Wednesday, March 31, 2010

From Liz: Soft Focus.

The Yoga Bear work is going well enough. I'm in charge of soliciting donations from studios in NYC and environs. I send a friendly little note, asking for class pass or membership. Some studios jump right on board, others just blithely ignore me. You win some, you lose some. I'm a little surprised by those that just look the other way, like I'm some panhandler on the subway. I'm not asking for much, and it would actually be to the studio's benefit to get more people in their doors--a good way to build up some good will in the community. But hey, I guess this is NY and people are Very Busy and Important, right? I just have to ease up around my expectations.

This brings me around to my Work of the Week: softening. I've discovered that I'm a gripper. Physically and emotionally. Gil Fronsdal has a series of talks on concentration. And at one point, he says "Hard or willfully concentrating is a losing battle. But to develop samadhi there has to be a softness and gentleness towards oneself... The mind is not a thing, a substance, it's an activity." He speaks of concentration as a living, fluctuating state, a "dynamic stillness" that enables higher states of meditation, etc. I've also heard dristhe spoken of as a resting point for the eyes, rather than a spot to drill your death ray stare into. During practice, I sometimes find myself boring my eyes into a place of focus. Yet when I soften my eyes a touch, I see so much more. I breathe easier. It's a state of rest, safety, peace. So rather than try to harden around concentration, or stiffen my will to the sticking point, I'm working on settling in, like I would in Savasana: aware, receptive, but at ease. This stuff is work, experienced meditators are hardcore. I feel like I did when I tried Bakasana for the first time: "you want me to what now?"

And it terms of asana: Jump backs are happening more readily. I've just given over to committing to the moment. There has been some mechanical tweaking, but mostly it gets down to just turning off of the brain chatter and surrendering to the action (ties nicely to Work of the Week, right?).

I'm off.
How is teaching this Spring?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

From Anna: The Early Edition

I'm thrilled to have a recommendation for some guided meditation practices! I can't wait to look into them. And your assessment of early-rising really pins the tail(bone) on the donkey. Long before I had a yoga practice, I was struck by how intensely I would notice my surroundings when I was up before the sun. This is evident whether you are meditating, drinking coffee, or even heading to the airport. Is it because our bodies are rested and our minds fresh? Is it the darkness and the quiet that heightens our senses? Our culture is almost oppressively over-stimulating and as the day unfolds, we must become desensitized to all of the sounds, smells, sensations, right?... It's probably a combination of these things and others. What I do know is that in those wee hours, the act of observing is uncomplicated and effortless. Meditation is a natural extension of those conditions.

I did come back from my trip feeling inspired, refreshed, and generally zippy. With all of the teaching I've been doing, I had forgotten what a treat it is to assist. (Particularly when it is someone for whom you hold a deep respect). Looking at bodies without being responsible for the entire class is an excellent way to sharpen your eye. I also learned some fun new adjustments and it will be a good test of my verbal/written communication to have to describe them instead of just showing you. I tried to be my spongiest self and am still processing some of what soaked up, but I'll get back to this another time soon.

Reading over your post, I just realized that we use 'TT' to reference both 'terrible toddler' and 'teacher training'.... Sort of amusing to say the least...

How goes your work with Yoga Bear?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

From Liz: The Slow Burn of Energetic Indigestion.

Here's what's up: I guess I have a case of energetic indigestion. I bow forward (because this practice is half an act of supplication), knit my rhomboids together, and spread my lats like flightless wings. The work in the shoulders and back are chipping off the calcifications in my upper thoracic, and yeah, maybe it is a chakra opening, or finessing. I'm just not used to the rush of verve I get from this complete, unrelenting sequence of poses. You know when you have a great practice, and somehow, you're a cranky beotch for the rest of the day? That's happened a couple of times recently. Like I get so driven into myself and caught up in sorting through the energetic rubble, that I can't handle consciousness for the rest of the day. It's inconvenient when you still have to be a mom, wife and friend, and generally human and social.

