Hiking Yoga: What better way to get back to your roots?

The way we newsify things for the sake of entrancing eyeballs never ceases to amaze.  Authors and journalists and editors do it with politics, medical studies and trends in every realm. Yesterday I was listening to The Friday News Roundup and journalist and news analyst Juan Williams, commenting on recent happenings in the American presidential contest, commented something along the lines of  “People remember the truth and political spin won’t erase that.” (I

English: Journalist and correspondent Juan Wil...

English: Journalist and correspondent Juan Williams speaking at Chautauqua Institution in 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

don’t remember whether he was imputing half truths to elephants or donkeys, he can be trusted to do both when appropriate.) Usually I read Williams as a realist, but I have to say that in this instance I found myself wondering how wide a net he was casting and if he’d read any Orwell (I’m certain, of course, he has. More the wonder he retains his faith.)

What has any of this to do with yoga or hiking or hiking yoga? And have you ever heard of hiking yoga before? Of course you have, if not in name then on your last hike you probably stopped at a spot of beauty and reached for the sky or your hiking buddy to stand in wonder together. The most organic form of hiking yoga.

Blue diamond-shaped sign used to designate hik...

Blue diamond-shaped sign used to designate hiking trails in provincial parks in Ontario, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I read Taking Yoga on a Hike  this morning I was struck by the mini-history given in the third paragraph:

“This yoga fusion option started in San Francisco three years ago and made its debut in New York City this spring, promising the chance to connect with nature in an urban environment, with stops for yoga along the way.”

Where does the need to pedigree and attribute natural, everyday activities come from except maybe word count? While outdoor and yoga on hikes may not be everyone’s cup of chai tea, folks have been taking yoga hikes as long as they’ve trekked the Himalayas or strapped a yoga mat on an old frame pack. These days I tend to throw my Yoga-Paws in my lighter pack, but it’s the same urge and the same amazing feeling.

The very things that can be complained about in outdoor yoga are the reasons that some of us feel best doing yoga outside: the variability. Sticks and stones  remind you you’re in contact with the earth, bird chirping and dog barking blend together (they only seem different – one more annoying and one more relaxing – because of our reactions), and uneven ground , while challenging balance, adds a tremendous core and functional element. Try doing Downward Facing Dog without a mat and tell me you don’t feel your core in whole new and different way.

I love my early morning and before bed yoga sessions in a flat floored room, on my silk rug with Jonathan Goldman‘s creations streaming from the sound system and candles flickering kind shadows on the visage of Kuan Yin staring down from her museum poster.  But I also love my yoga in the sand, among the cactus and lizards in the foothills of the Sandia mountains, or on the plateaus overlooking

An image of Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon (New Me...

An image of Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon (New Mexico, United States). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chaco Canyon… or a thousand other places. These sessions are a meditation, too, albeit with some extra bumps or slants under my feet and hands and perhaps the wave or querying head tilt of another passing hiker (I do tend to choose places where this is less likely to happen). What better intermediate training in watching and caring for your monkey mind in daily life? What more inspiring backdrop? And what better way to groove your own practice?

Subtle talk, subtle body

I’m  just back from my walk today and had to share this talk with you.

This podcast, “The Subtle Body,” is from Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico – worth a visit in and of itself. The peace and dignity palpable there are food for the heart.

The speaker, Tias Little, is a deeply accomplished yogi and teacher from the area. In this talk he illuminates the subtle body and gives eminently practical advice on how yoga poses, meditation, breathing, touch and attention interact with the subtle body to obstruct or allow healing and optimum function.

Miracle in stone: Eagle on the mesa

Eagle

“There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) Physicist & Nobel Laureate

On the way to Wijiji, Easternmost Great House of the Chacoan Center. 

1 pose, 1 breath: What yoga practice looks like in times of hardship

Hip Replacements rock on

Hip Replacements rock on (Photo credit: Jerry W. Lewis)

Practice is just that. It’s not perfect, and often not pretty. It’s the opposite of a photo-shoot and exactly the same as showing up.

To be a practice, as opposed to a hobby, pastime or performance, the activity has to be undertaken by one person with enough regularity to create continuity over time, which is the only way to witness deep transformation. Regularity of this magnitude, nearly daily – shooting for daily – hoped for daily, means you will practice through hardship.

