Friday, July 6, 2012

Don't Call it Yin Yoga

For my final practicum class for my teacher training, I'm required to lead a "Yin Yoga" class. Although I appreciate the benefits of a practice where you will hold postures for an extended period of time, I have a problem with the term "Yin Yoga" for a couple reasons.

I believe that all true yoga is a balancing of both male and female energies and likewise, the qualities of tension and relaxation, or, Sthira and Sukha (read a great article on this concept here). Even in a vigorous practice such as Ashtanga we are always balancing on the edge of strong muscular stability and finding ease and lightness in the postures. Also, yoga is an Indian tradition so the use of Chinese concepts and terminology just causes confusion and division. I do however think that it's beneficial for people with limited strength or mobility to practice these longer held postures, and helpful for all practicioners to occassionally slow down and experience the relaxation and opening that can occur in what I like to call simply, "Slow Yoga" or, Ashtanga ½ Speed Primary ;-)

Here's what I'll be presenting later today:

Throughout this sequence be mindful of your breath, keeping it steady and deep. We don't practice any specific form of pranayama or breath control here, but we can still utilize the breath to help us to journey deeper into the held postures, staying conscious of not holding the breath and observing when it has become shallow or forced, perhaps signaling that you've gone farther than is comfortable into a posture.

We'll be holding the poses for 2-5 minutes, so it's good practice to find your way into the posture slowly and mindfully, gradually approaching your edge, and then either venturing deeper into it, or backing off—listening to your body and allowing your inner teacher to guide you.

1. Start with 5 mini sun salutations
  • Virasana
  • Inhale, arms overhead lifting the buttocks, lengthening the spine
  • Exhale, folding at the hips, sit buttocks back on heels, arms stretched forward on mat
  • Inhale, use hands on mat to pull hips up, shoulders over wrists, hips over heels
  • Still inhaling, lift tailbone and head, performing an easy backbend (cow pose)
  • Exhale, push mat away, arching spine, broadening shoulders (cat pose)
  • Repeat Cat/Cow 4 more times
  • Exhale, drop hips back, relax into child's pose
  • Inhale, lift hips, raising arms overhead, hands meeting in prayer
  • Exhale, sit back in Virasana, hands in Anjali mudra (heart centre)
2. Paschimottanasana 
3. Reverse Tabletop, or Purvottanasana (hold only long enough to feel release in spine) 
4. Janu Sirsasana A 
5. Marichyasana C, or Sage pose with twist 
6. Supta Virasana, or Ustrasana AKA Camel Pose 
7. Baddha Konasana
8. Lift hips with legs in Baddha Konasana, or do a few windshield wipers to release tension
9. Supta Pandangusthasana with strap. Lie down, perform leg raises with strap, first straight up, then out to side, then across opposite leg
10. Supine twists; bring knees into chest, then allow them to fall to each side 
11. Supported Matsyasana
12. Viparita Karani, or "Legs up the Wall" 
13. Savasana 
14. Close in Sukhasana
Remember, take it easy, take it slow, and enjoy!


Monday, June 25, 2012

Asana Research Lab: Paschimottanasana

Where "B" equals your Butt.

My 5 days with Chuck Miller (see my last post) encouraged me to step back and take a look at all the fundamental postures of the Ashtanga practice and ruthlessly assess the quality with which I'd been practicing them. One of the postures I decided I needed to reel in a bit and rebuild from the ground up was my Paschimottanasana (POSH-chee-moh-tan-AHS-anna), or seated forward bend. Often when we're striving to achieve what we think is the end posture — usually what we've seen a very advanced practitioner demonstrate in a book, video or website — we rush through or skip over the fundamentals and jump right into a simulacrum of the gross expression of the pose. 

Sketch from Jérôme Terrier's great Flickr stream of yoga drawings

In Paschimottanasana, this often translates into rounding the upper back, hunching the shoulders up by the ears and pulling ourselves forward, reaching the face desperately towards the feet. While a seated forward bend with a round spine can feel good, it's not the goal of this posture. In Paschimottanasana we're looking to stretch the hamstrings and spine, extending the crown of the head and the heels like two rays extending from the vertex of the hips, diminishing the degree of the angle as we progress further into the posture.

A few tips to follow when working mindfully on this pose:
  1. First, sit with legs extended and plant the heels into the ground.
  2. As in all seated forward bends, keep the foot active but not reaching back towards the shin as in Dandasana. From the heel, reach forward with the balls of the feet, toes spreading, almost like you were wearing invisible stilettos.
  3. Keeping the quadriceps active and knees lifted will allow the hamstrings to release.
  4. Think about lengthening the leg from the planted heels to the front of the sit bones. This requires a forward tilt of the pelvis. You might need to sit on the front of a block or folded towel at first if your hamstrings are especially tight.
  5. Focus on rolling the upper thighs inwards, spreading the sit bones and dropping the pelvic bone towards the floor, tailbone lifting.
  6. Draw the spine long up out of the rooted sit bones to the crown of the head, slightly tucking the chin and lifting the heart.
  7. Think about moving the sternum — not the head — forward out over the extended legs, keeping the chin in and neck long. 
Additionally, give the exercises in this video a try. I found them super helpful.

Most important to remember: it's not how far you go! It's about doing the work that you need to do, and being honest, uncompromising and gentle with yourself while you do it.

Additional Reading

This excerpt from Gregor Maehle's book on Ashtanga Yoga is one of the most beautiful passages I've ever read concerning the interconnectedness of our physical bodies and our emotional and etheric bodies. I highly recommend buying his book if you are interested in deepening your practice!

