Saturday, March 31, 2012

Day 28/29: Reflecting on the Last Month





Thursday, March 29, 2012
Yin Yoga w/ Jess Kerr
5:45 – 7:15 p.m.


I was feeling like I needed a bit of a break from the Pitta-stoking Ashtanga practice today — it had been a good stretch since my last day off, especially considering the intense workouts during the David Garrigues workshop last weekend. So, I took a Yin Yoga class with Jess, which was just what the doctor ordered. Yin Yoga is great for evening out the imbalance that can happen with too much vigorous practice, especially for someone like me who is pretty Pitta-dominant to begin with. The longer, meditative Yin Yoga has a cooling, stabilizing effect that helps quell the fire that can build in a daily Ashtanga practice. For me, a Pitta-imbalance causes me to get more irritable, impatient and I get an acidic feeling in my stomach and tend to get skin break outs.

Jess read us an amazing poem during meditation that I found especially affirming at the end of my first month of Yoga teacher training, and the beginning of Spring.

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
A beautiful reminder to slow down, pay attention to the wondrous life happening around you, and within you, and to really live your life to it's fullest potential.

*********************



Friday, March 30, 2012
Led Primary Series w/ Deb C.
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.


This morning was fantastic. The room was full of great energy, and it felt really satisfying to let go of all of the concentrated work I'd been doing on the asanas all week and just flow. It also allowed me to observe the progress I've made over the past month, not just in the postures and vinyasa, but in my daily life.

It's hard to believe that it's only been a month since I started this journal — so much transformation has already occurred that it seems like it's been at least a year. I've become physically stronger, more flexible and my thoughts and emotions have been more focussed and balanced, and I'm approaching everything with a new outlook and greater intention.

Save the occasional glass of wine or beer on Friday night, I've quit drinking, and feel much more clear and in control of my mind because of it. Or, maybe it's because I've become more in control of my mind that I've quit drinking? I'm not trying to be cute, it's really hard to say what comes first. I do know that I consider all of my actions to a greater degree now. The daily practice gives you something to measure against, and the repercussions of your decisions the night before will be felt the next morning on the mat. Whether it's staying up an extra hour to watch American Idol, having that bowl of guacamole and chips after 9 p.m. or enjoying a glass of wine with dinner — they'll all have an effect on your practice, and it causes to you to weigh every choice. The mat truly is a mirror, and can be unforgiving if you let it.

I've also been learning that I need to be forgiving of myself — that my practice won't be perfect every day and that's perfectly fine. As long as I listen to my body and heart and give it what it needs, and not what my pesky ego might be trying to convince me I need or don't need, it's all good. The rewards themselves are the best way of discerning what the difference is. When I do something that truly nourishes my body and soul, the rewards are immediate.

It's that feeling when, after an especially sweaty and intense practice, you bring yourself back to seated position following Savasana, and you find yourself smiling from ear to ear, your heart unconsciously lifting and opening to greet your hands as they're brought together in a prayer to the divine energy that is present in all of us — the veil lifted through this simple practice that has been passed down to us through the grace and wisdom of our gurus.

In honour of my past and current teachers (Deborah, Asrael, Michelle, Jess — thank you!) all the yogis at Harmony Yoga Duncan, guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and his guru, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. 


Many thanks to my beautiful wife, Debbie, who has been so supportive of me throughout this journey and who, I hope, will continue to allow me to use her as a guinea pig as I find my way as a teacher. Your patience, receptivity, courage and encouragement are a priceless gift. 

*********************

Namaste,
Brian

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Day 27: Be Hair Now

Before growing a beard, this man couldn't touch his toes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Ashtanga Half Primary w/ Deb C.
7:00 – 8:30 a.m.


Practice was good today, although I think I'll need to take an Ashtanga day-off tomorrow — it's been a pretty intense 5-day stretch and I'm developing some symptoms of Pitta imbalance, so I could probably use a Yin class tomorrow. Nobody likes an irritable yogi.

