January 29: Bold Alignment with Nancy Kate Williams

If you are looking for an inspiring and informative class in Boulder, Colorado, check out Nancy Kate Williams (see nancykateyoga.com), at The Yoga Pod. (See: http://www.theyogapod.com/teachers.html). She also teaches at Om Time, which is a great Boulder studio. (See: http://omtime.com/).

Asana Practice: The hour long practice focused on closed hip standing poses such as:

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I)

Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose)

Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle)

“Closed hip” refers to the fact that the pelvis is facing forward and both hips are level with the front of the mat.  Additionally, the hips are equal distant from the floor.

This action poses a challenge for people with strong hips and tight hamstrings.

Nancy Kate started out the class with a series of hamstring opening poses on the floor using a yoga strap.  This sequence helped to open the hamstrings and hips, while activating internal spiral of the legs and informing the relationship between the inner thighs.  The sequence resembled my Fifteen Minute Post-Run fix.  (Check it out here: http://365yogastudy.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/january-30-fifteen-minute-fix-vol-iii-made-for-runners/).

Next, we did a long standing sequence similar to the ashtanga yoga standing sequence.    Unlike the ashtanga sequence, instead of doing each individual pose on the right side and then on the left, Nancy Kate moved through a series of standing poses first on the right side of the body, then she repeated the entire sequence on the left.  This allowed for a deepening of the poses. Additionally, Nancy Kate encouraged us to use blocks during these poses. Using props, such as a block, in difficult poses helps maintain the integrity of the pose and ultimately aids opening deeper faster.

I find closed hip poses extremely challenging.  I have tight calves from running and it is difficult to keep my back foot grounded.  Additionally, it can be difficult for me to keep my hips level.  It takes all of my strength to keep the hip of my front leg pressing back towards the wall behind me.

The best cure for tightness in these poses is sticking with the challenge.  As each pose pushes against me, I continue to press back against it.  With each new breath I learn how to honor the pose and find new places of surrender.

In particular, I find revolved triangle to be one of the most difficult poses.  Most instructors tell you to press the hip and sit bone of your front leg back.  Nancy Kate made this instruction more sophisticated.  She told us to lift the hip bone up, rotate it back, and then to ground it down. For me, this instruction more effectively called my front hip back and activated my front foot and lower leg.  In turn, I found more space in my hip.

Lesson Learned: Closed hip poses can be a challenge if you have tight hamstrings or strong hips.  The stronger these poses push against you, the stronger and more diligent you will need to be in order to find a place of surrender in these very challenging and strong asanas.

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January 28: Fifteen Minute Fix (Vol III: The Body Scan)

Fifteen minutes is plenty of time to check in with your body.

I hear people say that they don’t have time to workout or practice yoga.  Usually when I push, I learn that people believe they need at least an hour free to move their body. It is very easy to make excuses for being sedentary. Instead, lets take every opportunity available to us, whether its five minutes or fifteen, and get the body moving.

Every chance to check in with the body is useful.  Not only does physical movement get the blood flowing and help us feel better, but it can educate us about what our body needs.

The more regularly we take the time to focus inward, breath and move, the more educated we become about the processes of the body.

We can learn how certain foods make us feel. We can feel the nuances of a full night’s rest, or compare the way we feel after different workouts. Additionally, if we check in with our body a few times during the day, we may learn our natural bio-rhythms and in turn pick the best time of day for each activity.

Asana Practice: Doing yoga in quick bursts throughout the day teaches me how my body responds to different activities.

A fifteen minute practice in the morning can help me determine if I need to have a heavy or light breakfast, what parts of my body are tight and need more attention, and can help me determine if my immune system feels strong or needs a boost.

When I find my mat midday, I am able to determine whether I’m holding stress in my body and need to relax, if I’m drinking enough water, and what type of cardio or weights would benefit my body the most.

A short practice before bed, helps me check in with areas of my body that I am overworking or need to strengthen.  Additionally, I can usually determine whether my diet is serving me or whether it has fallen out of balance with my activities.

The more often during the day I do yoga, or even breath work, the more in tune I am with my body.  This is a necessary step in creating a harmonious and healthy lifestyle.

Lesson Learned: Do asana throughout the day, even if you only have a few minutes.  You will gain a deeper understanding of how your choices affect how you feel, and you will learn how to better serve yourself.