Psoas — The Seat of the Soul
Excerpt from Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy by Gregor Maehle 

The hip flexor muscle group includes the rectus femoris of the quadriceps, the sartorius, the tensor fascia latae, and the deeply internal psoas muscle. Continuing to contract the rectus femoris after it has tilted the hips in a forward bend causes it to bunch up in the front of the hip and prevent one from working deeper into the posture. The psoas muscle originates from the sides of the body of T12 (the lst thoracic vertebra), where it touches the diaphragm and all five lumbar vertebrae. It runs along the back of the abdominal cavity (the front of the spine) through the pelvis and inserts at a mount on the inside of the thighbone (femur), the lesser trochanter. It flexes the hip joint and laterally rotates the femur in the process.
When the thigh is fixed, as in standing and seated postures, the psoas is flexed. Ida Rolf states that a healthy psoas should elongate during flexion and fall back toward the spine. It is necessary to release and lengthen the psoas, once the hips are tilted forward, in order to deepen any forward-bending postures.
 The superficial muscles of the body relax completely after they have been worked, but the dep muscles always retain a certain tension, even at rest. This is especially true of muscles that originate on the spine, like the psoas. They are therefore prone to spasm if worked intensely. The conscious relaxing of these muscles is as important as exercising them.
The psoas is the deepest muscle in the body. Its importance is such that it has been described by some as the "seat of the soul." To see the psoas in action one has to imagine the graceful gait of African or Indian women carrying large water containers on their heads. To do this, the head has to maintain a continuous forward motion without any sudden jerks. The movement is only possible with a strong but relaxed psoas muscle. The psoas swings the pelvis forward and backward like a cradle. This swinging action initiates the movement of the legs with the rectus femoris (the large hip flexor at the front of the thigh) only coming into action well after the psoas. The swinging of the pelvis creates a wavelike motion up the spine, which keeps the spine healthy and vibrant, and the mind centered in the heart. If you have ever tried to walk with a large object balancing on your head you know how difficult this makes it to follow the tangents of the mind. Connecting with the core of the body (the psoas) shifts the attention from the mind to the heart — this is why the psoas is regarded as the seat of the soul. 
The other extreme can be observed when we watch an army march. Soldiers are required to keep the psoas hardened. Being constantly shortened, the muscle spasms and is weakened. In the military attention posture, when the chest is swelled, one naturally dips into the low back, which also weakens the psoas muscle. When marching, the pelvis is arrested and the thighs are aggressively thrust upward and forward. This movement only uses the rectus femoris. The spine is frozen, and this keeps the soldiers' attention in their minds. In this state the mind can more easily be convinced to be non-compassionate to fellow human beings, who are instead labeled as the enemy.
If we all walked with our psoas active and our spines caressed with the wavelike motion this produces, our minds would possibly arrive at a state of silence. we would then see every human being as part of the same consciousness that animates us all. One of the reasons our Western culture has conquered much of the world with its arms is that we have abandoned natural awareness and have fallen under the tyranny of the mind. Yoga calls for restoring this awareness, which draws us to naturally abide in nonviolence. Nonviolence becomes a non-imposed ethical law.
As one starts  practicing yoga it is very important to abandon the Western aggressive conquering attitude of wanting to derive an advantage out of yoga, but rather to approach the postures from a deep surrender into what is already here. All forward bends inspire this attitude. If, rather than developing yet another wish — such as to lengthen the hamstrings, which actually shorten and contract with greed — we let go into the knowledge that everything we may ask for is already here, the hamstrings will release by themselves. Ambition shortens hamstrings.


Friday, June 15, 2012

"Are you ready to be a beginner?"

Me and Chuck. Do I look happy? Because I was.
This was the question that Chuck Miller asked us again and again over the course of the 5 days I got to study with him at Babylon Yoga in Vancouver. It's an important question that forced us to re-evaluate our personal practices and our reasons for showing up to these workshops. In effect, he was asking us if we were willing to tear down the practices that we had built over months and years, letting go of our ideas about progress or achievement, and slowly, painstakingly start over — assessing with an unflinching eye all of our bad habits, lazy tendencies, misalignments, and ego-driven striving.

It was tough, tough work. But so incredibly rewarding.

Even for me, as a relative newcomer to Ashtanga, it was difficult to mentally let go of any notions I had about how far I am in the primary series and to be exactly where I need to be in order to do the work that I need to do. Am I over-flexing my back in Paschimottanasana to compensate for tight hamstrings, reaching for my feet with my chin because that's what I think the pose should look like? Is this where I need to be, or am I ignoring the real work I need to do because I'm striving to go farther...maybe farther than I should? It's very humbling to admit to your shortcomings and it takes a lot of control to back up and fix what you've been avoiding — but isn't that why we're doing yoga? Chuck reinforced in us the idea that these "shortcomings" (i.e., stiff back, tight hamstrings, weak arms) are in fact "gifts", as they illuminate the places where we need to work to unravel tension, release blockages and repair our bodies to a "yoga normal" state.

Chuck working his magic on another "beginner".

Ashtanga yoga, at its core, is a tool for self transformation. It's not a display of our physical attributes. It's not even physical exercise. The vigorous exercise and resulting physique is a byproduct of an intense process that we choose to engage in to clear mental obstacles through the conscious linking of breath and movement. Letting go of the idea that progress means obtaining the next asana in the sequence is incredibly liberating, and as this started to really sink in (around the third day), I felt a massive shift in approach to my own practice occur. After hours of painful, intensely focussed work on the absolute basics, I had never felt like — or been ready to be — such a complete beginner.

I'm not going to go into all the details of what he showed us this past week — it turned out to be a week of incredibly personal inner transformation and growth — but I will encourage you to seek him out if he's teaching anywhere near you and allow him to show you how you can take your practice deeper, not farther. I'll give you a hint though — the answer lies in that very first pose, Sama-sthiti.



Thursday, June 7, 2012

Meeting the Witness

Even comic books in India are spiritual.

It's been a very busy month! With my teacher training wrapping up and gearing up to lead my first classes at the end of this month, along with the usual activities of everyday life, there has been a lot to keep my mind and body busy, busy, busy — so much so that I truly relish the moments of stillness I can find throughout the day, whether it's on my mat in Savasana, in the bath after a gruelling yoga practice or sitting by the fire after a day of sledgehammer swinging.

During the drive to and from the yoga studio (about 20 minutes each way), I try to use that time to catch up on the few podcasts I still listen to. One that I look forward to every week is Ram Dass' new podcast Here and Now. Each podcast interweaves segments from classic Ram Dass lectures with stories about the host Rhagu Markus' own journey from Montréal to India and subsequent spiritual transformation. They are wonderfully produced and Ram Dass has a unique gift for communicating some heady esoteric subject matter in a way that is very engaging and relatable.