I'm doing a lot of Yoga research these days and sometimes Google can send you down some fascinating, and often hilarious rabbit holes. Here's the latest:

Last night Debbie* sent me a stupendous (see, I'm using the word "great" way less) article on Yoga and hair. She's a hairstylist and yogi, so it makes sense that she would be researching this obscure subject, right? You can read the whole article here, but the gist of it is that, in Kundalini Yoga, it's believed that the hair on your head acts as antennae for prana energy, as well as a number of vitamins and nutrients, all transmitted from the sun through the hair.

Yogi Bhajan, the founder of what we know in the West as Kundalini Yoga said:
“When the hair on your head is allowed to attain its full, mature length, then phosphorous, calcium, and vitamin D are all produced, and enter the lymphatic fluid, and eventually the spinal fluid through the two ducts on the top of the brain. This ionic change creates more efficient memory and leads to greater physical energy, improved stamina, and patience.” Yogi Bhajan explained that if you choose to cut your hair, you not only lose this extra energy and nourishment, but your body must then provide a great amount of vital energy and nutrients to continually re-grow the missing hair.
The Hipster bun: energy or cringe inducing?

In addition to this function, when hair is coiled on the top of the head in a Rishi knot it is said to energize your magnetic field, or aura, and stimulate the pineal gland. Amazing! I wonder if all the hipsters wearing top buns know that they're actually fortifying their auras? For the record, the Rishi knot has a very specific construction (but also may be responsible for Turban Alopecia!).

The Rishi knot: root of energetic power or cause of Sikh hair loss?


As awesome as all of this is, it got her thinking about our relationship with hair, and she realized that we both have stopped cutting our hair around the same time a couple of years ago. Did we begin to grow our hair (or, Pranatennae?) long — subconsciously aiming to bolster our cosmic energy supply so we could have the power to uproot and change our life?

I know for me, it was probably interwoven with my inner transformation and awakening. It may have even been a tool to assist in creating more distance between me and the life I was getting ready to leave. When I started growing my beard past the 1/4-inch length I'd been sporting on-and-off for a number of years, the reaction of a lot of my co-workers was equally amusing, annoying and sometimes downright offensive. It's one thing to hear the same Amish jokes multiple times a day (come on guys, you're supposed to be creative! Oh wait, you're in advertising...), but when a senior executive told me that I was "starting to look homeless", I knew that I needed out. It was time for me and my beard to get the heck out of Dodge (or in this case, Mitsubishi).

The negative reaction to a beard longer than the mainstream-accepted 5-day growth was a bit shocking to me. I guess I never knew the kind of prejudice the homeless, the Amish and 2/3rds of ZZ Top had to endure until I grew a true chin muff of my own.

In a lot of other cultures, the beard is revered. Here are some interested beard facts from Wikipedia:
  • In ancient India, the beard was allowed to grow long — a symbol of dignity and of wisdom
  • The ancient Greeks regarded the beard as a badge or sign of virility.The highest ranking Ancient Egyptians grew hair on their chins which was often dyed or hennaed (reddish brown) and sometimes plaited with interwoven gold thread.
  • Mesopotamian civilizations (Sumerian, Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans and Medians) devoted great care to oiling and dressing their beards, using tongs and curling irons to create elaborate ringlets and tiered patterns.
  • The Persians were fond of long beards. In Travels by Adam Olearius, a King of Persia commands his steward's head to be cut off, and on its being brought to him, remarks, "what a pity it was, that a man possessing such fine mustachios, should have been executed."
  • Among the Celts of Scotland and Ireland men typically let their facial hair grow into a full circle of beard, and it was often seen as dishonourable for a Gaelic man to have no facial hair.
  • The Lombards derived their fame from the great length of their beards (Longobards – Long Beards – Langbärte). When Otto the Great said anything serious, he swore by his beard, which covered his breast.
  • Jesus is almost always portrayed with a beard in iconography and art dating from the 4th century onward.
  • Prophet Muhammad said, “Trim your moustaches and let your beards grow.”
  • The Bible states in Leviticus 19:27 that "You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard."
  • The Zohar, one of the primary sources of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), attributes holiness to the beard, specifying that hairs of the beard symbolize channels of subconscious holy energy that flows from above to the human soul.
  • Sikhs consider the beard to be part of the nobility and dignity of their manhood. Sikhs also refrain from cutting their hair and beards out of respect for the God-given form.
  • A male Rastafarian's beard is a sign of his pact with God (Jah or Jehovah)
  • In Greco-Roman antiquity the beard was "seen as the defining characteristic of the philosopher; philosophers had to have beards, and anyone with a beard was assumed to be a philosopher."


