Wednesday, December 23, 2009

From Liz: Prelude to a Resolution

Ayruveda has been a tough sell with me. I bought asana wholesale, and have been quick to fall in line with mediation and pranayama. Not so much with the ancient science. But as I've fought my way through various hormonal changes (pregnancy, post-pregnancy, adjusting to life without birth control pills) and life stresses (baby, home, househunting, etc....) it's resonating a lot more. I now believe that I am vata-kapha. And I'm that blend that leaves me at once lazy, and flighty. At least when I'm out of balance.

Another disclosure: I make very earnest New Year's resolutions. I fully intend to keep them. This year, I've got two so far.
1) Chew my food more thoroughly. This is an effort at consuming only what I need.
2) Make my asana practice a morning practice. I have made excuses thus far, and Terrible Toddler has been my scapegoat. I mean, how early can I possibly get up when I have to run after him all day? Well, I suppose as early as other ashtangis.

Saving my practice until the noon naptime has had its perks. I'm awake, more open, caffeinated. But I'm also dragging half of the day behind me at this point. I've cluttered my brain with the worries and wants of several hours of (semi) consciousness. And I've also been snacking and drinking coffee.

I look at other blogs and tales of advanced practice. Most of these practitioners rise at dawn to get to the mat. It's chicken-or-egg: does getting up early make you more disciplined, or are the people with the discipline to get up early simply more natural yogis?

I know this: I need structure, and I need change. I have skidded off into a rut, and need to shake off this inertia in order to move on. The kapha is dragging me back under into depression, and the vata is keeping me from focusing on the life-raft.

And speaking of depression. Your post inspired me to do some shopping. We'll see how this works out.

Also, remind me to tell you about my Dahn Yoga experience. And yes, I did take the class before reading this. Hahaha. It's a good thing I'm thick-headed enough to resist cult-indoctrination. Either that, or they just didn't want me badly enough.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

From Anna: Shining light in all the right places

In honor of your last post, I taught a fingertip awareness oriented class this morning. I have found that asking my students to energize through their fingertips never inspires much visible action. But asking them to extend their arms as though they begin all the way at their hips is rather effective. Also, when having them walk their hands out from Uttanasana to Down Dog, I borrowed your image of the fingertips as antennae, probing and exploring their way to the top of the mat. Just as you advocated, it kept their shoulder-blades on their backs and their heart-center's open - it was a lovely thing to behold.

Doing all of the fingertip work led to the arms. I am constantly amazed by how much work there is to find in your arms if you TRULY straighten them and hug the muscles onto the bones. Standing in Utthita Hastasana, turning the palms to face away from you, and then pressing down through the air as though you were moving through molasses, or pressing down on 50 pound weights will give you a solid workout. Do it 3 times and you may break a sweat. Good times.

Speaking of truly straight joints, one of my teachers was recently talking about the importance of fully straightening our elbows and knees and in particular, HOW to open the backs of the knees. She then got onto the topic of Light Therapy and how it's being used on the backs of joints to minimize and treat depression. It was the first I had heard of it, but Google provided me with an abundance of evidence that shining bright lights can reduce chronic pain, heal diabetic ulcers, and even re-set the body's circadian rhythms! No idea if any of it is true but I figure I'll keep my joints straight as can be while the medical professionals sort this one out.

Light: making the world go round, protecting the integrity of our joints, and now, curing the blues!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

From Liz: All the way to my finger-tips.

It's funny that you mention lengthening your toes. I just got a pair of those toe-stretcher things (they look like this, but are a cheaper drugstore version). I put them on once, found them excruciating. I'm not sure my feet are built for them. I'll give them another whirl.

I have noticed that after years of yoga, I have prehensile toes. I can write my own name with both feet. I'm bi-pedextrous, dude. How's that for a siddhi?

But I'm on to a new trip: my finger tips. I've been imagining them as antennae, little vibration receptors/deflectors. They are the extremes of my extremities. They are the final frontier of my annamaya kosha. Coming up onto my finger-tips in a lunge, obviously the classic place to access their power. Not that these fleshy pads are magic in themselves. It has less to do with their own inherent sensitivity, and more to do with how lightening up on the finger-tips forces a re-distribution of weight. Instead of collapsing into palms (outer-palms, at that), I hold from my core, extend through my limbs, while plugging them into their bone-sockets. My shoulder-blades are on my back, my heart is open and lengthening forward.