This week's episode (ep. 7 "The Veil") deals with the idea of inviting "The Witness" into your daily life, and learning to disassociate your true self (or, Atman) from your thoughts, actions and body. The idea is that when you are able to observe your thoughts and actions without judgement, you are "witnessing" them from that which is not the ego, but that which is able to observe the ego: your true self. This practice has been incredibly useful for me in dealing with various issues that I had wanted to overcome for many years, but couldn't figure out how. For instance, I recognized that at times I had a tendency to lose my patience and get angry even when it wasn't justified, but I didn't know why or how I could change it. I just knew that I desperately wanted to get over it and be done with it for good!

I think the breakthrough came for me during my first session in an isolation tank. If you've never experienced a float tank, it's basically a large metal egg that you climb into naked, close the door, and submerge yourself in a very dense salt water solution that is the exact temperature of your body, and float. The effect is one of total sensory deprivation. Your body doesn't feel the water, you're in complete and utter darkness and the only sounds are those produced by your organs. Because you float with complete ease, you can completely surrender your physical body and let your mind take front stage. Getting to that point can take a while — you'll probably fidget and move around a lot at the beginning, your mind will wander, and your pesky ego will distract you in every way it can think of — but when it happens, things can get interesting.

I won't describe my whole experience as it's very personal and has no relevance to your own experience, but there is one moment that I attribute to a very profound shift in my own consciousness and relates directly with the idea of "The Witness". At a certain point in my journey, I was presented with the image of my body, and floating just above and behind my head was a large cloud of swirling colours — very much like a cartoon thought bubble, but instead of dots leading to my mind, this cloud was tethered to the back of my head and connected to all of my sensory organs — eyes, ears, nose and mouth etc. I immediately recognized this cloud as my true inner consciousness (or spirit) and saw for the first time that my body was merely a vehicle and input device for my Self. More than that, it wasn't even contained by my body. It just uses it to get around!

The sketch from my float tank journal entry.

From that point on, things really shifted for me, and it's become of utmost importance to take care of my vehicle as best as I know how — and I'm learning more every day. Part of my hatha yoga practice is just that — body maintenance. The rest of it is a wonderful, challenging, entertaining inner game of tennis between my Ego and my Self rallying back and forth.

Awakening to the presence of inner Witness has empowered me in overcoming habits, both mental and physical, that I previously felt completely powerless to. It has allowed my true Self to shine through after many years of being locked in a little room. For me, it's a daily practice to remind myself that my Self is there, observing it all, and that my ego will only run the show if I allow it.

I invite you to take a moment today to welcome the Witness into your life, have a chuckle at the antics of your monkey mind, and find some love and acceptance of your meat body with all of it's creaky joints, banged up limbs and weathered finish.



Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Asana Kitchen: Bhujapidasana

David Garrigues provides a fantastic in-depth study of Bhujapidasana, which I've recently started playing around with. Now I can stop playing and start flying!

Asana Kitchen: Bhujapidasana

Friday, May 25, 2012

The View From the Sidelines

Image from the awesome Broga Melbourne

Yesterday when I was standing at the top of my mat in Samasthitihi, reciting the opening mantra, I noticed  subtle sensation in my lower back, right around the sacrum between the two illiac crests of my hip bones. Normally, it takes me a few sun salutations to loosen up in the early morning as I'm generally pretty tight when I get out of bed, so I didn't think too much of it. After a couple Surya A's it became clear that this wasn't typical morning stiffness. Every time I rose out of forward fold to standing, I noticed a sharper pain from the low back area. I used to have trouble with my back after injuring it moving a washer/dryer by myself, so this "pre-spasm" feeling was familiar to me, even though I've been free of any back issues since starting a daily practice.

Great. I'm a couple weeks away from finishing my teacher training and my back is messed up. I love routine, hate being forced to not practice and this happens? I finished out a very gentle, slow practice, spending a lot of time in forward folds and easy counter poses, hoping that I just needed to loosen up a little. When I finished, it was clear that this wasn't going away today and that I'd need to cancel the farm work I'd gotten called in for and take an unscheduled rest day.

I was feeling pretty bummed out, sitting in bed propped up with a pile of pillows, sullenly staring at a book, when Deb stopped in before leaving for work to encourage me to see this as a blessing and to enjoy the time out. She's right. I rarely take a true day off — I'm always buzzing around doing something, seeing a "day off" as an opportunity to get a million "other" things done — so I decided to give in to the situation and chill out.

A minor injury like this one really is a blessing, and the timing of it is kind of perfect. Just as I'm finishing my teacher training — having made huge strides in my practice, overcoming injuries I had before starting this training (I can't believe three months ago I was writing about my bum doesn't bother me at all now) — it's a great reminder that stuff does happen, and that we need to cultivate the internal flexibility to be able to roll with whatever unexpectedly pops up.

Here are some ideas for things to do if you're sidelined temporarily:

1) Read. I rarely make the time to sit and read anymore. When I was a kid, I used to lock myself in my room and spend the entire day immersed in whatever world I was reading about at the time — whether it was Narnia, Middle Earth or the latest Stephen King epic that my mom would pass on to me. Those were magical days and did a lot to open my mind's capacity for imagination, empathy and creativity. Yesterday, I finished reading Bhagavan Das' memoir "It's Here Now, Are You?", which allowed me to live vicariously as a saddhu in India, a used car salesman in California, and eventually as a guy who finally found peace and fulfillment as a musician. Great story.

2) Start a new habit. Today I woke up and my back still felt a bit tricky, so I decided to not take practice until later, which left me with the question "what now?". I decided to try making a green smoothie. I love greens and am always looking for ways to incorporate them into my diet, but I think I was a little swayed by the marketing and figured I couldn't do a green smoothie without a $700 Vitamix or Blendtec blender.

I washed up some spinach and kale in water with a splash of the super magical and multipurpose Apple Cider Vinegar (which is a good idea if you don't have organic on hand), threw a handfull of each (no stems or spines!) in our trusty KitchenAid along with half a Bosc pear, a 1/4 pineapple, a shot of hemp oil and about a 1/2 cup of water and started blending. To my surprise, our common $150 blender did a great job of breaking everything down and making a nice, tasty slurry.

