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?

Yoga Thoughts on Ashtanga, ~Amy Nobles Dolan

Amy Nobles Dolan teaches yoga in Wayne Pennsylvania and writes a blog at Yoga With Spirit.  She exemplifies the addage that you’ll know you’re ready to teach when students come to you, and her expansive sense of generosity and gratitude, grounded in experience, wisdom and knowledge illuminate her writing. She’s an Ashtanga Yogi who brings an embracing perspective to both her choice of tradition and her teaching. On her website bio, she affirms, “…yoga works for everyone.” Here’s her reflection on why Ashtanga works for her. Thank You, Amy!

ps: also check her out at the YogaJournal website featured blog!

………….

Not too long ago my husband and I took our three kids to Baskin Robbins.  When I ordered (as I often do) Rocky Road, my youngest daughter, Sally, asked me why I chose that flavor.  Hmm.  I actually can’t think of a single reason not to order Rocky Road!  But trying to explain to my daughter why this flavor beat out the other thirty left me tongue-tied.  Where to start?  The creamy chocolate ice cream?  The delicate swirl of marshmallow cream?  The chocolate covered nuts that add a perfect textural balance?  I had no idea there were so many reasons I love this flavor!  Not wanting my scrumptious scoop to melt while I crafted my response, I bailed out of the question with a wholly unsatisfying “Because I like it,” leaving her to make her own choice without my input.

 

Shortly after this incident, a curious student asked me why I had chosen ashtanga yoga over all the other types of yoga out there.  Perhaps because yoga is a lot more important to me than Rocky Road ice cream, the retort “Because I like it” felt even more like a cop-out than it did in the ice cream parlor.  And, perhaps because yoga doesn’t melt, I was more willing to take the time to put my thoughts into words.  I’d love to be able to say that I stood in front of the ice-cream-case of yoga and selected ashtanga for myself.  But I can’t.  It was pure providence that led me to my first ashtanga yoga class – which was also my very first yoga class.  Had I turned up in another kind of class, the practice may not have “stuck.”  And I shudder to imagine my life without this sustaining daily practice.  You see, throughout the years, ashtanga yoga has always been a perfect match for me.

 

In the beginning, I was searching for a way to regain my body after years of sharing it with babies.  I craved the physical.  I needed the endorphin high of a good work-out to carry me through the grueling day ahead filled with diapers, bottles, heavy car-seats and temper tantrums.  I yearned to look good again.  Heck, I yearned to simply feel good.  Ask and ye shall receive.  Ashtanga yoga fulfilled all these desires and then some.  The challenging asanas toned and strengthened my body.  The vigorous, at times speedy, flow steadily increased my stamina and endurance.  The stronger and fitter I became, the better I felt.  My regular ashtanga yoga practice had completely revamped my physical body.

 

Time passed (as it does) and I changed (as we do).  My babies got bigger and the challenges that filled my days changed.  The demands I faced were no longer as physical.  I needed the wherewithal to focus on thirteen things at once – imagine three simultaneous requests for help with math homework while cooking dinner, folding a load of laundry and developing a marketing plan for my new yoga studio!  I needed the self-awareness to understand that my short temper had more to do with an over-abundance of volunteer commitments than with my husband and children.  I needed the prescience to see past the scowling face and rude demeanor to sense that something had happened at school to upset my child.

 

Again, ashtanga yoga met my needs.  The ashtanga series requires high levels of concentration and focus.  As my abilities to focus on one thing at a time and to stay present in the current moment developed, I found myself better able to deal with the multiple demands for my attention one at a time.  As I was learning to be curious and aware of myself – my feelings, my fears, my reactions, my ego – on my mat, I became more tuned into what was behind my feelings off my mat.  This awareness also resulted in a heightened sensitivity to the feelings and needs of the people in my life.   My regular (now daily) practice of ashtanga yoga was transforming my relationships – with myself, with my family and with my friends.