Most importantly: meditating on my fingers prompts me to distribute my energy more evenly. One of my patterns is to huddle into my core. I obsessively tend to my center, my limbs are the neglected step-child in my practice. So in the interest of sparking the full length of my nadis, I breathe down my arms, into my fingers. It makes for a tastier savasana, a cleaner sweep of the energetic body.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From Anna: Spread Your Toes (all the cool kids are doing it)

I love me some fointing. Actually, the term I've heard quite a bit is 'floint', which has a similar ring to it. As a hyper-extender, it's an extremely helpful tool in general, but it's in the inversions that it really rocks my world. The activation created through the length of the entire leg is rather remarkable, if you're into that sort of thing, which I am. I even floint the foot of my front (bent) leg in pidgeon, as it seems to release the knee just a tad more...

In thinking about our feet, my thoughts turn to good ole' toe spreading. When I first began yoga and the teacher would ask us to lengthen and spread our toes, it felt as impossible and inaccessible to me as wiggling my ears. For some time, I was a manual toe-spreader - but the minute I released my toes from the fervent grip of my fingers, I would lose 90% of what I had created. Anyone who knows me is aware of my ridiculously short fingers and toes but this wasn't an issue of length, it was a matter of harnessing some control.

Over time, I didn't give up, but I shifted my attention to other bodily projects. When teachers would cue the actions of the toes and feet I would give it my best shot but my hopes weren't very high. More often than not I found myself looking down at my feet thinking that it was time for a pedicure. After I started teaching I would even instruct toe lengthening and spreading, I just hoped no one was looking for an impressive demo. As seems to be the case more often than not, it finally happened when I stopped waiting. One day not so long ago, I looked down at my feet and my toes were longer and more spread than ever before. They were like little fingers that I could direct at will. Now I can't stop spreading my toes and want to do it all over town.

If only the ability to spread my toes would translate to opening my hips, I'd be all set...

Monday, November 30, 2009

From Liz: Fointing, Pointing and Flexing

That is a great read and a good link. And it makes me ache for that teacher-student relationship even more. As much as I love self-sufficiency and alternative guru figures (online community, yogic literature, dvds), it's just not the same. I just am not sure how to cultivate the consistency and trust that you need as the basis of a solid bond.

[This also calls up some class issues: who in our society can afford there very own teacher? It's so hard to cultivate that kind of rapport in a group class.]

Not much going on practice-wise. Thanksgiving drives me into maintenance mode. If I avoid full on gluttony, I feel like that's my asteya for the month. It's a time for harmless play, minor investigations. For instance: a brief meditation on my feet.

They are the base of standing poses, the final expression of my legs in seated poses. They are bones, muscles and tendons, encased in skin and toenails of which I take haphazard care. When over-pointed, they cramp. When over-flexed, they lock my knees. So, I'll "foint." It goes by many names, "barbie foot" "yoga point," but for my purposes, I prefer "foint." It sounds like a bodily function, and I'm a fan of the un-lady-like. It is the midway expression between the two more extreme foot positions: extend your foot and pull back your toes. It keeps the front of the leg engaged, and a slight tone in the calf muscle, but extends the hamstrings. Try it in a seated forward bend. I'm going to give it a go in inversions too.

Next: in praise of my finger-tips.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

From Anna: The teacher-less teacher

Your mention of Georg Feuerstein and "psycho-spiritual technology" reminds me of an amazing lecture with Robert Birnberg who calls yoga "psycho-chiro-respiratory re-parenting"... He believes that although a home practice is invaluable, self-education commendable, and self-love absolutely vital to our practice - every student needs a teacher and every teacher needs a teacher. Even if that teacher is someone you only see once every few years, they hold you accountable in a way you cannot hold yourself. Birnberg's article on the teacher-less teacher is interesting and worth the 7 minute read. (There are some bits that aren't applicable because he specializes in Yoga for Addiction and Compulsive behaviors and at times, you can tell that it's written from that perspective).

As for the spiel of your previous post, what an eloquent clobbering. Truly. Your viewpoints are clear, justified and passionately articulated. I have nothing to dispute, no bones to pick. Admittedly, I'm not quite as fired up about it as you are, but if you start a revolution, I'd be happy to join. I'll even bring snacks.

We won't be able to take down the corporate octopus with hungry tummies....

Monday, November 16, 2009

From Liz: Compromise Tastes Like Vanilla.

Oh, sensible woman. I can feel the breeze from your wagging finger at a distance of 300 miles.