3) Cultivate empathy. This week I've been working on a Yin Yoga sequence for teacher training, so this is a great opportunity to give it a test run and experience what it might be like for someone that doesn't have a daily practice and may be dealing with some physical limitations, and low back pain is pretty high on the list for the demographic around here — lots of aging labourers and farmer/gardeners.

4) Practice Ahimsa. I wrote about this back when I started training, but Ahimsa is the first of the 5 Yamas, or restraints, that we practice in Ashtanga — meaning "to do no harm". An injury is a great was to practice this obligation on yourself, which of course leads to empathy and compassion for your students who might be dealing with injuries themselves. Not taking my usual asana practice and spending half the day in bed definitely feels like a restraint.

5) Write about it. Not only does journalling privately help to put things in perspective, but if you can't publicly gripe and share your breakfast and bathing rituals with a group of faceless strangers, then what's the internet for anyway?



Thursday, May 17, 2012

Yoga and the Art of Motorcycling

No, a top bun does not protect against injury.
Good karma on the other hand...
I just returned from my final motorcycle road test, and having successfully passed, felt the need to share. I'm travelling a lot between our home in the sticks and my yoga studio about 20km away, so the bike will really help in keeping fuel expenses down. Over the past few months of learning how to ride, it's really become clear to me just how much yoga has helped. I've been a cyclist forever — and that does provide some crossover skills — but in terms of handling and overall comfort on the motorbike, I'd say that yoga has really prepared me the most.

When you're riding on the bike — at least my little 250cc Sherpa — the most comfortable position is pretty much Utkatasana, especially if you've practised it Bikram-style with your arms forward:

Bikram's version of Utkatasana,
or as they call it "awkward pose".
Perfect riding posture.
I find it really nice to be able to tilt my pelvis up and hinge at the hips when I'm going faster, keeping my torso stretched over the gas tank, calling on those Paschimottanasana skills.

Keep Calm, Motor On
Talk to any motorcycle instructor and they'll tell you one of the best ways to stay safe on the bike is to remain calm and relaxed while riding. Yoga really helps with this, as you're practising the concept of Sukha and Sthira, or balance between comfort and steadiness constantly. This is exactly the state you want to be in on the motorbike — grounded and secure on the pegs with your legs hugging the tank, but with a relaxed hand grip and posture.

A key to staying calm and relaxed on the bike is remembering to breathe. The breath is the focus in Ashtanga yoga, so I've got this down, and I really noticed today how relaxed I was even with the test car tailing me and the tester giving me instructions through an earpiece. At one point she joked, "Don't forget to breathe!", and I thought "I'm way ahead of you honey...I practice breathing."

Another key element of safe riding is being able to maintain focus — even when you're presented with a long winding seaside road, beautiful vistas on either side, eagles flying overhead, baby sheep frolicking in the meadows and horse riders trotting along the shoulder. Just as we keep bringing the mind back to the breath in yoga and meditation when we're distracted, the same goes for riding. Only the stakes are way higher. In yoga you might miss that transition, but if you miss a corner or that barn cat darting across the road while you're on a motorbike...

Keep the rubber on the road and under your toes.



Friday, May 4, 2012

Asana Research Lab: Marichyasana

Marichi, son of Brahma, namesake of one killer asana.

If you're anything like me and have tight hips and shoulders from years of cycling and desk work (and neglecting stretching them out daily), you probably find Marichyasana as challenging as I do. When I started my Ashtanga practice, I thought it was a new pose to me but after a little while it dawned on me that I had practiced a variation of it for years in "regular" Hatha practice.

Rodney Yee always calls it "Sage Pose", which kind of makes sense, as the "Marichi" in "Marichyasana" was the son of Brahma (the creator in Hindu mythology), the original man and one of the original Rishis — or sages, responsible for channelling the Vedic hymns. So, he's sort of like Jesus crossed with Adam. Or something. The complex Hindu mythology is a whole 'nother rabbit hole that I won't open up here.

Regardless of what you call it, you'll most likely encounter a version of it in most yoga practices, with the beginner posture looking something like this:

"Sage Pose"

Practiced like this, you're going to be working mostly on the spinal twist aspect of Marichi, and this is a good place to start if you're new to yoga or haven't yet worked on deeper twists yet or have tight hips. When this feels easy and you feel like you can take the twist deeper, try working the non-supportive arm to the outside of your bent leg, bending it at the elbow, maintaining a straight spine and using a folded blanket or blocks if you need to. This should look something like this (bent arm can point up or down):

Add props if you need to!
I don't recommend practicing in such dour decor however.

You can also take the bent leg over the extended or bent bottom leg which is a good IT band stretch:

Another version of "Sage Pose"

All of these variations can be considered practice for the Ashtanga version of "Sage Pose", Marichyasana, which is actually a sequence of four postures which themselves are progressive in nature — Marichi A works to open the hips and shoulders:
Marichyasana A
Notice how much the bent leg's hip and both shoulders
need to open up in the full expression of this posture

Marichi B then introduces the half lotus leg, further opening the hips while continuing to open the shoulders:

Marichyasana B
Bringing the bent leg into half lotus encourages further hip opening

Once you've mastered B, you then move on to C, which introduces the twist:

Marichyasana C
Notice how deep the twist needs to be here compared to the "Sage Pose" variations

Marichyasana D then brings it all together with the extreme hip opening of the half lotus leg of B and the deep spinal twist of C:

Marichyasana D
See his little toes poking up there?

I hope all of this illustrates just how well designed the Ashtanga Series is. It's one of the reasons I love it so much — it really appeals to the rational design-oriented part of my brain.

The Primary Series, as the name implies, is preparation for the next five series, and within this first series there is preparation and progression. The poses leading up to Marichyasana will help you realize version A, and version A will help you realize version B and on and on.

Regardless of where you are in the sequence, the work you do on the mat is preparation for whatever life off the mat will throw you. In cultivating the postures we need to practice patience, discipline, diligence, presence and self-love. I like to think we call it practice, not because we're practicing yoga, but because we're practicing for life.



Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Hero's Journey

I was talking with a good friend last night about the nature of time and how it can be so malleable and shifty. You can live out an epic adventure in a minute's worth of sleep, or learn more about yourself in five minutes of a mushroom dream than you did in the previous twenty years. Or conversely, how that last hour of work at a job you hate can feel like a week.

I told him how I've come to see my daily yoga practice as a complete lifecycle lived out on the mat. I begin every practice completely new — I'm not the same person that was standing at the top of the mat yesterday. My mind is different, my body is different. I can't expect to perform "better" than I did the day before. All too often I've entered into practice with some sort of expectation, only to have it wiped away two sun salutations in, finding energy where I thought there was none, or lacking flexibility that was there just hours before.

Over the course of that two hours, I'll experience a Campbell-esque hero's journey, from the "call to adventure" as I wake up out of bed, to the "crossing of the threshold" as I step on the mat and intone the first sound, "OM", signalling the beginning of a voyage into an unknown realm. Here we encounter the "road of trials" — the first struggles we either overcome, or fail to but continue anyway. Even the end of practice, Savasana, is a symbolic death. When we return to the top of our mat in seated position, close our eyes, hold our hands in prayer and chant "OM" once again, we are reborn, transformed and renewed.

We can then leave our mats and re-enter the world, having drunk the elixir of life, "the ultimate boon" of Campbell's archetype, having found union within, and without ourselves.



Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Opening Up

According to Haida legend, hummingbirds bring joy and healing.
My life has recently been blessed with scores of these birds and all that they bring.
Photo by Raincoast Photo

This is the first post of the next phase of the blog where it will be less about the specifics of my own practice. It's also getting a bit tedious to log each and every practice session. I'll keep that stuff to my personal journal from here on in.

It's a good time to make this shift, as an interesting shift in my practice has emerged over the past few days. Last Thursday I received an Ayurvedic massage treatment from my friend Asrael (check out her blog here) that facilitated the stirring up and subsequent clearing of a lot of stored emotional and physical energy. It was very powerful and moving, and I think it took a few days for me to find my grounding again. This morning however, I found myself approaching my practice with a feeling of irreverence. It sounded like an odd word to use, but it's the first word that came to mind when Deborah asked me how I was doing. After we talked a bit, it became clear that it was actually very appropriate.

It feels like I've moved from this phase of holding the Ashtanga practice up in an almost detached reverence, and into a phase where it feels more integrated into my being. I think that irreverence is a reflection of how the practice has become a part of my life, one that feels very natural and necessary. I've put in the time and dedication, and it's proven itself to me — I now no longer need proof of it's efficacy. I joked to Deborah that it's almost like in a relationship, how at the beginning you're putting your best self forward, treading very carefully and deliberately with your new lover — and now we (me and Ashtanga) are at the stage where we're leaving the bathroom door open.

This newfound comfort and ease opened up a new level of awareness to the subtler aspects of the asana practice and led to a moment of enlightenment about release and trust while working on Baddha Konasana. I still have pretty tight hip flexors and groin and I'm always challenged with wide-legged forward bends. While cultivating this particular pose it became clear to me that I needed to learn to speak directly with my hip flexors. I have no trouble finding the full extension of the close-legged forward folds like Paschimottanasana, but as soon as I start to fold while my legs are open, my hip flexors instinctively tighten up and put on the brakes.

In order to progress, I need them to relax and let go, and to trust that I'm not going take them further than is safe. It means opening up a dialogue with a body part that I have never had a positive relationship with — I've only ever cursed my "tight hips" for not letting me obtain certain postures. This is completely unfair to my hips! They were there for me when I needed them to propel me on my bike, or protect me when I was straining my back. It's my fault they're tight now. So asking them to work for me now is a challenge — a bit like trying to get your baby toes to move at will.

Normally, you never need to cultivate a relationship with them, so when you try to talk to them — to spread all of your toes in Samasthiti for example — it takes a lot of practice.

Of course it does... you're creating (or at least re-paving) new neural pathways and building a relationship with your body on a deeper level. This is yoga. At least the physical union aspect. It also serves as a wonderful living example of how important it is for us to integrate our psyche. To maintain a healthy dialogue with all aspects of our selves. Not necessarily just the ones we like the most.

And that's really what happens during a healing ceremony or treatment like the one I had on Thursday. It can be uncomfortable, and even scary when we start to peer into the darker, more hidden parts of our psyches, and when we don't shy away and we engage with them, it can trigger some pretty emotional responses (It's no surprise that the most profound release during my massage was when Asrael was working on my hips and lower back. Coincidence? Not likely). It's at the end of this long, dark, tearful journey however, where we can find true healing. And it's here where we learn that it's possible for us to heal ourselves and to heal our lineage.

We all possess this ability, but in our culture we never learn how, or are given the opportunity to awaken this dormant part of our selves. Instead, we learn how to ignore pain and trauma, to bury it deep inside, and are offered multitudinous ways with which we distract ourselves so that it never gets dug up. Just because you ignore it doesn't mean it's not there. It can show itself as diseases of the mind — anxiety, depression, anger, or as diseases of the body — ulcers, obesity, or all sorts of problems.

This is why I believe so strongly in the power of yoga, shamanism and a personal spiritual practice. It's through these ancient exercises that we can cultivate our inner healer. First by being healed, then by healing ourselves, then healing others, and eventually, teaching others how to heal themselves.



*The hummingbird I'm using for a new sign-off image is from a work by local Coast Salish artist Joe Wilson.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day 45: Good eats.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Led Half Primary
7:00 – 8:30

Had a good practice today — plenty of energy and good mood in the studio. Lately, I've been debating on whether or not to write so specifically about the intricacies of my own practice, but I'll just say this: I got you in my sights Marichi!

One thing I do want to share with you is one of my favourite post-practice meals. Since devoting myself to daily asana practice, the direct correlation to my diet and how I feel on the mat at 6:30 a.m. has become increasingly clear. A clean, simple, nutritious diet not only feeds the body, but — when it's selected, prepared and consumed consciously — it nourishes the spirit.

Keeping the menu simple also allows me to track how the food is produced and how far it had to travel to get to me. It gives me the opportunity to contemplate where the food came from and who might have produced it — which allows me to fully appreciate everything I'm eating. Try tracing back where every ingredient comes from in a typical packaged food product. Impossible. Plus, by the time it gets to your plate, it's got little or no prana left. How is that going to give you the energy you need?