In other news, I'm tinkering with my schedule. Getting up early to practice has been a revelation. Just knowing that I can do it is huge. I'm not so hopeless that I can't get on the mat and work at it for an hour or so. And I love the quiet dark time to myself, it's a gentle way to ease into the day. But I make bigger discoveries in my body when I practice later. It's simple enough: I'm more open, more aware, more precise (so less injury-prone) and ultimately a little braver. So I'm playing with doing a morning meditation, instead. And practicing during TT's nap. I think that the really transformative thing about the early-rising is not the yoga, but the simple act of being awake during that prana-rich time of day. Meditation is a great way to bathe in it. And the perfect way to start my day feeling (illusory as it may be) that I am in control, that I am making choices. I'm hoping that this will also soothe and normalize the burn from the ashtanga process. I've been using guided meditations from these people. Definitely recommend.

How was your yoga adventure? Any fresh thoughts from assisting?

Monday, March 15, 2010

From Anna: Coiling, Rounding, and Ahhh-ing

Finding the backbend within the forward bend is juicy stuff for sure. When I first heard about coiling the spine, I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it (or my spine, for that matter), but it has become increasingly applicable as my practice develops. You mentioned Paschimottanasana and it really is the perfect example. Rounding forward and down feels wonderful, no doubt about it. But if you really pull back on the pinky toe side of the foot either with your hands or a strap, activate your quadriceps, and reach the heart-center forward - shoulderblades driving into your chest - the work becomes deeper and, dare I say, more interesting. At least for me it does. In my teaching I usually have people try it both ways since they almost feel like two distinctly separate asana's. (What a shame they aren't called "asani"...)

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing but love for the rounded back version of Paschimottanasana. It holds the patent for the the yummiest adjustment ever. (Disclaimer: I hesitate to even call it an adjustment since it's not something you would offer to many people in a class setting.) It's the one where someone sits on your sacrum, facing away from you, presses into their feet to push your chest forward, and then essentially sprawls out over your spine using their own body weight to melt you down? This is similar to a partner yoga favorite, where people sit back to back, butt to butt and one folds back while the other folds forward, but I find this variation to be much, much deeper... In fact, without relatively open hamstrings to begin with, I doubt it would even feel good. Your face ends up smushed between your shin bones in way that would appear decidedly unpleasant to me, had I not confirmed it's appeal!

Obviously, I would only use this if I knew the person and their practice well. But in terms of deepening a forward bend, it's pretty much the cat's meow! If we lived in the same city I would come over right this very second, put on a pot of coffee, and gingerly plop myself down on your back to show you!

I am absolutely intrigued as to the 'stuff' that is being dredged up by focusing on not collapsing in your forward bending? I remember hearing in a lecture on the subtle body, that deep forward bending can be very emotional as it opens the backs of each chakra instead of the front... but I've also heard that the chakras radiate in every direction with no specific front and back... so who knows. I am fascinated. Tell me more!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

From Liz: Inspire-ation.

Since you've fled the Pittsburgh gloom for sunshine in Dominica, I'll just talk to myself for a while.

So what's on my practice plate this week? Back-bends and deep inhales. I found inspiration in Ursula's notes about focusing on the inhale, and letting the exhale just flow from there. It made me realize that I am kind of a tepid inhaler. But oh... It does make for some delicious pranayama if you really take a long, slow, deep sip of breath. It makes the practice meditative. And oxygenating. This morning I feel like I had a giant bowl of chlorophyll to start my day, I'm all zingy and bright fresh and green. (This could also have something to do with the springing of Spring, and the general optimism in the NYC air.)

Beyond that: with all of this forward bending in the Primary Series, I've found myself craving some back-bending. Does this also come with the start of Spring? The desire to throw your heart open and spin around like a Wonder wheel? Probably.

But I think it's also a product of my recent shoulder-blade work. In using them guide and support me, I'm naturally broadening across the chest and firing the pistons in my upper back. And so, as like wants like, I want more opening. It's a little adrenaline junkie-ish for a mature practitioner (which I am not, but do aspire to be). But I remember that in one of my Iyengar classes, the teacher kept insisting that we "find the back-bend within the forward bend." It sounds like having your cake and eating it, doesn't it? I think it's the key to a more complete practice, though.