And I know, I know... I feel so torn at times about all of this stuff. At the end of the day, it simply feels like a case of "compromise makes no one happy." These American hybrids often amount to patchwork sadhanas designed to offend no one, and sell to all. You're right that on the face of it, YWorks is not "fitness yoga." But when you vacate the practice of all but the asana, and allow just any old shlub (meaning me) to teach a class, what are you left with? Basically a fitness-oriented, surface endeavor. I suppose that is what really leaves a bad taste in my mouth--the suspicion that yoga is being anesthetized and beautified for general public consumption. A complicity with American piety ("don't make them chant, Jesus gets annoyed.") that panders to the Church crowd for the sake of their fiscal fidelity. [I should disclose: the whole complicity thing brings my own religious baggage into play, so I am not an unbiased snark.] It's yoga that simply reinforces that status quo rather than radically undoing it, unseating our tamasic subsistence.

[another side bar: I know that you have had a different experience of this than I have. Your experience is somewhat exceptional. And my own analysis is replete with hypocrisies and ingratitudes, but I have to take some kind of stance, right?]

Basically, the glut of teacher training factories has put me over the edge. People are learning just enough to be dangerous. New teachers casually fling pranayama into a sequence like it's garnish. Or they will off-handedly mention moola-bandha like it's an optional side-dish. But worse than that, they will push new students into poses that are simply beyond them because they are teaching classes so overflowing that they cannot possibly anticipate everyone's needs.

So here, I suppose, is where we come together on this issue. YWorks does an excellent job of stemming the tide of injuries (read: "lawsuits"). The list of do-nots is a three inch booklet. Another thing that I will give to the institution, is that in pursuit of safety, they teach a certain stillness, and subtlety. At least the more Iyengar inclined teachers do (as is the case in NYC). YWorks will train the fidgets right out of you. I have to respect that. I came out of the program stronger, and with a respectable literacy in yogic texts/themes. But at the end of the day, it was a sturdy, liberal arts education. I'm missing an advanced degree.

And I should also point out, this vanilla-zation has not democratized the practice. It is still expensive and time consuming. Studios cluster in wealthy neighborhoods, or simply refuse to offer drop-in classes, forcing people to buy costly class cards. When I was teaching in gyms, and would encourage people to attend at studios, I would invariably hear, "it's just too expensive." Gym memberships offer way more bang for the buck. So we made do with our crappy equipment and tried to ignore the 'roid-heads leering through the glass.
So, you're right, I shouldn't conflate "'fitness-oriented power yoga' brand and the 'protect the risk factors' practice" but they come together in weird ways, all ensnared by the tentacles of the corporate octopus.

Georg Feuerstein refers to yoga as a "psycho-spiritual technology." He certainly isn't the first to use the term, but his book was the first time I really noticed it. YWorks, and some of its senior teachers, gave me view of the framework. I suppose I just assumed (I know, I know "ass out of you and me...") that they would help me to fill it in a bit more.

Maybe I'm blame-shifting though. After all, it is my practice.

Friday, November 13, 2009

From Anna: Couch-asana, the pose of champions

I apologize for a delayed response. I've had a nasty case of the flu which knocked the wind out of me, (more on that later), and am only now rounding my first bend.

I understand where you're coming from and I'm thrilled that striking out on your own has been both empowering and invigorating. However, I was struck by the clumping together of the 'fitness-oriented power yoga' brand and the 'protect the risk factors' practice. In my experience those two realms have been quite separate. In fact, it's been the studios and teachers with experience and integrity that have urged me to protect my body as I practice. Now that I think of it, another common thread (for the most part) is an Ashtanga background... which is more than just a little bit interesting....

For the sake of this discussion, I'm going to set aside the corporate yoga controversy (although it's a great topic! ) and jump into the risk factor discussion. I think that when having any conversation about risk factors it's important to remember that you and I are not the intended target of the caution. We are trained and conditioned to listen to our bodies and know how far is too far. But it's a whole 'nother bag of veggie chips for the inexperienced yoga student, looking around the room at what their neighbors are doing and essentially - making shapes with the body. I enthusiastically endorse your own windmill-chasing practice but I think that this is an excellent example of looking at what we prioritize in our own practice vs. how and what we teach. I'm sure you'd agree that one of our responsibilities as a teacher is to keep our students safe, in every sense of the word. Writing this post, I am realizing that more so than ever before, I'm in that mind-set because I am teaching so many beginners classes, as well as prenatal - where the safety issue is paramount. Perhaps if I was teaching fewer classes, or more advanced students, I'd feel differently.

Thank you, by the way, for the shoulder/Chaturanga explanation you offered. I think you're right about the mechanics of jumping back and the discrepancy between it being a stand alone pose vs. a transition.