 

With time, discipline and dedication, my practice continued to deepen.  My times on my mat became more inwardly focused.  As I became stronger and more flexible, I began to be able to relax into the postures.  The more comfortable I was in the asanas, the less mental energy was required of me to stay in them.  I could now sink below thoughts of alignment and balance into the quiet of moving meditation.  As my physical practice matured, I began to work more diligently with my breath.  Ashtanga’s ujjayi breathing became a point of meditation for me, taking me even deeper into a meditative state.  And, as meditation became more natural for me, my rests in savasana at the end of my practices became richer and more rewarding.  Day after day while I practiced, I drew closer to the divine spark of life and love that is at my core.  Day after day, I recognized that same spark in the people I met after I rolled up my mat and moved on into my day.  My daily practice of ashtanga yoga was transforming and expanding my spirituality.

 

Why do I choose ashtanga yoga?  Like with Rocky Road ice cream, I can’t think of a single reason not to!  Why do I choose ashtanga yoga?  Like Rocky Road ice cream, I choose it because I like it!  Why do I choose ashtanga yoga?  As I said before, I shudder to imagine my life without it.  Physically, mentally and spiritually, the practice is transformative — and as wholly satisfying as a scoop of ice cream.  Just as Rocky Road ice cream is the perfect flavor for me, ashtanga yoga is the perfect yoga for me.  What about you?  What do you choose?

Press Down to Lift Up: shoulderstand, the up side down way to learn to reach your dreams

One of the most delicious and maddening things about being human is having dreams. I’m not just talking about goals:  this house, that sales figure, that asana, this number of pounds lost or muscle gained. I’m talking about a vision, a feeling of how the world could be, will be how we want it to be.

It’s called being attached, and any first time visitor to meditation hall or yoga class knows that attachment is the cardinal sin of those who seek “Enlightenment”. According to some ways of thinking, it’s the number one cause of dukkha, suffering. But simply severing it isn’t the answer… even if we could.

I’m a great fan of recurrence theories, perhaps it’s my Ancient Greek Philosophy roots, or maybe even the sparkling brilliance of Hegel still bubbling and opening my cranial cavities after all these years, but if there’s one thing of which I’m certain, it’s that nothing happens BOOM! all of a sudden, once and for all, emerging Athena-like, full blown from the thigh of anything or any one.

Even love at first sight. Take the first time I saw my husband. He waited behind me with  a compliment and a smile after my first poetry reading. I stood at the bar, ordering refreshment for my moral support, ready to wheel and slice any man who trod near my tender heart or toes. As I turned, ready to “burn him with my eyes”, my ember stoked eyes fell on his and the furnace of my heart opened to a rush of air that fed flames I didn’t know existed. It was truly a life changing moment.  I knew this person was important, and social stories and norms being what they are, I bore the usual twinge of “could he be…?” But love is a series of choices to keep the furnace tended, sometimes opened, sometimes closed, always stoked, but not to high… and not to jump in, but to sit close and absorb the warmth, to sit close with somebody else, and to remain.

And so with all great stories and commitments, which both enlightenment and non-attachment must be. We make small choices every day that create conditions to invite the condition of which we dream. We dream. We are attached to our dreams, but then we sit. We become and are capable of making distinctions between the conditions of which we dream and the particular things, feelings and people that stand in for our imaginative purposes. We find the emptiness in the dream, and so make the realization possible.

We can live and create our dreams, but only if we let go of specific ideas about how they’ll come true. The best way I know to do this is head down, eyes on the path. Do what is right in front of me with everything I am. The “everything I am” part keeps me focused on foudations, because a big part of who I am is the commitments I’ve made and the beings I love.

And so, contemplating one readers’ plaint of being unable to lift the butt into shoulder stand, I’ve been paying particular attention to how that lightness is created. And it’s no surprise to find that it’s from the bottom up. If you focus on levitating your backside over your shoulders, you’re going to struggle. It’s a lot of core strength, but as much as muscle it’s the union of opposing forces. To raise any part of the body, mind or spirit, another part must be reaching in & down.