Practice is not about belief or knowledge. It is not about religion or virtue. It is about the essence of being human: being present; showing up. You might believe that this regularity will pay off in some way, and your knowledge will certainly grow. But practice is just about the rhythm, regularity, witness, same thing different day; same day, different thing-ness of consciousness.

When you practice, you show up during the hard times. This morning, I had the “best” practice I have in over a year. In that year I’ve two surgeries, one a hip replacement, a cross-country move, two dear friends die and a career change. The hip replacement wasn’t from lack of practice, healthy living or “proper” yoga. In fact, years of yoga and healthy diet extended the life of my natural hip 13 years beyond when doctors told me I’d need a replacement, due to the birth defect. But I’ve had many “yogis” suggest how I could “correct” my practice.

In Practice

In Practice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s what I know about today’s practice: I had more ease, more flow and more outward grace than I’ve been blessed with in a bloody long while. It felt GREAT. And it may not have been as valuable as all the halting, minimalist, do-what’s-possible practices in the year leading up. During those times, my asana practice was often restorative, sometimes a single pose. My meditation was frequently while lying down, and for at least three months after the surgery, always laying down and not infrequently ending in zzzzzzzzzzz… Not exactly zendo worthy, but not not practice.

While we were moving, I always had my yoga mat with me, but it was just a tease, a Manduka hope, a promise and an expression of longing more than doing. The yoga I managed was at truck stops while stretching our three dogs (one dying) or in the two foot space at the foot of the hotel room bed.

While and after our dogs died, one agonizingly and messily, one so quickly I’d have missed it if I hadn’t seen so many people die and knew the sound, a heaviness surrounded my heart that reached out to my fingernails and prevented a proud, warrior like stance. There were many aborted practices, begun with every intent of wringing the sadness out, and dissolving into tears. There was crying in fierce pose (see what that does to your diaphragm!) and child’s pose (oddly, even harder).

But without the mostly showing up, occasional giving in and constant consciousness of whether-I-did-whether-I-didn’t and how it effected the state of my mind-body, today’s practice could not have happened. And today’s practice doesn’t matter. Not in and of itself. It matters because it’s part that year, of all the years and of what will be to come. The ease matters because it’s a palpable sigh of relief, and those are to be appreciated when they arrive. It matters that I showed up, but not how difficult or “advanced” my postures were. I propose that Warrior I with total presence is a more advanced posture during some times than any “Series IV” practice ever dreamt.

When your yoga class is part of your practice, each and every breath takes on new and different meaning. There will be advances, set-backs, goals met and goals changed. All of which will pale in comparison  to the feeling of showing up for yourself, because you no longer know how not to.

Changing practice

Combat boots are very popular for women to wea...

Mine zip up the sides so I can keep ’em tied. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this, I’m sitting on my balance ball in my yoga room/office next to my hula hoop in BDUs, combat boots and a yoga top. There’s a pair of trauma shears in my pocket and a carpuject device, all just in case I’m called in, and a blue tooth in my ear to take that call if it comes. Right now, I’m writing. If I’m called in, I’ll be medic-ing. I’ve come to think of all my identities as verbs so they don’t feel so heavy.

I’ve also begun the process of negotiating those identities. Being a Paramedic was once a dream so intense it burned the grad student right out of me. No longer a dream, Paramedic-ing is one of my awesome realities, all of which inspire in me gape-mouthed breathless devotion at my good fortune and the amazing opportunities put in my path. And the larger reality is this: for the first time in my life I have more awesome than I can do justice to.

I used to work hard to quit stuff because it sucked – cigarettes, coffee (I’ve stopped stopping that), snarkiness (always a struggle, cause it’s just so fun), late nights, drinking too much, that kind of stuff. And in the process I learned that working hard against things usually keeps them in my life (does it work that way for you, too?) That it was a matter of choosing away from them, not against them that helped them fade into the fuzziness and golden light of good stories. The difference is to choose something awesomer than you think the old thing will feel if you do it right now, just one more time, because it looks so shiny and sexy and real.

Now I find that I have so many amazing choices for how to spend my days that I constantly feel like “not enough.”  I’d tell you I don’t understand people who complain of boredom, but really that’s just another way of bragging about busy-ness <yawn> and I’m choosing away from busy-ness. I am too busy, but I’m not going to tell you about it when I call to ask you to do something for me – because I know you probably are, too. Or remember having been, and know it’s a choice. Anddo understand boredom. It’s the feeling I get when I don’t want to do what’s in front of me (Is it that way for you, as well?). And I also understand choices.