As for the flu, this one has been a doozie. For 4 days I couldn't even bring myself to sprawl out on a bolster, but by Day 5 my body was craving some yoga. Forward bending proved too much for my congestion but Supta Baddha Konasana, Viparita Karani, and some other restoratives created a welcome opening in my chest. It still might be a few days before I attempt much more than that and when I do I'll focus on boosting the immune system with backbends and inversions.

This evening though, I am gearing up for some good old couch-asana. Risk factors: posture and media consumption. Benefits: debatable.

Monday, November 9, 2009

From Liz: Born Again in the Blood of Ashtanga.

First off, it tickles me that you just called me an "ashtangi." Even I hadn't said it out loud yet. This is a whole other tangent, but I'm not sure at what point you can really appropriate that term. I mean, I've never even been to a true shala (though I'm practically living in the cyber-shala), I hold no pedigree. But I guess in spite of my mutt-ly orginis, I'm settling into this [false] identification. I'm a renegade practitioner of an already renegade practice.

As for the chaturanga question: I think that it gets down to a matter of intention with this pose. In Iyengar yoga, it is a stand-alone asana. In Ashtanga, it is a transition, a part of a flowing vinyasa. The in-between, the YWorks variation, performs that sun salute/vinyasa in a very slow, steady fashion. Though you are jumping back, it is a jump-back with a pause; you sort of stick the landing. So, in order to protect your shoulders, etc, you keep a 90 degree angle at the elbow. In Ashtanga, there is a lot more juice and rebound to the action; you spring through the vinyasa with bandhas engaged (which is protective, if you do it consistently and assertively). I could be fooling myself, but it honestly feels perfectly safe.

Also, personally, the tendency to dip my own shoulders forward come from the action of picking up from a seated position to jump-back. For those of us with less core/shoulder/arm and upper-back strength, you need to use simple physics to propel you legs and tush to the back of the mat. That means that while you coil up through the mid-section, you also have to nose-dive a bit to get the height to clear your legs. If you try to keep your chest as forward and level as you do at YWorks, you won't get very far. At least, I wouldn't.

All of this YWorks chat has actually brought up an interesting (and sort of catty) series of thoughts for me. Did you see this article? I have complained to you about this before. Here it is again though. I'm glad for the teacher training that I had at YWorks. I appreciate the teachers who put up with my crunchy self-indulgence, and made my practice more honest. But I have to wonder if this corporate structure hasn't somewhat diluted the yoga. Since leaving the fold, I've been on a quest for inspiration and definition. I hit a wall with the power-yoga, fitness-oriented, "protect the risk factors" brand of practice. Am I being a snotty ingrate? Perhaps. But it's nice to feel like a true believer again. I'm loathe to claim religious affiliation, but I'm a born-again Yogini since striking out on my own.

Friday, November 6, 2009

From Anna: How low should you go?

Wow. That clip is pretty remarkable. If Pattabhi Jois' presence translates that clearly through a clip on youtube, I can't even imagine what it would like to actually be in a room with him.... Even if you close your eyes and just listen, the rhythmic nature of his voice combined with the breath in the room is enough to truly transport you. However, when I opened my eyes and saw how low their chaturanga's were, I was in disbelief. It may be the YogaWorks method deeply ingrained in me - 'protect the risk factors!' - but I was wincing just a bit.

(Interesting sidenote: according to the comments posted below the video, Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller are two of the students in the workshop! Kind of ironic considering their role as Yogawork's co-founders... )

Anyhow, we all know that shoulder vulnerability in Chaturanga Dandasana is widely debated in the yoga community and for good reason. Watching this clip, I don't doubt that every leg is activated and every sternum moving forward - but why must they go sooooo low? Perhaps as an Ashtangi you can shed some light?....

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From Liz: Enjoying the Sights.

Funny, this sounds a lot like "do your practice and all is coming." ;-)

And I agree. Sometimes I get really caught up in the outer aspect of a pose, commodifying the end product for my own consumption. But reading your post reminded me to be truly interested in the process; the pose is not a fixed object, but a forever unfolding and fractal experience. The series offers me direction, but only as a framework, the poses are not cages, but springboards for discovery. (Do I sound a bit like a yoga bumper sticker machine?) You know that moment when the pose sort of clicks? Like, "oh yeah, there's trikonasana." It's smug. And ultimately, it's a snake eating its own tail moment: noticing my alignment means that I'm away from the breath, dristhi, "dharana-ness" of the practice. This self-satisfaction is short-lived, because I'm not practicing for the sake of trikonasana (or say, something more virtuosic, to show off like a party trick, in place of lampshade wearing... not that I haven't been guilty of both.).