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January 27: Commit to a Plan

Decide what style of meditation you are practicing before you start your practice.

There are many different forms of meditation.  It can be tempting to jump around during a practice.  Do your best to set up a plan before you begin and hold strong to it.

My personal opinion is that most meditation styles take you to the same place.  Some styles are better suited to different personality types, settings, lengths of time in practice, and egoic restraints you are overcoming.  Nonetheless, if you decide to practice in a certain form, commit to it for the duration of your practice.

Distracting yourself with different types of meditation techniques is no different than allowing yourself to be distracted by the mind’s chatter.

If you truly want to experience and live from meditative mind, it will be necessary to overcome the inherent egoic desire to keep your mind busy.

Meditation Practice: Today, I meditated on the simple mantra, “listen.” On every inhale, I silently thought the word “listen” and on every exhale I allowed myself to experience the silence beneath thought. Over and over again, ‘listen.”

When my mind would wander to passing thoughts, I would say the word, “thinking” then return to the mantra.

This is a simple meditation taught to me by one of my gurus, JunPo Denis Kelly, a zen master. (See http://www.mondozen.org/community/teachers_priests.htm).  I recommend this practice for people whose first language is English or find sanskrit to be off-putting.

Lesson Learned: Commit to your sitting practice before you sit down and hold strong through discomfort.

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January 26: Patterned Response (Type A v. The Sloth)

Don’t give in to your patterns.

Asana Practice: Ask yourself, are you the type of person who gives up too easily, or do you tend to over-work?  Today, notice your pattern and do the opposite.

I am typically an over-worker.  In the last few months,due to injuries, I have backed off and I have tried to surrender and relax if I experience discomfort.  Today, for the first time, I noticed my body giving up before it needed to. My pattern changed.  I now need to guarantee that I am not surrendering too early or too readily.  I need to strike a balance.

Lesson Learned: Watch your tendencies to overwork or give in too early, and make a concerted effort to find a more appropriate balance.

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January 25: The Power of Repose

When in doubt, lay down.

Asana Practice: I attended Jason Bowman’s Alignment class at Movement Climbing and Fitness.  (See http://movementboulder.com/fitness/yoga/ for a list of yoga classes at movement, and check out Jason’s blog at http://www.evolver.net/user/openeyes).

The wild child Jason Arthur Bowman in the flesh.

The class is designed to be slow in order to focus on a few key actions or poses.  Tonight the class focused on Warrior III, or Virabhadrasana 3, Shoulder Stand, or Salamba Sarvangasana, and Corpse Pose, or Savasana.

My favorite part of the class was Jason’s attention on savasana and bringing the class’s attention to the nadis or meridian lines, which are the energy lines that move through the body.

Diagram of the Main Nadis, or channels moving through the body.

Jason started and ended the class with a deep savasana, inviting us to check in with the pads of the feet and bringing our attention to different points throughout the body.  He reminded us to feel the body from the inside, and to keep our attention on as many parts of the body at the same time as possible.  Additionally,  he brought our attention to the brightness generated wherever we bring pointed focus.

Starting and ending the class with savasana increased my receptivity and made my entire body glow. This exercise increased my body awareness and allowed me to hold attention in more places of my body simultaneously.

Lesson Learned: Try starting a yoga practice with savasana. Bring attention to each body part individually and then try to hold all of the body in your mind’s eye simultaneously.  Notice if  your receptivity is increased throughout the rest of your practice.

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January 24: Hanumanasana

There is a key to unlocking every asana.

I’m close to touching the ground in a pose I was convinced I would never have the grace of experiencing…the infamous, Hanumanasana.

I never judged my inability to do Hanumanasana, also known as asymmetric splits.  I was comfortable associating myself as an inflexible athlete and would joke that I was several lifetimes away from doing this pose.

That was until I took Shiva Rea’s teacher training and learned how to open my hip flexor muscles. (See http://shivarea.com/teacher-training-welcome).

Shiva is all about opening the hip flexors.  Taking a look at the cover of her DVDs or pictures from her website, can give you a taste of what I’m talking about.

Prior to Shiva’s training, I spent years in a pose that resembled the picture below:

Everything was tight! My hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors felt like rope rather than flexible human tissue, and I felt stuck.