In this case the elbows and backs of the arms work nicely. But we can even get more basic than that: the precursor to shoulderstand is bridge, so this is a lovely place to investigate the feeling of butt levitation. From a supine position, bend knees & place the feet on the mat, parallel and hip width apart, close to your rear. You press into your feet to lift your backside and so your frontside. Play with all the ways to press your feet into the floor – there are multiple combinations of muscles that will get the job done and you’ll feel the differences. Press more into your heels, then the toes, then lift the outsides of your feet. Try to move your knees farther from your hips (but never further than your ankles) without moving your hips.

Next, move up to the arms which will be important in your levitation. You can bring the elbows together & support your upper butt with your hands. See what that feels like and maybe try lifting one leg at a time off the floor. You can also support the sacrum with a block and experiment with different levels.

Investigate drawing the shoulders back & together, externally rotating the upper arms and maybe even clasping the hands. The neck should not be on the floor. This is very important, and you should take great care. Do not try shoulderstand if you have an injury or are concerned about your neck, high blood pressure, strokes. Talk to a teacher before going up. This blog is never a substitute for in person advice of a qualified teacher.

Another way to investigate your foundation for this amazing inversion is against a wall. Sit knees tucked with one arm & thigh against the wall. Lay down with the support of the other arm, onto your back, extending your legs up the wall. You might still want to inch your butt closer still to the wall. Bend your knees, place your feet against the wall, parallel and hip width apart, and press into them. Voila! Your butt comes up & off the wall, over your torso. You can play with pressing into the feet, and eventually (making sure your neck is always in a gentle natural curve off the ground) straighten your legs, feel pressing into the wall, for a supported shoulderstand. If you support your sacrum with your hands and bring your legs back so that your thighs and abdomen are at a right angle, this is half shoulder stand and a great way to work into the full stretch of the back required for shoulder stand. Focus on your legs and feet being bright and engage your core, bringing the abdominals back to support your organs and spine.

By focusing on the little things, the everyday decisions of where we press down, what we engage, little by little we move toward the fullest expression of our dreams. The path sometimes bears little resemblance to a disinterested viewer, but we know where the connections are, we feel how the oppositions support one another and finally flower into the very conditions that seemed so far away.

Non-attachment? Maybe, or maybe just loosening the strings, tending the tent stakes and letting the breeze billow the tent makes the heart light enough to take refuge under the sky.

Good for what ails you…

One of the most difficult kinds of questions to field as a yoga teacher is “What does yoga do?” Or, “How is it different than …?” The benefits of yoga – the asana, pranayama, meditation – are both permeating & subtle. 

“Research shows that reflecting on a personal value controls cortisol levels, effectively reducing stress.” ~October ’08 Self  Magazine

So it’s heartening when even such a cursory summary of research throws itself in my path. Cortisol, as you may know, is one of the multitude of compounds our body releases when in “fight or flight” mode – aka, stress. Cortisol impacts vascular health, ability to concentrate as well as appetite and what our bodies do with food. The very compounds our bodies release to deal with the stress also perpetuate it.

We need to break the cycle. And that can be accomplished as simply as “reflecting on a personal value.” And that’s precisely what we’re practicing every time we return to our breath (focus on the present, remain present), find the fulcrum between striving and ease, meditate, read and study and ponder inspiring ideas. When we practice yoga (this is why we refer to it as practice), we’re practicing for that moment when the person assigned to help us is less than helpful & kind, or when we just plain don’t get what we want or think we need. We’re even practicing for when we do get what we think we want. Our personal values are always a breath away.

And as I was in the venipuncture waitng room, reading this quote on the “happiness!” pull out in Self, I wondered “Which personal value will I remember and reflect upon when I feel stress?” Who was I kidding? I’d received run-around answers from everyone I’d dealt with getting into this cramped waiting room where I was perched on an end table because there were so many of us sickies huddling together, and whenever one of us was called prematurely out of order, a rather pressed-looking woman who presumably was not much in front of me cursed and slammed small objects. All this so I could allow a disinterested stranger to poke a sharp stick in my soft vein, and probably I’d faint. I needed to reflect on my personal value, pronto.

Thing is, even when you practice at regularly scheduled times in comfy surrounds and seats, it’s still a stretch to remember in the waiting room. But stretching is what yoga teaches, so I grounded, reached, adjusted my gaze and relaxed into reflecting on my personal value. Glad I knew what it was.