In a vinyasa sequence, such as the one that I follow, it's easy to just slide from one asana to the next, like each is only a step towards savasana. But I need to stop and see the sights along the way, or I'll get bored with this song and dance. It's like they say about raising kids, that you should "enjoy it now, it goes really fast." You get so caught up in day to day survival mode that you lose sight of the sweetness of each moment. The next thing you know, you have an ornery teenager who won't let you kiss him in public. Terrible Toddler got his head stuck in the wine rack today (don't ask) and I just laughed and thought, "guess this is one of the sights I should enjoy along the way."

In his dvds, Richard Freeman reminds us that "ultimately, this is a breathing exercise." It sounds like an off-hand remark, but it's kind of like footnoting a brief sermon with, you know... the entire Bible. Which reminds me of watching this clip.

Listening to the breath in the room made me cry. Does that make me a big cornball?

Monday, November 2, 2009

From Anna: A Watched Hamstring Never Opens

Ahhhh, the "curse" of the bendy body. Cry me a river. While I know that flexibility is a double-edged sword, for those of us with unyielding joints, it's hard to fully grasp the hindrance. The idea of your shoulders being something you can push through and sit into is both foreign and fascinating to me. I am picturing you in all of your blonde, leggy glory - flinging your body through the gateway of your arms in the manner of Red Rover.... It's quite an image to say the least.

As you well know, I am built in exactly the opposite way that you are. I am naturally strong but very tight - particularly in my hips and shoulders. (Thanks genetics!) After years of yoga I am finally starting to see teeny tiny steps towards opening, but for the most part, I'm still tight. Unsurprisingly, I tend to rely on my strength, all the while saying a little prayer that I'll wake up one day and my hips will have magically opened!

Early on in my practice, one of my teachers quoted Mr. Iyengar as saying that the first seven years that you practice yoga, you are opening up the hamstrings to prepare for the asana practice. (Interestingly enough, my google searches are not yielding results to confirm this quote so it may not check out.) Regardless, it's been burned into my brain ever since. You would think that this time frame would depress me. That the idea of something taking seven years to happen would leave me disheartened and weary. But it did just the opposite: it freed me from the daily waiting around.

If you took a phone book and tore one page out at a time, you would notice zero difference in the day to day. But over time, the phone book would start to dwindle in size. I think of this analogy often and know that each time I practice, it's one page in the phone book. Sure I have momentary lapses of impatience, for instance, seeing people in hanumanasana, a pose that seems like it was designed for another species. But for the most part, I try not to fret.

It isn't as though being able to bring my hands into reverse namaste would allow enlightment to ensue.... but then again, because of my tight shoulders, I couldn't say for sure....

Sunday, October 18, 2009

From Liz: Line Your Bones Up.

There are days when I feel that my entire practice is an attempt to just get "get to the point." (I just read a funny little list where the author suggested that the whole practice is just foreplay for savasana. That's not what I'm getting at, but it's what got me thinking.) Those days, each pose is an attempt to decipher the meaning of the whole endeavor.

But I had one of those mini-awakenings in my Iyengar class the other day. My teacher D kept making small adjustments to my poses. Little tiny tweaks that made a huge difference. In Down Dog, rather than splaying my fingers out, she asked me to line my pinky finger up with its metacarpal. It's the tiniest shift inward, but it took the frantic strain out of my fingers. I was no longer gripping at the mat, I was rooting down into the floor. She also reminded me a couple of times to draw my arms up into my shoulder sockets, both in D. Dog and in a couple of backbends. It all amounted to her simply trying to get me to LINE MY BONES UP, and PUT THEM IN THEIR SOCKETS.

We throw the word "alignment" around so much, that it loses all substantial meaning. But at the heart of it is a simple idea: asana practice is designed to line your bones up, so that there is a support structure for your muscles to do their job (which, funnily enough, is to keep your bones aligned and your limbs in their sockets) and then the energetic body will slide into place accordingly. For those of us "blessed" with flexibility, this can often amount to lazily hammocking into our joints. In my body, it's the perfect storm of vata flexbility and kapha laziness, and it makes for some loosey-goosey poses. Also, D reminded that my shoulders are a support structure, and not, as I tend to treat them, a barrier to push through (a notion that I've found instructive in balanced inversions like handstand or forearm stand).