So I’ve realized that for the past several years I’ve been choosing away from Paramedicine, but not because it sucks, but because there is so much to do, to tell, to love and to give. I love what I do when I go out in uniform and go places with my partner that someone in a room somewhere else tells us to go just because some other person called and asked for help. I love walking into a 26A that turns out to be 10D (fill “ho-hum” in the first slot and “do something now” in the latter), I love listening to people’s stories about why they need help, and I love finding the kernel of what I can actually help with in their story. I love sirens (when I’m working, not when I’m not) and opposing traffic and getting a nasal tube and chest darts and trans-cutaneous pacing and chasing your life faster than overlapping pathologies can. I love a good trauma because it lets me and people I work and train with do what we train to do, and when we’re good all at once, it’s most certain access to flow, to presence and to grace.

But (you knew there was one, right?) I’m realizing how much I love the life that I’ve woken up to realize I’ve  created: one of writing and coaching and teaching that creates quiet and flow and grace without sirens and chasing lives. And last year, while we lived in Silicon Valley for the hubs’ career and I took a break, I realized the UN-think-able: I can live without them. Yeah, I’ll just let that settle in, ’cause it took a while for me, too. I. Can. Live. … Without sirens and do-it-now.

CRazY. “Crazy!” I tell you! And here I have been, trying to craft a calendar, a schedule, a mind, a life that let’s me encompass the whole big, badass mess of my identities and activities. Tuesday will be my day on the streets; Mondays I’ll tend to accounts and licenses and the paperwork of business; Wednesdays I’ll work on the book and the launch; Thursdays and Fridays I’ll write for other awesome people because they treat me awesome and give me lovely things to do. Oh, and pay me pretty nicely. I’ll be sure to take weekends off to re-charge the ol’ creative battery and tend to that crazily amazing hubs and our groove, and to practice yoga and meditation every day (I’ll just slip it in between the this and the that), hike a lot (gotta enjoy the new hip) and enjoy the hot springs I longed for like a 13-year-old boy longs for real experience all last year when we were in Hippy Disneyland.

And Danielle LaPorte is right: Balance doesn’t exist. I wasn’t balanced when I was learning to be a Paramedic and holding onto it isn’t balancing me – it’s tipping me right over. Of all the -ings I’m embracing, it contributes the least to the life I’m creating. One of these things no longer fits with the other things. Not because other people don’t see how elegantly they go together (they did for oh-so-long), but because the life that feeds the -ings is no longer aligned with everything it takes to do that thing: the continuing education, the getting into and out of uniform (Hint: it’s more than putting on and taking off clothes), the never knowing when a shift will really end or how many nights I’ll dream of that man, that woman, the old couple saying goodbye, or the baby not crying when he should be. [I once knew a medic who said he didn’t do that (remember, get moved by). He wasn’t a very good person.]

So this morning I rose extra early to get my practice in before I went on call, just in case. Today’s my last day on duty, on call, on the hook, in the bus, my last day “just in case.” From now on, my life is not “just in case.” My life is for the burning fire of creativity and words and serving in another, a different, a new way. I’m choosing away from “just in case” and toward definitely here. I’m choosing away from “fitting it in” toward placing it carefully. I’m letting something awesome go so I can grab the awesome right in front of me with both arms. My practice is changing. I’ll tell you how it goes.

Alignment is Everything

Aligned Warrior I

strength in the engagement of the legs translates into core strength

Alignment sounds so very boring and technical, and yoga is almost always an expression of joy, a time to relax and let go into the present, and to be, sink into our bodies and discover our present moments.

So why bother talking very much about alignment, except in teacher training? I mean, obviously teachers should know something about alignment, but do we really need or want to interrupt the flow of class with it?

Yes! As a teacher, I attach great importance to speaking poetically about alignment and bringing out the metaphor of aligning with our inner truths, even exploring the duality that the concept implies. Alignment is absolutely the core teaching of, in and about yoga pose, because without attention to alignment of joints, planes and limbs, the poses only reinforce the very habits – samskara – we are in yoga class to unravel, unknot and unlive. In the absence of attention to alignment, we are not only unsafe mechanically, but we are grinding the grooves of our habitual responses ever deeper.