R.E.G.G.S. (Rice, eggs, greens)

This simple meal is great because it gives you everything your hungry body needs in one easy-to-prepare bowl. You get your whole grains, karma-free protein, dark greens, healthy oils and a bit of salt — and it's delicious.

• Make about a 1/2 cup of rice per person. I like basmati, but will mix it up with some short-grain brown or quinoa. I also like tossing in a dab of Ghee as it cooks.

• Steam a bunch of greens. The more the merrier, but generally I go for 'rule of thirds' mix. 1/3 greens to 1/3 rice to 1/3 eggs. Today I used local red kale, but will often use chard when we have it on hand. I like to either squeeze some lemon into the greens as they steam, or sprinkle some apple cider vinegar on them afterward. The acid really gives the whole dish a lift.

• Lightly scramble some eggs in a hot pan with some melted ghee. "Lightly" means mix the eggs just enough to break the yolks and cook just past runny. We buy our eggs from our neighbours — they make commercial eggs taste like rubber gardening clogs.

• In a deep bowl, lay down a bed of rice, layer on your greens (sprinkle the apple cider vinegar on at this stage if you're using it), and top with your eggs. I like to squirt on about 2 tablespoons of organic hemp oil, then add a couple twists of some nice local sea or himalayan salt.

Enjoy your R.E.G.G.S.!



Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day 44: One Student, Many Teachers

If only I could personally thank all of the teachers on YouTube...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Mysore Practice
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Decent practice today. Still working up to Navasana then skipping to the finishing poses. I'm thinking of working out a "setlist" for the rest of the week that will include some of the poses further in the series that are currently within reach. I can then go back and fill in the blanks, so to speak, as I advance in my practice.

Most significantly, I was working on Sirsasana, or Headstand — particularly working on getting all the way up without the teacher there to help me balance. I was trying it against the wall, and it became apparent that I need some guidance on how to better approach the state of the asana, and that I may not be ready for the full expression of the pose.

Later — after I tiptoed home with bruised heels from repeatedly banging into the wall — I found a great step-by-step video by Kino MacGregor that cleared up a lot of the grey areas I had. It also showed me a way to progress into the final pose that removes the need for "jumping up" to the inversion, and that I think in the long run will build more strength and control. Thanks Kino!

It's such a gift to have all of these amazing videos by very experienced teachers available on YouTube. It allows us, as students and practicioners, to have access to an incredibly wide range of approaches to teaching the postures. Our own teachers may not have the same amount of experience as someone like Kino, or they may not know that secret key that you need to unlock the posture. Sometimes students need a specific trick, tip or technique to enable that click of the asana opening to them, and it's unreasonable to think that one teacher can know what's best for everyone they teach.



Monday, April 16, 2012

Day 42 & 43: Leaps and Bounds

Sunday, April 15, 2012
Anatomy Lab
8:30 – 10:00 a.m.
Hatha Flow w/ Michelle H.
10:00 – 11:30 a.m.
Mindful Eating Exercise & Meditative Walk
12:00 – 2:00 p.m.
Jumping/Floating Workshop w/ Michelle W.
2:00 – 4:30 p.m.

Monday, April 16, 2012
Foundations w/ Michelle W.
10:00 – 11:30 a.m.

As you can probably discern from the schedule above it's been a busy couple of days. I'll be working with a lot of what I learned in the Jumping/Floating workshop all week in practice, as I was able — with Michelle's encouragement and "Don't worry, I'll catch you if you're about to fall on your face" support — to unlock a few key elements that had been eluding me in my Vinyasa transitions. I'll be floating in no time, but for now, there will be a lot less wild donkey flailing in my jump-up and jump-backs.

This whole past week has been one of new breakthroughs and advances in my Ashtanga practice, which is encouraging and invigorating. I had hit a little bit of a wall a couple weeks ago where I was feeling a little worn out from the constant practice, but I seem to have shaken that off and have discovered a new well of strength and energy. My practice has never felt smoother, stronger or more graceful.

I have a feeling that this is a cycle that will keep repeating itself — like a rattlesnake that regularly sheds it's skin — emerging at the end of every molt bigger and shinier with an extra ring on it's rattle. Me? I crawl out from under the rock with some new bits of knowledge, a greater understanding of my mind and body, a little extra length in my limbs and torso, and maybe a few more laugh lines around my eyes.

I've never felt such extremes of being so physically energized followed by complete exhaustion, or so spiritually alive and mentally stimulated — and just plain happy — in my whole life. If this is what 43 days of Ashtanga can do for someone, I can't wait to see what the next 20 years brings.



Friday, April 13, 2012

Day 41: Killing it on Friday the 13th

All those Surya Namaskars we did this morning really worked!
She has been smiling on us all day...

Friday, April 13, 2012
Led Primary Series
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.

A short post today as I've been trying to enjoy as much as possible the wonderful spring sunshine we're currently being blessed with here in the Cowichan Valley. Practice this morning was probably my "best" Ashtanga practice yet. I seemed to be firing on all cylinders — my balance was really good, I felt strong and energetic and I found myself getting further into a number of asanas than I had been able to previously. After practice I had a great meeting with some wonderful new design clients, found some great deals at the thrift store and managed to fit in a motorscoot in the countryside. I don't know what it was, but this Friday the 13th has been stellar all around. I hope you enjoyed as much as I did!



Thursday, April 12, 2012

Day 40: Home Practice

Portraits of my own little Yin & Yang reminders.
I've got some pretty swollen and sore forearms from a tattoo session yesterday so I need to take the day off Mysore practice today. I'll instead be at home, working on a few postures and exercises that will help me in my Primary Series practice.

I've reposted some videos that I find really helpful for what I'm concentrating on today. Michael has a wonderful, clear and precise teaching style, with an emphasis on proper alignment and safety. He includes some adjustments that are particularly helpful if you have knee issues, like me.

I hope they help you as much as they help me!



Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Day 38, 39: You're a strange animal.

Okay, what now?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Half Primary Series
7:00 – 8:30 a.m.