Asana Practice: Over the last four months I’ve focused on opening my hip flexors and bringing awareness to my inner thighs and quads.  As I’ve begun to open up these muscle groups I’ve come to realize that it isn’t my hamstrings that are holding me back, it is these other muscle groups that are impeding my ability to access my hamstrings properly.

Therefore, I make sure to do low lunge, low lunge backbend variation, and low lunge with quad stretch, in every practice.  In addition, I continue to do a long hamstring sequence in every session, so that I will continue to bring awareness to forward bends as my body opens and changes.

Lesson Learned: Don’t make assumption about what’s holding you back in a pose.  Continue to explore all the asanas and be open to new teachers teaching you new things.  You might find that an unexpected pose unlocks the key to something once thought unattainable.

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January 23: Yoga v. The Carpet

If you’ve ever practiced asana on a carpet, you are probably aware of the excess pressure placed on the wrists.  Doing poses such as downward dog and handstand on soft surfaces  cause the wrist to sink below the fingers.  This causes compression and hyperextension in the wrist. In medical terms this problem is referred to as, axial loading or dorsal wrist impingement, and should be avoided.

Over the years I have made it a point to live in houses with hard wood floors. Unfortunately, in my most recent abode, carpet is the only option.  I decided to do some research in order to find a solution.

There are companies that sell fold-up surfaces.  One such company is LifeBoard. Their products range from $80.00-$90.00, and are fold-up, travel-ready surfaces.  I’ve never used one but they seem nice.  Check out their website: http://www.getlifeboard.com/.

My friend Rainbow Michael Haynes (see www.cosmicfiredance.com) came up with another solution.  He purchased a large piece of white board/ dry eraser board (the surface you use dry erase markers on), from Home Depot, and had it cut to size.  The price of materials, and having it cut, cost $16.00.  He was able to make two complete yoga surfaces that fit large, over sized yoga mats. Clearly this is a better deal.  However, they cannot be folded up and, therefore, are not good for travel.

For some people these boards need one adjustment.  Depending on your power to weight ratio, the entire surface may slide while doing jump forwards. This problem can be easily solved by attaching sticky rubber furniture stoppers to the bottom of the board.  Trial and error suggest that the stoppers should be placed at least 4-6 inches in from the corners, rather than directly on the corners.

Happy Carpet Yogaing!

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January 22: The Center of Stillness

Place your awareness in the center of yourself.  When your mind is chattering and your ego is screaming for your attention, can you find the place that is unmovable?  Can you find the center of stillness?

At some point in our practice there is a shift.  There is a moment where the voices telling us we feel this way, or should act this other way, no longer occupy center stage.  There is a moment in time where all the thoughts, feelings, and emotional states become mere characters in an ever unfolding manifestation, where the stage is an infinite expanse, silent and imperturbable. This is the moment of true surrender, some call it samadhi. (For a greater discussion on samadhi, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samadhi).

The full moon was a few nights ago and as a woman I feel intimately connected with the hormonal shifts that occur like the tides of a vast ocean.  As this watery energy takes over my consciousness I use yoga and other forms of physical activity to create a focal point or drishti in my life.  (Drishti normally refers to the point of visual focus during an asana practice. Here I use it as a metaphor).  In other words I create a metaphorical  rock in the ever flowing river of consciousness.

Asana Practice: Today I applied the principles of yoga, as well as, included specific asana in to my cardio and weight lifting workout.  At first I ran three miles fast on a treadmill, while doing hills.  While many people would not consider this yoga, I believe that it is someone’s intention and approach to life that determines whether they are practicing yoga. I allowed my body and mind to intensely focus, as the workout demanded its full attention, while placing my awareness in the vast stillness of meditative mind.

After my run, I lifted weights and did lunges and squats.  I am an ex-competitive athlete and I love watching how yoga, and the awareness it has brought me, has changed the way I sculpt my body.  I have gained a deep level of communication with my physical form, and I have cultivated a strong aptitude for listening.  I am so grateful to be able to turn to physical activity for yet another form of meditation.  It has such a magical way of turning me deep in to the center of my own silence.

Lesson Learned: Apply the listening and focusing techniques of yoga to western athletics and learn the power of listening, even on a treadmill.

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January 21: Sacred Space

Create a sanctuary for your yoga practice so that you may surrender in to the natural light of your internal healer.