On the heels of your post about surrender, this is a counter-point. I surrender too much, or rather, I kid myself into thinking that I'm surrendering. In fact, I'm hiding in the depths of my own "open-ness," cowering under my shoulders and avoiding building strength. There is no ease in my "surrender," just limp acquiescence to the status quo. So, my work is to pull myself together and earn my ease.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

From Anna: White Flag Waving

I love how you described yourself as a skipping record, out of it's groove until the restorative practice knocked you back on track. It's almost like yoga is an internal GPS system. Wherever we go, whatever is going on in our lives, and whenever we are adrift or have lost our groove, it helps us re-route and find a way back to ourselves.

The fact that it was a restorative practice that pulled you back into place speaks volumes. Recently in my teaching, I've noticed more and more how much people struggle with the 'surrender' piece of the yoga puzzle. As they form perfect right angles with their femur bones but fidget through a 3 breath hold of Warrior 2, I gently remind them that for many of us, going deeper may mean doing less. It's a tough sell to say the least.

Culturally we are taught to believe that for something to be beneficial we have to feel it, see it, make it, etc... The idea that in yoga there is 'doing' but also the 'undoing,' space to just observe - is a foreign concept and one that unnerves people. And I get it. I used to be the most fidgety person in the room, and when my teacher would say that it's only by letting go that we find strength I would think "well, that sounds lovely, but...."

Furthermore, the definition of the word 'surrender' (outside of the yoga world) is not a positive one, any way you slice it. Look up the word and you will find synonyms such as concede, quit, renounce, and my all time favorite- eat crow. It's no wonder people are hesitant, and even flat out resistant to let go.

I realize that it will take some time to ease my students towards surrender and that ultimately, it's a personal journey. All I can do is cultivate a space that feels safe for them to take that journey. And if its taking them longer than I'd like it to and I find myself impatient in the process? It means that I, too, need to close my eyes, deepen my breath, and work on the art of eating crow.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

From Liz: Saucha and restorative: a.k.a. tidying and resting.

I fell off the daily practice wagon right into "sit-on-my-asana." I could blame stress and fatigue and discouragement. But to start honoring my "no victims" intention once more, I'll just own up to lazyness. Our deal on the house that we were buying has fallen apart in an ugly way. Here's a non yoga tip: don't sign a contract before having a thorough home inspection.

It will be fine. We will be okay. But the whole mess had me fearful (read: full of fear, too full to eat or sleep, or focus on the mat, like mental indigestion that weighs down your whole psyche).

The apartment is a mess, my body is a mess; I have felt disconnected from my domestic space, and the space of my own body. How to fix this? Saucha and restorative yoga. Yes, clean the F up, and simmer down for a while. The simple act of puttering around, picking things up, putting things AWAY, has the effect of organizing my brain, soothing my soul.

And today's practice was a new beginning. I started with a few slow, steady sun salutes, then just slid into prop heavy, drapey, restorative yoga. The sun salutes reconnected me to my breath. Those steady rhythms pulled me away from the frenetic and stacato energy with which I was self-victimizing. And then, settling into Supta Baddha Konasana, with an eye pillow grounding me, I felt like I was settling back into myself. I was like a skipping record, just out of groove, scratching and repeating. But the restorative practice knocked me back on track. This is a practice with gravitational pull. How can anyone possibly have an effort-based practice without the complement of a surrender-based practice? I went through a series of poses, and, as mellow they left me, I also felt like I could climb mountains.

I even feel like I can raise a toddler.

Friday, September 18, 2009

From Anna: Letting it go

No victims. I like it. It's short, sweet, and emphatic. I am prejudiced both as a yoga enthusiast and your close friend, but I think you are absolutely capable of having an impact on something greater than yourself. And even if you aren't, there's no harm in trying... In fact, if I squint, those cosmos are looking a teeny bit dented already....

I don't have one particular mantra that I use day in and day out, although that consistency is appealing. But something I've been doing more often than not, as I set the tone and prepare to practice is telling/asking myself to let IT go. Whatever IT is that day, and I'm sure you would agree that IT is always changing. This affords me the time and space to notice if I've already formed expectations or apprehensions (guilty), a general opinion of my practice (guilty), and provides an opportunity to move past it.

Now, if you think that your "no victims" mantra is cheesy, then grab some crackers and get ready for this. I am a huge fan of spending a few moments actively, consciously breathing out what I am trying to let go of at that moment. If it's something that I can easily articulate I will even say it out loud (although it's a silent process more often than not.) It's difficult to explain but watching/feeling/letting the IT leave my body, empowers and settles me, readying my mind and body to practice.

Plus, I love to practice in the morning. It's an opportunity to begin the day with intention, discipline, and compassion and my body has always responded well to a morning practice. This breath-based tone-setting of let-go-it-ness, is the perfect way to start not just my practice, but my day.