Embrace, Empower, Evolve

I asked Hillary to guest blog on the occasion of releasing her first DVD, Yoga Foundations, because I’ve loved taking her podcast class at HillarysYogaPractice.com. Her spirit really shines through and her class themes have integrity and depth.

When I chose to step into the process of making my first yoga DVD earlier this year, it sweetly reminded of how my life’s challenges have brought me my greatest gifts. In 1996 at the age of 24, I was seeking a way to become more of myself when I was presented with a huge challenge and gift – a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. With this diagnosis, I thought life was over for me, but there was a call to the yoke, to begin my practice of yoga. Early on in one of my yoga classes I heard for the first time that my blessings were hidden in my challenges. At that moment my journey of healing began, there was no turning back – I chose to embrace my situation, commit and connect to my power through the teachings of yoga.

Like any practice it takes time to find our way and stay focused. In yoga the body forms with breath, attitude, alignment and action and grows every time you come to the mat. Yoga has prepared me to see that all of my experiences are part of my foundation (good and bad); they are all there to support my process to uncover my authenticity. One of the best gifts my diagnosis offered me was the choice to shift from working in the fashion industry in New York City to study and then teach yoga in Los Angles.

After a few years of teaching, I took on a new challenge and expanded into producing my Yoga Podcast, Hillary’s Yoga Practice – this totally was scary for me. I had to take on the obstacle of learning the technology but then discovered hidden in this challenge that yoga is also technology. Now after almost 2 years of producing my podcast, yoga helped me once again to embrace this next challenge to produce the DVD. While in pre-production, production, up to the day of shooting, I was living on the edge, holding steady, doing my best to not retreat from the fear of the unknown.

At this point I am able to be grateful for all that I have learned over time.  As I moved through my obstacles more would appear and by embracing them, it becomes easier to use them as a roadmap for my own growth into becoming more of myself.

Here are 3 steps you can use to begin to discover the gift in your challenge and become the best you.  You are invited to do this daily, weekly or monthly.

Please keep a journal by writing lists or creating some other visual image as a way to help the mind and body connection.

1. Embrace your challenge by practicing gratitude.

  [Ex: I embraced my diagnosis of MS and was grateful that my body was calling for my attention]

2. Empower yourself by asking what you can learn from this specific challenge.

  [Ex: The first time I asked this what came up was honoring my boundaries.]

3. Evolve into the best you and uncover the gift. 

  [Ex: The gift was to love myself and to be kinder to myself. Over time I had to work on this and    discover ways (empower) to create those boundaries I me. ]

 

Hillary Rubin , a certified Anusara Yoga teacher has taught nationally and internationally including Yoga Month 09 Tour , Agape International Spiritual Center’s University/UTSLA, Paramount Studios, City Yoga , and the Mind Body & Beyond Expo.  She is passionate about sharing her story to inspire others to become empowered through life’s challenges and has been featured by Fit Yoga Magazine, Conscious Choice Magazine, Whole Life Times, Lime.Com , Yoga Mates, and Yoga Peeps

 

 

 

It's all material….

Although we have been made to believe that if we let go we will end up with nothing, life itself reveals again and again the opposite: that letting go is the path to real freedom.” ~Sogyal Rinpoche

Letting go is so pleasant and effortless while you’re on vacation. I’ve been cataloguing the things that seem to make it more difficult in my everyday life.

I’ve been back for a bit more than a week now, and I love that post-vacation, seeing it all with new eyes feeling. The freedom of vacation allows me to set new patterns and renew commitments to myself; the transition into daily life tests those patterns and provides new food for thought, new material for learning not only who I am and who I want to be, but how I construct who I am, and how I encourage or discourage the person I am becoming.

Surfing was transformational.  The morning of my 40th birthday we were wet-suiting up and toting our longboards on our heads behind a man who embodied “surf movie” but cocked his head and smiled blankly at any question we asked in English. While the contact at Pacific Surf School certified he was “fun and has awesome dreads”, no one vouched for his teaching skills, and we were soon to find out why. (btw: if you’re looking for surf lessons on Mission Beach, check out Surfari, avoid Pacific).  So we paddled and he held our boards for the waves for an hour or so and what I most learned was that I loved trying to surf.