I’m visiting my family in Atlanta, Georgia.  Bless their hearts, but my parents don’t practice or understand the transformational experience of yoga asana.  (not yet at least) Nonetheless, I continue my daily practice here and I’m learning ways to create a sacred and safe space for my practice in foreign settings. Specifically, I’m learning that sometimes this requires dialogue with others so that they may respect the space and time I need for myself.

Asana Practice: This morning I was practicing in the kitchen of my family’s house and I found myself confronting heavy emotions welling up from the depths of my belly.  I stayed present and tried not to attach to any of the stories that came with them.  I acknowledged the voice inside of me that yelled for me to run away from my mat,  but continued to practice gently. As the tribal beat of the Desert Dwellers pandora music station moved the emotions through me, my asana practice deepened and I began practicing in a sea of bliss.

Fourty-five minutes in to my practice my father came in and began critiquing my etiquette the day before.  The comments were benign, but they had an air of criticism and my heart began to sink.  I watched as my energy body, soaring moments earlier began to loose motivation and take me deep in to sadness.  I continued to watch.

I found myself called to asana I rarely practice and I returned regularly to child’s pose. I indulged my body’s desire to feel secure and safe by doing a long sequence of forward folds (variations on paschimottana), while taking time to rub my feet and nuzzle my shins with my nose.  The sensation reminded me of being a child and burying my face in a loving stuffed animal.

I also offered my body comfort through binding, creating a strong circuit of uninterrupted energy. ( see Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana).

After a reasonable amount of time the emotions lost their intensity and began to fade.  At this point I shifted my practice to more solar poses.

While I always want to honor what arises in a yoga practice,  I also believe it is important to move through negative emotions. In my own practice, I encourage healing by returning to active, vibrant, optimistic poses after darker energy such as sadness or fear looses its immediacy and vibrancy. In other words, I’m careful not to allow my body to attach itself to something that is moving through me.

Today, triangle pose or Parivritta Trikonasana, functioned as the perfect transition pose.  With the perfect harmony between surrender and vibrancy, triangle encouraged a fluid transition in to a more solar activating sequence.

As my practice wound to a close I was left with clarity.  I realized that I wanted to share with my father the experience that  he had triggered.  I explained to him the sacred nature of yoga and how the practice itself opens your heart.  I thanked him for the knowledge in his words, but explained to him that he caught me in an extremely vulnerable moment. I explained to him that my yoga practice is my sacred time.  It is a time where I dig deep within myself, where I find areas of my physical and emotional body that need to be cleansed and healed.  I assured him that his advise is always welcome, but I requested that interruptions be kept to a minimum while I practice in order to honor it as sacred time.  He gave me a big hug and it was a beautifully tender moment between father and daughter.

In addition, I was able to receive the teaching for myself that there are both appropriate and inappropriate moments in time and space for certain conversations, and I set the intention to be more aware of my surroundings, and the people in my life, as I present them with information.

Lessons Learned: Demonstrate respect for your asana practice by explaining to those close to you what your practice means to you and how they can support you. Yoga has the remarkable ability to heal both old and new wounds. But in order to heal, it is imperative that you give the energy that comes along with these wounds the attention they not only deserve but demand. Watch emotions as they arise closely, but don’t become lost in these emotions.   Be ready to move forward when they have run their course.  Giving gratitude to the lessons that well up inside us helps us remain present and optimistic, ready to move forward a little more tender and a little more aware.

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January 20: Follow-through

Take a moment and check in with your body. Feel your right arm.  Now feel your left leg.  Focus on your right pointer finger.  Now pay attention to your left ear.

Did you notice a difference in your experience of the now as you focused on different parts of the body?  I bring your attention to this because the way we conceptualize the body in our minds affects how we experience our SELF.  Do you experience yourself as a unified whole or a component of parts?  How does this affect your understanding of an injury and its subsequent rehabilitation?  Does this inform the way you view your place in the interconnected web of the universe?  How might this change if you began to view your body differently?

Consider the nature of perception.  On what scale do you view your reality?  Think first at the level of the body.  We assume that our individual body functions as a complete and integrated unit, separate from the human being next to us.   And yet, the same could be said of planet Earth.  Earth is a planet separate from the planets next to it with unique and varying characteristics.  If we expand our perception to the scale of the universe, it too appears to be a unified whole, interconnected but differentiateable from the space around it.