Yesterday I was able to guide my own practice which was a nice treat. I haven't had many opportunities over the last month to have true Mysore-style morning practice, as there are often people very new to Ashtanga who need some leading. I love being able to slow down, working myself into poses that I'm focusing on, and then being able to settle in to let the pose do it's work on me. I also threw in some strengthening exercises during Vinyasa to help build myself up to floating.

Adding in these block-assisted "bump ups" as Jason calls them every Vinyasa built a lot of heat and sweat. It felt great, and I swear I noticed a difference in my led practice this morning. I was landing a lot lighter in my half jump throughs. Or maybe it was that banana I ate on the way to the studio, who knows.

I think using the blocks really helps you get over that mental block of thinking your arms are too short, that you'll never be able to flow through to Dandasana, whatever, and train your mind to believe that you can jump through, eventually. It's the same idea as the "Etch-a-Sketch" concept, that by being assisted — sometimes with great effort — into the full expression of a certain asana, it gives your body and mind an image or model of where you'll be able to — with time — go on your own, which then enables you to work towards that with clear purpose. It's also fun.

In case I haven't already posted David Garrigues' jump through exercises, here you go.

This coming Sunday we're doing a full day jump through, and jump back workshop, and I can't wait. As David alludes to in the above video, it's a really fun part of the practice that instills in us that animalistic dynamism that I love.

That animal essence is something that a lot of us lose touch with as we age. It's a shame because we all felt that playful, energetic quality as children. I believe that staying in tune with that animal nature connects us not only to our bodies, but to those other wonderful animal qualities like a heightened sensitivity to our surroundings and other beings, pure-hearted openness and honesty and being present in the now.

I'm looking at my two dogs snoozing away on the couch — not fretting over that fight they had at the dog park yesterday, not worried that they might have to go for a walk in the rain later. They're being completely present and content with where they're at right now, and I know that if I get the leashes out, they'll spring up, ready to take on whatever is coming with enthusiasm, open hearts and wagging tails. That's a pretty amazing way to be.



Monday, April 9, 2012

Day 35, 36, 37: Eight Arms to Hold You.

Practicing Yoga's Eight Limbs: your ego's not gonna like it. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012
Home Practice
9:00 – 10:30 a.m.
Intro to Ayurveda Workshop
1:00 – 3:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 8, 2012
Advanced Yin Yoga Workshop
1:00 – 6:30 p.m.

Monday, April 9, 2012
Mysore Practice
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Yesterday's Yin workshop could be described much like the yin postures themselves — long, deep, and "oh it hurts so good!". My hips were still singing at this morning's practice even after a long, near scalding salt bath last night. I still have so far to go with opening that area of my body, after so many years of sitting at a desk for most of the day, and riding hunched over on a bike for a good portion of the remainder. It's as though I am slowly and painfully undoing years of neglect and bad habits — like trying to loosen old mooring line knots that are soaked, dried and re-soaked over the years and have are bound like little monkey fists.

Along with the challenge of the physical unbinding, there's the difficulty of stirring up and dealing with old emotions, and as a whole, you need to cultivate a quality of stillness to even to sit in these poses for 10, 15 minutes. That in itself is a challenge for someone (me) that used to have a hard time sitting still.

The yin approach is a way to observe and practice Patanjali's Second Limb of Yoga — the Niyamas, or "observances" — particularly, for me, Santosa (contentment), and Svadhyaya (study of the self). Finding contentment in life's beautiful and carefree moments is relatively easy compared to the practice of being content when we are faced with challenges, external or internal.

When I'm deep in pigeon pose, riding the crest of my 'edge', feeling my hip fascia's tightness, my knee's sensitivity — my body barely bent over my pinwheeled legs, the rest of me supported by props and bolsters galore — and I happen to look up and see the slightly overweight, middle-aged woman across from me in full pigeon with her head draped serenely on the floor in front of her, and subtle moans of pleasure emanating from somewhere within — it can take a real concerted effort to steer my mind back to a place of contentment. To remind myself that we're all unique and one person's wilted pinwheel in another's proud pigeon, and to be happy and fine with where I'm at — without comparing myself to anything external, or even to where I was at yesterday. That to me, is observing Santosa. And a 5 1/2-hour Yin workshop provided plenty of moments to practice that.

Svadhyaya is another Niyama that can come up a lot in a Yin practice. It's often translated as the "study of the higher self", and can be related to those times that we remember and observe the true essence of our beings, which exists deep within us, hidden behind that pesky egoic mind that tries desperately to govern our lives and define our self image. As we work through these difficult external barriers, we can get bombarded with a cacophony of internal ego chatter — negative thoughts ranging from "why the hell am I doing this to myself?" to comparing yourself to others in the room — all of it I like to think of as the petulant child of the egoic mind, kicking and screaming as you put it in the corner for a few hours. It hates to be ignored, and even worse, fears that you might change or ignore it forever. When we are able to observe these thoughts for what they really are, and put them aside without judgement, we are actively studying our higher self — and it's our higher self that is able to be compassionate, loving and generous — all qualities we need more of. At the end of yesterday's workshop, there was nothing but a roomful of awakened beings, all basking in the glow of each other's higher selves. A wonderful way to spend Easter Sunday.

Now, for me, the real trick is to take that feeling, of what it is to exist as that higher self, and bring it out of the shala, into the world and practice it with my loved ones, my dogs, the guy tailgating me on the highway, and most importantly, with myself.



Thursday, April 5, 2012

Day 34: You are a sunbeam.

Thursday, April 5, 2012
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Fantastic practice today. I was able to work on a number of things I'd been thinking about all week in much detail, finding some new keys to unlock the next level of at least two asanas. I'm pretty exhausted though, and am looking forward to 2 days off, tomorrow for the full moon day, and Saturday for our usual day off — although I may sneak in my own practice :-)


It's hard to believe that it's been 18 years since we lost Kurt Cobain so tragically. Contrary to what he might have thought about himself, and what the message of this deceptively sweet and pretty song conveys, I believe that he was a sunbeam, as we all are. His light shone intensely and unbridled, and his music served to heal so many thousands of others. Unfortunately, he didn't stick around long enough to find a way to channel that light into healing himself.