So, all of this to say: beards are sexy, and will make you smarter, stronger and a better yogi. Just look at how much of an advantage the bearded and long-haired Chuck Miller displays in this vintage Ashtanga video. The clean-shaven Ray Rosenthal gets schooled by Guruji!



Do yourself, and the cosmos, a favour and grow a beard. God wanted you to have one. :-)))

*Clarification: due to the great number of "Debs" currently in my life, my wife will be know here forth as "Debbie". All other "Debs" are "Yoga Debs" and will be designated with a last initial if applicable)

*********************

Namaste,
Brian

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 26: Ahimsa & Diet

You are what you eat.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Mysore w/ Deb C.
6:45 – 8:45 a.m.


I had some trouble getting up this morning and felt a little heavy and sluggish during practice — I think mostly due to eating a little too late last night, and maybe a little too much (guacamole, along with dark chocolate is a favourite indulgence). I've been trying to have the last meal of the day before 7 p.m. and when I eat later than that, I get the feeling I had this morning — that the food is still undigested and sitting in my stomach, slowing me down during practice.

It led me to further reflect on something I touched on yesterday, that idea of Ahimsa, or "doing no harm", and how fully it can be practiced in our eating habits. Firstly: anyone that is observing a yogic lifestyle should be a vegetarian. Period. Supporting the unethical and inhumane treatment of factory farmed animals is clearly opposed to the concept of Ahimsa. If you're going to eat meat, it needs to be farm-raised and organic. That goes for eggs too. Not only for the sake of the animal that is being sacrificed, but for your own sake. Eating unhealthy food — whether it is over processed, sugary, full of saturated fats or hormones — is doing harm to your body.

So, secondarily, we must fuel our body in the cleanest, healthiest way possible. This means eating a simple diet of whole grains, root vegetables and cruciferous greens, moderate amounts of nuts, legumes and fruit, lots of water, minimal sugar and spices and that's pretty much it. Of course, adding other things like coffee and ahem, chocolate (only 70% cacao and up of course) can be done without throwing the whole works out of balance, but it must be done mindfully and in moderation.

It's been really amazing to observe what happened when I really started eating mindfully. I found that I stopped craving things like sugar and salt, and started craving things like kale and raw brussel sprouts. The more I get in tune with my body, the more I'm aware that it's always telling me what I need. Part of eating mindfully is listening to your body — not just eating the same thing for breakfast every day, but observing what it is your body needs at that given moment. Sometimes you won't need breakfast. You might just need a couple glasses of water and lemon juice and maybe a banana.

I feel like getting in the habit of eating the same thing every day — even if it's a healthy thing — is a bad idea. Not only because the body probably benefits from more variety but because it seems to zombify a part of my brain and takes me away from living in the moment. If I'm eating something today just because I ate it yesterday and it tasted good and healthy then, I'm not being present and aware of what my body needs today. And that, to me, is a little bit soul deadening.

David Garrigues has a bunch of great videos on his website, but this 3-part series on Ashtanga and Diet is especially pertinent here. I hope you find it as affirming and inspiring as I do. See you at the market!








*********************

Namaste,
Brian

Monday, March 26, 2012

Day 23, 24, 25: RWWWWOOOAAARRR!

David Garrigues, ex-punk & skateboarder, current phenomenal teacher.




Friday, March 23 — Sunday, March 25, 2012
David Garrigues Workshop
Ashtanga Yoga Victoria

I had the opportunity to attend a 3-day Primary Series workshop with Guruji-certified Ashtanga ambassador David Garrigues in Victoria this weekend, so I packed up the Westfalia with a brand-spanking-new yoga mat (this one), some coffee and oats, my guitar, and our pup Kingston (enlisted primarily to provide company and warmth at night), and headed on down for a weekend of urban camping and yoga. For me, it was an opportunity to get some one-on-one time with a very experienced teacher early on in my Ashtanga practice which will help me build a solid foundation and correct any bad habits before they set (I hope).

