. Even yogis struggle, and in the end stress shares the same physical processes regardless of where it is born.

From my own observation, weight stores emotion. Sometimes this is benevolent: we may not be ready or have the resources to process it we will soon possess. And the more thouroughly we process, the more time it can take, but the more we will understand and the freer we will be. When I was raped during my teacher training three years ago, I began a slow weight gain that was resistent to all my diet and exercise attempts. As that weight dissolved this last year, I was sometimes awash in emotions that were clearly out of context for my current existence. They were remnants washed out in the process of renewal. Cultivating witness consciousness (which is palpably and functionally different than disassociating), staying connected to breath and listening to my body for the poses and seats that would best support my activity were crucial in caring for and supporting this part of my process.

The weight that I carried wasn’t always comfortable, but it was often comforting. Loosing it wasn’t always comfortable, but my lighter body feels at home in my world. I lost thirty pounds during 2008, which is a steady & sustainable rate.  As important as the physical activity in yoga is the constructive rest and meditation. The eight limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) are as necessary to yoga practice as to an octupus.

Overall, daily practice and meditation are crucial. Even if it’s just a moment on the mat, the imprint that I carried into my day was sustaining. What I did on a given day was based on a general structure which I refined over the course of time, but tailored each day to my needs. My sleep patterns were stabilizing, my food habits were changing, my practice varied depending on my health, my cycle, the time I had set aside, emotions, work demands and classes I was prepping.

What I recommend for students who are designing a practice with weight stabilization in mind is first to be clear about what emotions and meanings you anticipate processing. Be open for change, and stay grounded in your overall process. For some drawing and journalling help with putting a particular day’s events in the larger context of their life. Remember that your practice is ultimately supporting you in digesting your experience and that no emotion, no day or night or wash of feeling is definitive of anything. It is information, it is color and you can be present for it and be the space and awareness of it.

I begin my own practice with breathing and pranayama. Kalabhati & Stomach Churning are particularly mind clearing and energy producing. They are also helpful for generating warmth on a cold morning, or on a camping trip. I follow these with 20-30 minutes of sun salutations beginning slowly and meditatively, feeling every centimeter of motion exquisitely with every cell of my body and working up to crisp motion in concert with breath.

Standing postures with lots of twists and revolved poses felt integrative, strong and cleansing, and by Fall I was closing with Sarvangasana, or shoulderstand, for 5 minutes each day, followed by Halasana, or Plow, a final twist & squeeze. After a luscious Savasana I like to practice Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, before silent meditation, focusing on my breath. Some chanting brings me nicely into the rest of my day.

That’s what I’ve devised. I’ve recently read Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga with great pleasure and he has a routine at the end which has many of the same elements. I wouldn’t recommend diving in without a teacher, because no amount of reading will enable you to transition between postures or guage your readiness like a teacher. But if you have experience or a teacher to guide you, either through private or group lessons, it’s a well rounded program, and regardless, the thoughtful first chapters are valuable for the clarity & simplicity of his explanation.

I continue to observe the changes of my body and mind through my practice and while I’m now at the weight I was before, my body continues to grow slimmer and more muscular, though of a different  density than my 145# benching days. (Yeah, I actually used to loose boyfriends because I could bench more.)  I regard this as evolution, information, experience and contribution to the wisdom I seek. I invite you to share your story, plan, experience or struggle through comments or email. Remember, it’s all Gunas acting on Gunas (Bhagavad Gita) or loosely translated, “It ain’t nothin’ but a thing. Another thing.”

Workshops!

Going to Yoga workshops is one of my dearest pleasures. I use them as rewards, treats, carrots and sometimes just fun. That’s why I’m excited to announce the first of this year’s YogaEveryDay workshops, my chance to share a concentrated yoga experience with you!

Intro to Yoga on Saturday 31 January will focus on basics. Like a parent who secretly favors one child, my favorite classes to teach are the “Level 1”, “Basic” or “Beginner.” This Workshop will be an afternoon to learn or return to basics of alignment, breath, strength & opennes. Affordable, Supportive & Fun – Join Now!

Partner Yoga on Saturday 21 February: we’ll provide a safe, open, light environment for practicing yoga poses in unique, supportive combinations that will open and enlighten your heart and connections. Join Now!

Metaphor is Powerful; Yoga is Powerful

We’ve just witnessed the power of metaphor on the national stage, and yoga asana practice is direct, personal engagement & embodiment of the power of metaphor. We embody particulars and so transcend the generalities of natural forms in postures,  as when we engage the majestic conversation with air that is the Eagle in Garundasana, the enduring stability of the Tree in Vrkasana, the open reflectivity of the Moon in Ardha Chandrasana. 

While performing asana, the student’s body assumes numerous forms of life found in creation, and he learns that in all these there breathes the same universal spirit – the spirit of God. ~BKS Iyengar

Yoga asana is movement in concert with breath. Each release, each opening is supported by and in turn invites more breath. Each moment of awareness is tied to a simple motion or stillness, a particular moment of physicality accessed through awareness riding the conduit of breath. Minute particulars, infinitely organizable, known only through our unique presence in this one prescious moment. The moment as it is given to us.