My husband was better able to stand on his board than I was, and I loved that he was loving the experience. Sharing this with him was the ultimate birthday gift.  We would take turns, hours a day,  for the next six days with a short board we bought used and a rented long board, one in the water, one out, watching one another, watching the surf, tumbling in the surf, paddling, waiting for the swell, pressing into the board to rise and take our stand, tumbling mostly, sometimes easing down with intent, always turning right back around and paddling into the waves. (bts: the short board was fun and light, but we had our best rides and most fun on the long board. Yeah, it advertises that you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ll do that when you’re out there. Just stick to the long board. It’s cheap, it’s easier. We sold our short board on the way out of town and bought a wetsuit for our next trip. Oh yeah, there’ll be a next trip.)

There was yoga on the beach, and we took a cheap efficiency a block off the beach so we could just flop barefooted and swimsuited from bed to coffee to beach to bed to food. I only made it up on the board a handful of times, and those were thrilling, but not even the best moments. It was the “-ing” of it all, the mind clearing toss in the surf, the being there, the doing without thinking and the needlessness of words. The broad smiles and exhausted drops into bed.

Never once did I feel like I’d “failed” to do something. True, I could see on “Fabian’s” face that I was not his star pupil, but his utter lack of interest in me was what made it easy not to internalize. I was loving every salty, roaring, push you under gasp for breath go do it again moment. Disappearing into that moment was all that mattered. Could it be that that’s all that ever matters?

Practice for the life you want

Practice for the life you want.

 
I think a lot about what makes yoga different from other forms of physical fitness. My gym routines, daily dog walks and hiking also incorporate mind, body & breath and have tremendous benefits to my overall life & health. A well-timed walk can change my whole perspective.
 
So how is yoga different?  Yoga is a practice. And it’s not practicing for more yoga. Today’s yoga practice isn’t about tomorrow’s time on the mat. It’s about everything I do, because more than whether I bring my nose to my shins any time soon, more than whether I can clasp my hands behind my back, my time on the mat is about the present moment.
 
And that’s why yoga is different: while I can be present-moment in any or all of my activities, every part of yoga has as its aim this paradoxical state of being, which is itself beyond means & end thinking. The present moment is both every moment – and so different across time and people – and it is one moment, so it is the stable core of our being to which we can always return.
 
This is the paradox of eternity & the infinite: it is not a moment repeated forever, or a series of discrete moments following one another without end. It is a way of being from which we can see time. It is the way of being which allows us to take us a stand, or remain above the fray. And while walking and lifting and hiking bring me joy, connect me to my breath and occasionally bring me into the flow, Yoga is all about this. Yoga is preparation for meditation, which is to say it is a meditation on meditation from a beginners point of view – the very point of view to which most meditators are trying to return.
 
Yoga is a practice, and as such has profound consequences off the mat – not just on my ability to sustain a heart rate or walk a set of stairs, or even let a feeling go. My time on the mat is where I explore and create the structure of my life.  I investigate my mind while I hold poses, feel emotions, strive for goals. The poses, emotions and goals are but tools for the point of the practice which supercedes them all.
 
So what are you building and cultivating with your time on the mat? Where do you practice? Do you practice in a place & manner that reflects the life you are crafting? Are you fitting practice in or intentionally carving out the minutes for your mat time? 5 minutes on purpose without stealing from your other priorities is better than an hour and a half stolen from your sleep or other needs.
 
Knowing which is which takes a great deal of compassion and care in watching your own mind. Your mind is not only your thoughts but your emotions and what you might call your “almost thoughts”… the ones that flit beneath the radar. And of course this takes – you guessed it – practice: mat time.
 
So consider where & how you practice and the kind of relation with your mind that it cultivates. Plant the seeds of your best life on your mat, nurture them with your presence and a little bit of sweat and maybe even tears. And watch your mat – and your practice – grow into your best life.