I know you practice in the afternoons because of Terrible Toddler's schedule, but is that your ideal time of day or a consequence of parenthood?

Friday, September 11, 2009

From Liz: No Victims.

This will be short. I've just incorporated a kind of tone setting intention into the beginning of my practice, a personal mantra/dedication. It's a little cheesy and vague on the face of it: "no victims." But it has been serving me well in practice and off the mat. In fact, it has kind of become the bridge between the two realms.

Obviously, I'm not the first to use a mantra to start my practice. But when I thought of what I'd like to use, sanskrit or otherwise, this is what bubbled to the surface. Humble Husband and I are buying a house, and feel kind of at the mercy of inspectors, brokers, contractors, etc; so setting the intention of not being a victim has been really important. Also, mothering a toddler is kind of kicking my butt right now. I need to remember that Terrible Toddler and I are on the same team: he is not my enemy. And in my ashtanga practice, I need to remember not to be a whiny girl, a victim of my own biology, thinking, "I can't do jump backs, I'm too weak in my upper body and I'm tiiiiiiiiired..." This practice serves me, and vice versa. This is my choice and I will deal with each issue and challenge as it arises. I can tell that I'm getting into a weepy victim place easily enough; it manifests physically as a sloppy drishti. So I tidy it up, focus my eyes and pull myself together, and off I fly.

Finally, it's kind of a non personally specific mantra, my way of offering this intention outward: "no victims," means not me, not you, not anyone. It makes this both personal therapy, and service (at least I'm flattering myself into thinking that my physical prayer is making a tiny dent in the cosmos).

Now that you are out of your brief hiatus: how do you set the tone when you step on the mat?

And btw, are you ever going to call me out on my cardio fixation??? ;)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

From Anna: Anatomical Adulation

Although in general I wholeheartedly agree with your transference/resistance theory, I think in this case it was something much simpler. Immediately after putting it down in writing, I shifted from my dry spell to a wet one and returned to a daily practice. I find it interesting that my lack of schedule remained the same, as did my resistance level to whatever else is going on in my life... Essentially nothing changed other than admitting to myself and to you that I had slipped. Amazingly enough, just articulating the fact was enough to invite a tremendous shift. Since one of our intentions with this dialogue was to hold ourselves accountable for and in our respective practices, I think we both deserve a pat on the thoracic spine.

I have much to respond to about the overlap of styles but will save that for another time and instead get into the nitty gritty of your brand new quadratus-lumborum-wrapping party trick. After reading your post, I had to try it for myself and needless to say, you are not alone in your excitement.

My enthusiasm made me google-crazy which is how I came across a fascinating article discussing the psoas and quadratus lumborum working in tandem to stabilize the lumbar spine during seated breath work. This article, which includes stunning illustrations of the muscles moving in the body, is aptly named "Activating Your Accessories." It discusses how the contraction of one evokes the contraction of the other, which sheds new light on your observation that working that deep musculature also initiated uddiyana bandha. Furthermore, wrapping the quadratus helps to draw the floating ribs downward, an action that is both applicable and imperative if you return to the original asana in question - eka pada sirsasana.

So I sat in sukhasana and to be quite honest, couldn't feel my psoas engaging. I pressed down on my knees while trying to lift them up - as the article suggested - and I definitely felt something but it would be a stretch (no pun intended) to say that it was my psoas. Perhaps you'll have more luck. I was, however, able to feel the work in the inversions and forward folds that you mentioned and I am eager to continue applying my new awareness.... Throw in a cup of coffee and it's a seemingly perfect Wednesday afternoon activity. You can thank me later.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

From Liz: Confessions of a Cross Trainer.

In response to your quandry: is this one of those "mat as microcosm" moments? I find resistance to my practice is actually resistance to something else in my life (if you'll forgive the facile insertion of the idea of "tranference" into our wee dialogue).

For instance, I've just come off a nightmarish first family vacation with Humble Husband and Terrible Toddler. I packed my mat, but was so caught up in the drama of difficult travel that I only ended up using it as a changing pad. I was too scattered, pulled by my inherent vatta tendencies to focus and step onto mat/into practice mode. I think this is where the yamas and niyamas would come in handy, if I were to apply them dutifully and consistently. I know they are referred to as "constraints" and "observances." But I think the whole set acts more as an energetic funnel, harnessing prana, rather than a barrier. The ritual act of tidying my kitchen becomes an offering, etc. Maybe set up new rituals related to the yamas and niyamas in your new home??