How does this translate? In literal terms, it means, lengthening the spine and keeping the chest open, with shoulders looped and supporting the full expansion of the chest. In emotional terms: it's work. The focus required to keep from collapsing into myself in Paschimottanasana, etc, is dredging up some "stuff." I'm in the thick of it now, so I'll let it work through me, then report back.

Friday, March 5, 2010

From Liz: Ode to Carbs, Sexism and My Inner Left Knee.

As a personal side-note/vow to self (but hold me accountable, please): I have to get the carb-fest under control. Because seriously, if you are what you eat, then I'm a piece of toast with a side of pasta.

In regards to the gender politics issue. Depending on your build/physiological inclination, you are either stronger or more flexible. And you reminded me that not all women are flexible. In fact, to generalize in that way is my own bit of sexism. Thinking that I'm struggling with jump-backs because I am female does me, and my sex, an injustice. Simply stated, I've seen it done. I've known plenty of women who can jump back and through comfortably, though most have had to work at it. It is an achievable feat, so I'll simply stop making excuses and keep up the work.

At the organizational level, I still don't know where the power lies. There are many female studio owners. But I have this creeping feeling that somewhere up the line, there is a man holding the money. Meh... Maybe that's just a bit of paranoia, or again, self-hatred cloaked in self-doubt.

In other news: I'm nursing some knee tenderness these days. MCL tenderness, to be precise. It could be (and I'm just guessing here) that years of running, followed by gaining and losing 45 lbs during and after my pregnancy, and then running some more, may just just have put a liiiiiiiittle pressure on my joints. Just a bit, mind you.

So yeah.... This may be the motivation I need to cut back on the cardio and focus on my yoga. Which brings me back to my opener: I guess I'm going to have to watch my mouth. Consider the humble vegetable, dear woman. And yeah, it is funny that in the same post where I'm complaining about sexism, I'm also talking about dieting. That sneaky complicity. Sigh...

Monday, March 1, 2010

From Anna: He said Hamstring, She said Shoulderblade

Let's start with the gender politics on the asana level since I agree about needing to organize my thoughts a bit before discussing the topic on a grander scale...

Stating the obvious, we can all agree that there tend to be more women than men in the classes we teach and take. That said, I find the gap to be dwindling at a rapid pace. Last weekend, for the first time ever, one of my classes had equal male and female representation. Granted, it was unusual, but I couldn't even have imagined it a few years ago. The perception of yoga is changing and men are poking their heads in to see what all the fuss is about. A generous number are brought by their wives and girlfriends, but I've had a handful lately who have flown in solo, offering reasons (as though I needed one!) that include a compliment to their marathon training, wanting to heal an old injury, and just being curious.

A few women have remarked to me recently that after bringing their husbands/partners to class and seeing the men pick it up with such ease, the women found themselves envious. (They all realize, of course, that envy has no place on our mats, but it's easier said than done and we've all been in that sticky place before...) Generalizing for just for a moment, most men are significantly stronger than they are flexible, whereas women are more stretchy but still building strength. I love your comment that 'a little anatomical savvy neutralizes the field' but it doesn't change the fact that many men come to day 1 of their practice with the strength that their female counterparts will spend years developing and vice versa for flexibility.

They are equally crucial ingredients, neither acts as a trump card on the mat, so why then (as you mentioned in your post) do some women feel as if they are playing a man's game? I know several men who see exactly the opposite. Despite their strength and stability, they feel completely boxed in and defined by their tight shoulders and hamstrings. In fact, as I write this I am realizing the irony in my sweepingly generalized categorization. While feminine, I am matter-of-factly built more like the opposite sex. Naturally muscular but with an unrelenting tightness in my joints and muscles. You have the quintessential female yogi body - pliable and lithe, with several years of a yoga practice to boot.

So perhaps it is our own bodies that inform our perception of gender politics in asana? Perhaps it isn't body mechanics at all, but a wistful envy/yearning for what we do not innately have...