On days like today, I'm so grateful that I've been able to find ways to heal myself, and I live to find ways to help others discover that healing light within themselves.

Something to think about on this Easter weekend. The parable of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection can be interpreted in many ways, but I like to use it as a reminder that we all contain this inherent ability to heal ourselves, our lineages, and our karma. We just need to find techniques to look inward, release blockages and free ourselves from our egoic minds.

For me, it's a multi-faceted approach, and it's taken a lot of searching to find it — and it continues to be a journey — but I've seen (and felt!) the light, and it's powerful. The knowledge that it's inside of me, and not something I need to get from an external source, gives me such great comfort. It's like Clark Kent walking around with that big 'S' underneath his suit. Dude must have had such a swagger. No wonder he landed Lois Lane.



Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Day 33: Reach For It Boy

Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Half Primary Series
7:00 – 8:30 a.m.
Hatha w/ Asrael
4:00 – 5:30 p.m.

Two great sessions today. I'm feeling lots of energy leading up to the full moon, and am making the most of it. I felt strong and smooth in my morning Ashtanga practice, and Asrael's gentler, slower class tonight really helped to ground and rejuvenate my heart center. I find the Ashtanga practice really prepares my body for other practices and allows me to enjoy them so much more. I'm able to let go and have fun with the poses, and I find my improved strength, flexibility and balance allows me to explore more intuitively and freely than I'd be able to with my physical body of just a few months ago.

It's like when I first started becoming technically proficient at the guitar and finding that I was able to express myself with more ease and fluidity when improvising. Only now my instrument is my body, and my guitar chops ain't what they used to be when I was practicing 8 hours a day.

Here's some stuff that inspired me today...

I thought this post (reproduced below) over on the Fearless Revolution blog was awesome and totally relevant to my life (and a lot of other people's lives these days) so I want to share it here. The author writes about how you can gain clarity on what your ideal, soul-fulfilling career is and how you can start to pursue it. The process that the author prescribes is very similar to how I decided to drop everything and pursue Yoga teacher training — a decision that has already benefitted and changed my life positively — and I'm not even teaching yet! Just the pursuit of my dream, after so many years of compromise, feels like a victory.

So, as lawyer and Civil Rights advocate Vernon Jordan (in the video above) recalls his mother telling him — when his life was going, by most standards, perfectly well, but he felt he was destined for something greater — "Reach for it boy, go for it".



Someone recently told me that the time he spent unemployed was the best six months of his life.
"What did you spend your time doing?" I asked. 
"I learned about things I was interested in, read a lot of nonfiction books, spent time with people who inspire me, played music, practiced leaning into fear, and spent a lot of time observing how people overcome fear," he said. "But then I had to get a real job." 
"Is your real job aligned with exploring these interests and leaning into fear?" I asked.
"Ummm... no. I work in analytics," he said.
"Have you ever thought that your 'real job' could be what you're passionate about?" I asked.
"Sort of," he said. "But isn't that unrealistic?"
As someone who's built a career helping people claim the lives they're meant to live, I couldn't help but obsessively think about how he could parlay his interest of "leaning into fear" into the work he does every day.
In our conversation, he demonstrated all the signs of someone who knows what he's passionate about and loves to do. But he didn't realize his own clarity. 
"But I don't really know what I'm passionate about," he said at one point in the conversation.
"Yes you do!" I said. "You just told me. You're obsessed with behavior change and the process of overcoming fear."  
This conversation reminded me of nearly every client I work with and every person I talk with about designing their ideal life. There's a gap between identifying what you naturally gravitate toward and gain energy from and how that translates into your full-time work. 
The process of closing that gap includes gaining clarity, taking action on what matters, and leaning into the fears that hold us back. 
It includes realizing that the greatest opportunity we have in life is the process of discovering what we love to do--and then dedicating our life accordingly. 
When we close that gap, we live a life where Mondays are celebrated as much as Fridays and "someday" is today.
Here are three steps that will help you gain internal clarity so you can plan toward your ideal future. 

1. Gain clarity around what to focus on. 

To gain clarity around how to spend your time in ways that energize you, so that you're as productive and happy as possible, Derek Sivers suggests asking yourself, "What do I hate NOT doing?" Meaning, what, if you don't do every day, makes you feel icky and off-track? 
Whatever it is--be it writing, designing, learning to program, asking questions, running five miles, reading non-fiction business books, spending time with loved ones, or meditating--make a list of the top 5 or so activities that you love and must do every day to feel like your best self. 
Now you know where to spend your time and energy. 

2. Define the world you imagine.

Of all the people I've met who are living their ideal life, true success has less to do with measuring up to an objective standard and more to do with working toward a larger ideal and better world. 
For a moment, forget about your family's image of you, your friends' perception of you, and what society at large seems to expect from you. You don't have to live how others expect you to and how you define your "real job" is up to you. 
So take 10 minutes and think about the ideal world you imagine. For example, I (the author of this article) imagine a world in which our potential is not governed by what we’re told we can and cannot do, but rather by our highest intentions and inner gifts. By knowing the world I envision, I know why I wake up every morning, it guides how I make decisions, and who I spend my time with. 
Now it's your turn. Write out the dream world you imagine, beginning with, "I imagine a world in which __________."
By painting this picture and defining your ideal, you'll create something bigger to work toward and you'll have a vision to share with others too. 
As Simon Sinek says, no one cares what you do, they care why you do it. 

3. Replace old thoughts with new ones.

We often carry around thinking patterns that no longer serve us or our dreams. 
"Who am I to do that?"
"That's not realistic."
"I don't know how to do it."
Guess what? You're the same as everyone else who's made something big happen, it's only unrealistic until you try, and you will figure it out. 
Write out a list of all the negative thoughts that are shaping your behaviors. Next to each thought, reframe it in a positive light. While the transformation may not happen immediately, our thoughts determine our attitude, our attitude determines our actions, and our actions determine our life. That's why being aware of what's holding us back is the first step toward change.
By doing these three exercises, you'll gain the internal clarity needed to make your dream world a reality and lean into fear, which we'll address next time. My aim is to provide you with the clarity and action steps to claim the life you're meant to live.