Let’s look at a simple pose, like Virabhadrasana, Warrior I. One foot forward, one back, hips square to small edge of mat, arms up. Simple, right? Simple, but not easy.

Misaligned Warrior I

back leg is falling asleep and the hips have no energy!

The back leg reaching back has a tendency to fall, bend at the knee and generally “hang out”. When we energize and straighten it by engaging the muscles 360 degrees to center, what happens in the pelvis? The hamstrings and the hip flexors – iliopsoas – are opposing one another. By engaging that back leg, we tug the hip flexors, which sounds great, right – stretch is good. But what are we likely stretching?

More likely, we’re stretching the abs, not keeping the core engaged, compressing the low back and simply tugging the front of the pelvis down a bit. Why, How? The back femer, reaching back, brings with it the attachment of the hip flexor, which stretches as much as it can. Cool. But it’s a deep and not easily sensed muscle. What happens when it gets to it’s maximum? it tugs on the interior of the pelvis, the next place where muscle meets bone. Hmmm. There’s another section that crosses to the spine, and this is in turn stretched by the pelvis careening forward, but only to its limit. Beyond that, the belly pooches and the tailbone comes up. The low back in between gets crunched like a sandwich in a brown bag at the bottom of your backpack. Ouch.

And this is probably a familiar progression if you do any office work or driving at all, because the hip flexor is in it’s relatively contracted position for long periods of time. This is familiar, this is habit. This is what we’re here to bring attention to. And alignment allows us to do so.

What if you felt the alignment of your ribcage and pelvis in Mountain – the pose that looks suspicously like just standing there only with great attention – with a neutral pelvis by placing your thumbs at the bottom of your ribcage and your fingertips on the top of your hip bones. Now, step back into Virabhadrasana I, back foot turned at about 45 degrees, keeping the same alignment between hips and ribcage. Quite a revelation, huh? Notice where you feel engagement to preserve your alignment. Notice where you are tempted to fly out of alignment for the “look” of the pose.

Alignment is everything because awareness is everything. Whether you understand it from technical anatomical terms or from putting your hands on your ribs and hips to feel when they move, the awareness is what yoga is all about. Without it, you’re a Rhinestone Warrior.

Mula Bandha

Thanks to Alisa who left a comment on the Jalandara Bandha post and asked about Mula and Uddiyana. I loved her description of the method she’d been using and tried it:

“So far, the best practice I know if is putting my hands on a sticky mat and my feet on a tray and sliding the tray backwards and forwards without bending my knees.”

What a fantastic idea! I think this process really gets to the feeling of the bandha, but maybe isn’t ideal for discriminating among the deeper layers that reveal themselves over time. David Life has  great article on the layers and how Mula Bandha relates to two distinct mudras in the same area on the Yoga Journal Page under “Practice”, called “To Infinity and Beyond!”

I usually begin to teach Mula Bandha as part of a breathing practice called kalabhati, rapid and forceful exhalations generated from rapid contractions of the low belly. When you compress the transverse abdominus which runs laterally between the pelvic crests, you naturally also lift the pelvic floor from pressure and attachments (not the egoic kind, the connective tissue kind).

From there we work imaginitively, because the most important and difficult part of this process is to actually feel with nuance this area of your own body. Most people don’t, thank you very much, and it can feel uncomfortable to refer to these areas when you’re unused to feeling them.

I begin with the usual references to Kegel Excercises, with the caveat that this is starting place. Mula Bandha begins with a contraction of the pelvic floor which is an intricate network of fascia, other connective tissue and muscles with either two or three openings, depending upon your gender. Kegel gets to the front opening. “Contract Uranus!” gets to the posterior. What we’re aiming for is a subtle lifting sensation above the perineum, and when you engage it you’ll feel instantaneously bright minded. It’s like your energy just bounced up from a trampoline.

And that is the final image I like with this exercise, usually performed sitting in Sukhasana or Virasana. Imagine a flat drum stretched from sitting bone to sitting bone, and from your tailbone up to the front of your pelvis. As your breath lands gently on this drum, it snaps gently back into the body, sending the breath upward. If in Virasana, press the knees together gently to tug the sitting bones slightly and tighten the trampoline.

Breathe, Love, Live!