A few unexpected rewards surfaced as well. I found it very inspiring and encouraging to receive instruction from a male teacher, especially so because I can relate to David in a bunch of ways. We are both former skateboarders (although I never got too serious or good at it), punks (again, never too serious about punk either, but I was/am serious about metal which is like punk's trailer park cousin) and musicians. I appreciated his way of explaining the intricacies and inner workings of poses using very colourfully visual analogies, and his tendency to eschew words altogether in favour of a well-timed "RWWWWOOOOAAARRR!" sound (to describe something like the drawing in of energy before a jump back) really resonated with me. Sometimes words fail where a heavy metal growl is more appropriate.

I realized later when telling my parents about the weekend that I haven't had a male teacher since my first yoga teacher, Burt Peeters, way back in St. Catharines, Ontario some 15 years ago. Memories of his strong yet mindful adjustments came flooding back like it was yesterday as David helped twist my shoulders back for Marichyasana C, showing me that I could get there with a little (okay, a lot) of help. It turns out that I love that kind of adjustment and sometimes it's exactly, and only, what I need to get a sense of where I can go, first with help, then on my own.

The kind of positive, athletic male energy that was present in the shala all weekend was something else that I found I've missed. Coming from a very female-dominant valley, this was something I've definitely been lacking, and didn't even realize I needed until I was back in it. It's a different energy, and one that fills me with the, well, RWWWWWOOOOOAAAARRR! feeling that I used to get from Muay Thai practice. I'm going to make it a priority to head down to Victoria and Vancouver to get a regular dose.

Here's a taste of David's light-hearted, illuminating, energetic teaching style:



If you're in Philly, or he comes to your town on tour, I highly recommend spending some time with him.

*********************

In addition to some really inspiring Sutra and mantra chanting, we also had some lively discussion about a wide range of topics, including the concept of Ahimsa, the first of the five Yamas, which are the code of ethics in classical Hatha yoga (read more). Ahimsa roughly means "to do no harm", which can be applied to many different aspects of our lives and practice. In this case, someone had brought up the idea of "bullying" yourself in practice. This is something I had expected to come up for myself this weekend, as I knew I'd be surrounded by a lot of that "RWWWWWOOOOOAAAARRR!" energy (okay I'll stop doing that), both from the guys and the girls.

At this stage of my practice, it's very important that I recognize when I'm pushing myself too far. Whether it's out of enthusiasm or impatience, it's an unhealthy (read: harmful) tendency and could — and probably will — lead to injury, which would assuredly derail my steady (read: healthy) progress. I found that by keeping this desire to overextend myself in check, I could accept where I'm at in my own Ashtanga practice and still admire and appreciate the more advanced students — soaking it all in and learning as much as I could by watching them practice and receive adjustments and corrections. It was also encouraging to see that even very experienced practitioners still go to workshops looking for adjustments and tuneups. This just illustrated to me that everyone, regardless of experience and ability, always has further to go, and that it's pointless and counterproductive to strive for the next posture. It'll come. As Guruji said, "Practice and all is coming".

Outside of practice, the concept of Ahimsa touches every aspect of my life, from being mindful about the food we eat (mostly vegetarian), to the food we feed our dogs (we make our own using local meat and vegetables), to watching my tongue and measuring my words, so as to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Trying to "do no harm" to everyone and everything — my partner, my dogs, friends and neighbours, and the earth. Of course, it's very difficult to abide by this Yama wholly and completely, but I think that if you are sincerely trying your best in all areas of your daily life, you're doing pretty good.

The second Yama that we're currently reflecting on in teacher training is Satya, which is considered, along with Ahimsa, as being the "main" Yamas (the idea being that if you can live by these two guidelines, the rest are inherent). Satya is defined as "truth", but is open to many interpretations. I take it to mean not only speaking "honestly", but also attempting to only speak with only the highest "truth" in mind, which is love. I read somewhere that "nothing could be true if it is harmful to others", which gives some insight as to why Satya is paired with Ahimsa, and gives weight to my idea that truth=love. So when we speak only with love in mind, we greatly reduce the possibility of doing harm to others with our words, and when we act out of love we can truly begin to achieve a state of Ahimsa.