Even believing the force of metaphor and the empowerment of presence and embodiment, the mechanics can remain deeply mysterious. How can physical movements change our lives, change the world? While my first inclination at response is “How can they not? Aren’t our lives, Isn’t the world, a collection of movements?”, the deeper answer comes down to particulars.
“Labor well the minute particulars,
 take care of the little ones
 …
 For Art & Science cannot exist but in
 minutely organized particulars.”
~William Blake
 
Yoga practice leaves us more adaptable, more present and so more alive, creative & responsive. 
“Enhancing respiratory function is the surest and simplest way to increase the adaptive capacity in the organism.” ~Thomas Myers 
So through awareness and attention to particulars of our own ever-present existence, we train ourselves to become more responsive to our worlds and the needs of the people in them.
Still need motivation for practice? How about a recent report in Prevention magazine linking meditation to better sex? We all know better leving leads to longer lives, but if meditation can lead to sexier life, what’s not to try, to love?

Roam the Hub of All Sacred Places….

“The light which shines above this heaven, above all the worlds, above everything, in the highest worlds not excelled by any other worlds, that’s the same light  which is in you.” ~Chhandogya Upanishad

What if all the thinking, all the words, ideas aren’t our minds? What if they’re the covering over our minds? Don’t get me wrong – they’re great tools. But what’s overseeing the job site? They’re not the tools you’ll need if you’re looking for your true self or for a steady place to stand.

Science tells us our minds are decentralized in the body. Yoga helps us settle into our heart, where wisdom and intelligence reside. Of course when we talk about heart in yoga, we’re not just talking about the juicy pumping muscle to the left of center in our ribcages. There are a lot of bits housed around there – chemoreceptors, baraoreceptors, lungs, thymus, arteries, lymph nodes, spine, circulating blood and air, esophagus, diaphragm. When we bring our attention to this area, when we just feel what comes up, we are contacting the heart of yoga. Our yoga.

Bringing ease to the muscles and joints around this area can be the beginning or development of this process. This is where many of us Western Yogis start, with asana. Maybe a little breathing practice. Then we might start calling that pranayama. Maybe we meditate for stress reduction. Somewhere along the way we realize these pesky emotions are less pesky, the aches are less achey, the mind is less muddled.

“The heart is the resting place of the pranas, the senses and the mind. It’s your true self, which is identified with intelligence and which finds repose in the space within your heart.” ~Nikhilananada’s Intro to The Principal Upanishads

So then we explore pratyahara – sense withdrawal. But then, where do the senses go? Niky above, says to the space within your heart, your true self. Makes some sense – it’s quieter there than the head or stomach. The feelings come up, but maybe we’re in a place where we can uncouple them enough from the words and judgments to just let them be a bit.

Now we’re practicing saucha in our hearts. Saucha – cleanliness, purity. We don’t often think of it in regard to our hearts, but after we’ve gotten glimpses of the Love that lives there, it makes sense not to store our crap on the porch. If we keep the windows clean maybe it will shine more brightly. The Sanskrit word for this place – Anahata – can be translated “unstruck”. “The space within your heart  is omnipresent and unchanging.” (~Chhandogya Upanishad ) Always with us, always available for us to touch and feel is a place that is unstruck by the blows of life, unmoved by the compliments and criticisms, the lost jobs and the awards. It is always what it is. We are always who we are. Sometimes we just cover it up with judgments, which are really old experiences in new clothes. Film on our windows.

Maybe this is the impetus to poke our noses into the pesky ethical side of yoga.  But if you’ve been cleaning your windows all by yourself, and someone gives you a step ladder and an extension for your sponge, you’ll be pretty glad to pay attention. And they’re pretty simple, deceptively so. Love, Truth, Conserve your energy, Be quiet, Be fierce, Stay Open, Be present, Learn you’re not in control, Study your experience, Respect Others’ Boundaries. But Wow! try to practice ’em all at once! That’ll give any college Ethics Professor a run for her money.

So you keep coming back to the place of quiet stillness to which your mat has become the doorway. “The heart is the hub of all sacred places; go there and roam.” ~Bhagavan Nityananda 

The week of the Camel… will you join me?

Why isn’t there a groundhog pose in yoga?

I’m feeling like groundhog emerging and realizing Spring. Of course Spring is putting on Summer clothes just now, but the flowery, rainy wardrobe of emergence is not yet shed, and is suiting me just fine.

Coincidences intrigue me, especially as I don’t believe in them ;> so I was intrigued to find that it was just about a year ago that I was playing with Camel and the emotions that it offers up. I wrote a series of blogs over about six months and recently had an interesting comment from Patrick on one of them that beckoned I return to this most inciting asana.

Additionally, many of you have written to me of your own emotional releases and offerings in this asana, and I’ve found other blogs make mention – notably, NiceMarmot (I love that name! and the blog…) Yoga aids us in digesting not only our food, but our spiritual food – our experience. And sometimes digesting, in breaking down the substance of a thing and absorbing what’s nurturing or nutritious and flushing the unnecessary generates heat, discomfort and intensity. It depends on what you’ve been eating. And daily life puts much on our plate that we might not choose all on our own. That’s its offering to us. Nurturing is not always warm and fuzzy.

And here I am again, with you Gentle Reader, on the precipice of Summer. I celebrated Spring with Twists (see the May 2nd blog on yogaeveryday.org) and I’m baring my heart to Summer with Camel this week. I invite you to join me in making camel part of your practice this week, and if you haven’t started a home yoga practice, to start with this asana. Abide in your awareness of your heartful center, know that whatever comes up is not you, it is a residue of experience, and experience of its own, connecting us to the world of other experienciers. In the posts above is a class with Ustrasana as its pinnacle pose, or you might dive in with these videos below. They are different in approach, but each offer valuable instruction.

How does it feel to remain vulnerable in your life? Does it seem a worthy spiritual quest? What are you offering today? As always, I love hearing about your experience on and off the mat. Leave a comment or email me privately. Either way, find your yoga today and dive in, heart and all.