Anyway, I am back to my routine now. First practice was predictably leaden, but it has gotten better since. In my ashtanga practice, I'm learning to trust my hands. I realized recently that a big part of my problem with jumping back has been that I don't trust my hands and arms to hold my weight, so I never really shift it completely into them as I try to transition. The more faith I've put in the palms of my hands, the smoother it has become. Still a lot of work to do, but "practice, practice..."

And I took an amazing Iygengar class where the teacher focused on having us lengthen our psoas muscles, all while broadening and wrapping our quadratus lumborum (deep back muscle) as we did a bunch of forward bending, and eka padas. For example: in eka pada sirsasana (the version of headstand where you lower one leg parallel to the floor, not this one), he had us lengthen the psoas on the lifted leg side, while wrapping the quadratus on the descended leg side, in order to stabilize. But I noticed that this action has the effect of creating a little uddiyana bandha. Which I got really way too excited about. This must be what Mark Whitwell means when he says, "asana creates bandha."

At any rate, the realization also kind of made me feel vindicated. I've heard a lot of people say that you can't mix styles of yoga, that you really should pick one thing and stick to it. But I really believe that some styles are complementary. I walked away from that Iyengar class feeling like it nourished my private ashtanga practice.

Now I just have to figure out a way to justify my love of cardio, and we'll be all set....

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

From Anna: The flip side of freedom

It strikes me that we are on two vastly different sides of the spectrum. You have a young child and are, as you said, tethered to your home. Securing childcare to take an hour and a half class is unrealistic at best and so you are left utilizing books and dvd's, and making the best of the space available in your home. I have deep respect, admiration, and even a touch of envy towards your dedication and flourishing home practice.

Meanwhile, I find myself in quite the opposite predicament, although predicament is far too strong a word. After moving cross-country for the second time in 16 months (but who's counting?... ) I'm in a new city with all the time in the world, studios to explore, teachers to meet, and so much flexibility in my schedule that I don't know where to begin. One would think that this would be a dream for me - that finances permitting, I would scamper around town from class to class, pausing only for nourishment and caffeine. But I'm not, and I have to wonder why.

Back in the days when I worked multiple jobs and ran around commuting, my scheduling constraints would leave me with one or maybe two do-able class options. It was a simple non-decision and incredibly easy to get myself onto the mat. But now, as I settle into a new city and life, my lack of schedule overwhelms and engulfs my intention to practice. Despite an agenda of my own accord and responsibility for no one but myself- many days I don't go to class at all. My freedom has become too much of a good thing.

I know that we all go through phases of more and less practice and that this doesn't make me negligent. I also know that throughout my transition, yoga has served me off the mat in plentiful helpings, and perhaps that accounts for some of the divide. But hearing about your home practice and the clarity it has brought you, gives me the perspective that I sorely needed. I have always inserted my practice into available slots of a busy life. But for the first time, I can organize my life around my practice. Even writing it feels luxurious to the point of indulgent. But I know I should seize the opportunity while I can, since it's only a matter of time before life gets hectic and I'm right back where I started. In that overly-scheduled but cozy place, where I can only make it to the 7:30 class.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

From Liz: Where's my drishti?

I won't overthink my own intentions with regards to this blog (since they are always shifting anyway, darned vrittis). I know that I want to hold myself accountable for my yoga practice and teaching. And I want an excuse to geek out over yoga with you, my dear Anna, in a structured setting. You've been my sister yogini since we met, and this pranic exchange is just a continuation of that relationship.

So... The state of my home practice. It feels like a huge accomplishment to say that I have a home practice. I never understood why senior teachers insisted that we cultivate one. And right out of the gate, after teacher training, I just turned my practice over to the studio. I absolved myself of all responsibilty (save showing up) and followed the leader. And I took on way too many classes. I was teaching between ten and twelve classes a week (small potatoes to come people, but too much for me). So I kind of burned out. Then I had a baby. And I found myself tethered to my home, needing a teacher, or at least, a point of focus for this practice.

And what do you know, one did appear. I (re)discovered the Ashtanga Primary series, and I finally got what a jillion ashtangis already know: "practice, and all is coming." Really... While motherhood is a sometimes haphazard and improvisational art, the consistency of this series keeps me grounded and renewed day after day. I just keep coming back to the same point, and it keeps unfolding incrementally. At least it has so far, because let's be honest: I've only been playing with about half of the series, using Richard Freeman's dvds for about a month now. But the month's end has marked a radical change in my practice, and it has been all about reclaiming my original love of yoga, the thing that drew me to teach. Now it feels personal again. The series is my meta-drishti, the point around which everything else organizes itself. It is paradoxically both structuring and liberating.