It always amazes and delights me when different paths in my life come together. During a recent shamanic ceremony, I received the lesson that I should strive to make every act, no matter how small or trivial it may seem, an act of love. Imagine the positive impact this concept could have on your life! It will colour and affect every interaction you have with the world — and I think this is exactly what Patanjali is getting at with Satya. It once again shows me that two truthful paths, no matter how unrelated they may seem on the exterior, will always converge at a singular point: love.

*********************

Namaste,
Brian

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 21 & 22: Get Your Yin On

Look, kitties!




Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Ashtanga Primary Series w/ Deb C.
5:00 – 6:30 p.m.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Ashtanga Foundations w/ Deb C.
7:00 – 8:30 a.m.

I've been feeling the downward pull of the oncoming New Moon this week... feeling my physical energy  lower and my mental energy calm as it gets closer (FYI it's tomorrow). It's a great coincidence that there's a Yin yoga class tomorrow night, which will be just what the doctor ordered before I start my David Garrigues workshop on Friday in Victoria, which I'm pretty sure will be high energy, mentally stimulating and inspiring.

One nice byproduct of this "exhalation of prana" (as this moon phase can be likened to) is that I found I was able to start settling in to some poses in a new way. Up until recently, when in a pose like Warrior II, I'd have everything engaged — feet, legs, bandhas, shoulders, arms. It's exhausting. This week, I've realized a new level of relaxation in parts of the body that don't need to be turned on — like relaxing my shoulders when bent forward in Prasarita Paddotanasana. The shoulders need to be drawn together, but they don't need to be flexed with the trapezius fully engaged. Overall, this has the effect of allowing more "space" in my practice (which translates to less frenetic and less stress), feeling like I'm using energy in a more judicious way (which helps with the breathing) and allows me to flow with greater ease.

On Sunday, at the start of the Yin Yoga workshop, we were presented with the image of the Yin Yang, which I think I have just always taken for granted, having been overexposed to it's appearance on everything from dorm room banners to bumper stickers to bongs. Maybe for the first time, I really looked at it and saw it for what it really is — an expression of the opposing forces in the universe, in us — engaged in a beautiful, balanced, cosmic dance, that can be related to all parts of our lives and yoga practice — from the balance of contracted and stretched muscles (bicep and triceps), to the use of counter poses in a sequence (back bend after forward bend), to the rest we take after vigorous practice, to the attitude we take out into the world after practice. It's all a balancing act, and one that can be as complex and beautiful as a Chinese plate spinner. Recognizing that is one thing and putting it into daily practice can be a challenge, but it's important for everyone, regardless of whether you naturally fall into the Yin side of things and struggle through an intense Ashtanga class, or you lean toward the Yang side and need to force yourself to take a bath and not an energetic practice. Me? I'll be taking a bath and getting my Yin on tomorrow.


*********************

Namaste,
Brian

Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 20: Breaking it Down

Monday, March 19, 2012
Foundations, w/ Michelle W.
10:00 – 11:30 a.m.


Another great Foundations class with Michelle where I got to work further on the elusive Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle). I think we found the key to my balance issues in this posture, as I was wrenching my raised arm backwards, really overextending the chest opening aspect. Michelle gave me some great adjustment and I felt a lot more stable in this (still with a block on the floor of course). I also had some fun with breaking down the jump up from Down Dog to Chaturanga (it's all in the rounding of the back!), trying out Bakasana (Crow Pose, super fun and strength-building) and getting some adjustment in Savasana (just when I thought I was relaxed, nope, there was another level of sinking into the floor). Great progress, great practice. I bet if you did a word count on the word "great" in this blog it would be embarrassingly high...I really should start to use the thesaurus.

This clip — of Kino MacGregor, not Michelle, although they share a similar energy — will give you an idea of the kind of attention and focus that we are blessed to experience at least twice a week in the Foundations classes with Deb and Michelle. It's so invaluable, and I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to practice with these patient, knowledgable women.



*********************

Namaste,
Brian

Day 19: Namaste





Sunday, March 18, 2012
Anatomy 8:30 – 10:30
Hatha Flow 10:30 – 12:00
Guided Meditation 12:00 – 1:00
Yin Workshop 2:00 – 5:00


Busy schedule of both practice and workshops today, and it was a struggle for me from the get go. I started the day out with a lot of things on my mind — some long-standing issues that I feel are beginning to come to a head this year — and hadn't slept very well the night before, so I basically felt tired and had low energy and a very busy mind.