The truth is, we choose, for simplicity and understanding, to segment whole entities in to smaller units or parts.  The body, for example, can be broken down in many different ways.  Often, in yoga we break things down in to anatomical parts such as a: leg, arm, shoulder-blade, sacrum, the arch of the foot, etc.  Even though we break the body in to parts, it is no less a complete interconnected unit or web.

Appreciating the big picture of the body, even though we tend to talk about the body as a component of parts, is important so that we may remain an integrated being and allow healing and growth to occur on a systematic level.

Today, I wanted to focus on the power of “follow-through.” I have come to notice that when I’m opening up a particular part of my body, for example my chest muscle, my entire body become more alert and the potential for an entire body shift is possible. ( Notice, that this same phenomena holds true when I work to strengthen a particular part of my body.)

Asana Practice: An excellent way to open up the chest and biceps is against the wall.

In the West, people often have tight chest and bicep muscles from playing sports and sitting at a computer.

I think its best to remain fluid while doing this pose, gently moving the head left and right, up and down, as well as moving in and out of the pose with a steady controlled rhythm.  I also find it useful to place my hand at varying heights compared to my shoulder.  This allows my muscles to open up on different planes as opposed to carving one open channel and leaving the others tight.  And finally, I recommend keeping your hands active, reaching through the fingers, gripping with the finger tips, and generally wiggling the hand.  Notice how different my recommendation is from the picture above where the woman’s arm and hand seem to limply lay against the wall.

As a general rule, you will see faster results if you move between passivity and activity while doing asana.

In anusara yoga, external rotation of the arms is emphasized in order to guide the shoulder-blade down the back.  I find this action very useful in this pose.  In the picture above, in order to emphasize external rotation, the woman would keep her pinkie against the wall and continue to rotate her thumb away from the wall. While doing this try to avoid any crunching in the side body and try to keep the spine erect.

Many people do not realize the far-reaching implications of having a tight versus open chest and biceps.  Tightness in these areas can put pressure on the neck, cause nerve compression, and can reduce circulation to the extremities. In addition, it can put too much pressure on the sternum or cause a collapsing in the upper body leading to compression of the internal organs.

I have found these muscles in my own body to be pretty resistant to change (I am undoing years and years of high intensity athletics) and therefore, in order to open them up, I try to do this wall stretch as often as possible.  I weave it in to my asana practice, I do it while I’m waiting for a bus or standing in line at the grocery store, and I make sure to do it whenever I’ve heated my body up through cardio such as running or swimming. (See http://365yogastudy.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/january-30-fifteen-minute-fix-vol-iii-made-for-runners/ for a fifteen minute post running asana practice)>

Today, I started out my asana practice doing this stretch against the wall and then emphasized chest opening and bicep opening throughout the rest of the session.  I then returned to the wall later in the session to feel how the pose felt at different levels of openness.

This leads me to today’s lesson on follow-through. From a western medical perspective this stretch is a relatively isolated exercise that targets specific muscle groups. However, if you take a yogic perspective to this pose and think about the body as a whole instead of merely as a bunch of independent parts, this pose can inform the entire body.

For example, when you do this pose, it is important to keep the rib cage open rather than crunching the side body and back.   If you are able to do this, you will inform the spine and rib cage how to move with breath even in a twisted position.  Additionally, this opening through the bicep can extend in to the forearm and hand, especially helping to open any tension found in the pad of the thumb.  You may just find that opening up the muscles that revolve around the upper extremities will have an opening effect through the throat, ear cavity, and generally throughout the muscles of the head. Lastly, as I go deeper in this pose,  I gain space in my trapesius, or those pesky neck/shoulder muscles where we hold most of our tension.  As this tension releases, you might find that you grow taller and your tailbone will start gently turning under. Ahhhh, so good.

Lesson Learned: Approach your practice with a wholistic mindset. When practicing a pose that targets a specific muscle group, see if you can allow that pose to inform other parts of the body. Eventually, see if you can allow the pose to inform your body as a whole.

While we may talk about the body as a series of component parts, all these parts are intricately woven together like a complex web, and should be viewed as a whole. The more sensitive we become the more powerful this practice will be, allowing us to follow the most minute energetic shift throughout the entire body and even throughout the entire universe. How exciting!

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