Michelle started her Hatha class out with some much-needed Pranayama practice (Nadi Shuddhi). As it always does, it helped me to feel much lighter in my head and body and centered me in the space and practice. I've been very consciously working on my Ujjayi breathing during Ashtanga, and I find that in less vigorous practices like this Hatha flow I can maintain a nice, even breath throughout — really achieving that "oceanic breathing" quality. It does a few things for me — it helps me monitor where my body is at in the practice, if I am struggling with a posture the breath can become more uneven, if I'm getting winded it will become shorter etc. It also helps me to stay centered and focused throughout the practice, acting as an anchor that I can always return to if my mind starts wandering — which it was doing plenty of today.


*********************

The most unexpected and wonderful thing that the breath can do is help others in their practice. This was pointed out to me today when someone approached me after class to thank me "for my breathing". She said that hearing my steady Ujjayi helped her to focus on her breath and remember to breath when it was becoming erratic. This really touched me, and it served to remind me that no matter what we might be going through internally, our actions externally can affect those around us, positively or negatively, even if we aren't consciously projecting or communicating something. It's also probably the nicest compliment you could pay to someone — pretty much thanking them for just being. Incredible. Thank you Mary, for being kind and open enough to share this with me — it really lifted my heart when I needed it — which also goes to show how much you can affect someone by having the courage to offer a kind word to someone when you are moved to do it, no matter how insignificant, or even silly you might think it is.



*********************


The rest of the day pretty much followed this kind of pattern — whether I was struggling to sit through meditation as the emotion of the past couple days flooded my mind and my tired and achy hips were screaming at me to stand up, or going through a number of difficult inner journeys during the 3-hour Yin Yoga workshop. The thing that was brought home to me after all of this was that I wasn't alone during any of it. At the beginning of the day, there was "the practice", which is always there for us, and served me well when I needed it, helping to steady my mind and energize my body, releasing a lot of the stress that I brought into the studio today.

Later, I was blessed with a true sense of community as I looked around the room after what had been — for me — a very emotionally charged Yin practice, and I realized that everyone in that room had gone through their own inner journeys, full of struggles and breakthroughs. I was flooded with such a feeling of honour and respect for everyone that had the courage to show up and do what can be a very challenging physical, mental and emotional work, and acknowledged them all — as unlikely as some may have appeared — as spiritual warriors. Truly the essence of the word "Namaste".


*********************

Namaste,
Brian


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Day 18: The Art of Floating

Saturday, March 17, 2012
Rest Day

On Saturdays, the traditional rest day, I like to work on exercises that will help me in my Ashtanga practice. Today, I'm working on some moves that will aid to preparing for Vinyasa floating. I love Jason's videos, because he has a similar body type to mine (more natural strength than flexibility) and he's got a very positive, rational straight-forward approach that I relate to.


Here's another good video that he's disabled embedding on, but is definitely worth checking out if you're working on your floating: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBI4fqU4AoA


*********************

Namaste,
Brian




Friday, March 16, 2012

Day 17: Finding the Better Way



Friday, March 16, 2012
Primary Series led by Deb C.
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.


Had a good practice today. We worked through the Primary Series at a pretty brisk pace and I could tell that a lot of the more focussed work I've been doing on certain poses is starting to become evident during the flow. I'm also been experiencing a lot more openness and strength in different poses, which is pretty exciting. Forward bends are becoming less about wrenching myself forward with my hands gripping my feet, and more about using my hip flexors and internal core to create the bend with control. It's an amazing feeling when a shift like this happens, and it affects me on a mental as well as physical level — it has a way of readjusting your perception. You thought something was done a certain way for the longest time, and when you discover another, better way, it can be profound.

I had some trouble waking up this morning. We didn't get to bed until 11:30 or so last night and I'm finding that I really need a good six hours of sleep or else it becomes a struggle to crawl out of bed at 5 a.m. Once I'm up I'm good to go, it's just that initial decision gets a lot more complicated. I'll find my mind coming up with all kinds of excuses why I shouldn't get out of bed — "Maybe I'll just go to the 5 o'clock class" or, "I've already practiced six times this week, will an extra day off really matter?". It's that same voice that would pop up just after I quit smoking, giving me all kinds of reasons why it would be perfectly okay to have a cigarette.

It's that part of me that wants to be lazy, to be indulgent, to stay out late and have another drink, to be irresponsible — that little devil on everyone's shoulder. I've been learning over the past few years what it takes to ignore him until he disappears in a puff of smoke, or if he's really persistent, to flick him off, like in those old cartoons. It's something everyone must experience to some degree on a daily basis.



My little devil happens to be a genius debater, and usually presents a very convincing argument. Because of that, I've had to transform the nice little demure angel on my other shoulder into something resembling an Army Drill Sergeant. The discipline of maintaining a daily yoga practice is a way for me to strengthen that little Drill Sergeant, so he can whip that Id-driven troublemaker into shape. The more I immerse myself in this practice, the easier it becomes to win those little (or big) internal debates. In fact, I find that the little devil shows up less and less. When he does, I feel like I have a lot more control over those impulses and I can make a more conscious decision of when it's okay to loosen up and enjoy a little indulgence. And that discipline serves to sweeten those moments when I do.

It's my day off tomorrow, so tonight I'll raise a glass of wine in honor of balance, and offer a toast to finding the better way. Just one though, because no doubt, that little Drill Sergeant will be up early, blowing his righteous little horn and keeping my little devil in check.

*********************

Namaste,
Brian




Thursday, March 15, 2012

Day 16: The Most Astounding Fact

Thursday, March 15, 2012
Mysore
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.


This is the feeling I'm trying to cultivate every time I get on the mat.



*********************

Namaste,
Brian

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 15: Get on the Mat


Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Ashtanga Foundations w/ Deb C.
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.

We concentrated on slowing down Surya Namaskar A+B and focussing on alignment throughout the sequence. I always find this really helpful as it allows you time to correct things that normally you'd just flow through. It's also through this practice that I'm learning that the difference between striving for improvement and being a perfectionist/control freak is judgement. When I remove judgement from the equation, I can accept where I'm at while wanting to get better, and avoid feeling disappointed or always looking ahead to where I think I should be or want to go. We also had time to apply this approach to the first half of the standing sequence. I felt like I could have kept going, but I plan on going to Asrael's class later and want to make sure I don't expend all my energy. Her approach always bring me back to the spiritual centre of my practice — the heart. It's a muscle I've neglected in the past and now I find that I really miss it if I don't make at least one of her classes a week.
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I was reflecting this morning on something that we practice in Ashtanga — that when we stand at the top of our mat in Samasthiti, we should remember the thousands of other yogis and gurus that have stood here before us and honour that lineage. It's a wonderful thought, but I was thinking this morning that my practice begins hours before then — when my alarms goes off at 5 a.m. and I open my eyes to the profound darkness of the countryside an hour before sunrise. In that moment, while lying there considering leaving the warmth of our king size bed — dogs more often then not snuggled under the blankets between my wife and I, gently snoring away — is where I pause and consider the thousands of other yogis rising for practice at that same moment. Slipping out of bed and placing my feet on the rag rug that Debbie has so thoughtfully put there for me is where my practice really begins — and where I honour all the other yogis, regardless of experience or skill, who are doing the exact same thing, and perhaps thinking of me in the same way.

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Namaste,
Brian



Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Day 14: The More You Know

The Blue Lotus, symbol
of intelligence, wisdom, and knowledge.
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Morning Mysore
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.


Interesting practice this morning, in that my head and eyeballs felt tired from not enough sleep, but my body felt pretty good — surprisingly energetic and strong. A couple other students in the teacher training showed up this morning and we took turns calling out the poses in Sanskrit, to some chuckles (ok, I was the only one giggling, and mostly at myself). Overall, I had fun with things, maybe due to the mental looseness I was feeling from last night's class.

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I've been kicking around this little parable for a while as I try to come to terms with the seemingly infinite amount of history and knowledge that's unfolding before me the deeper I delve into "yoga" (you could spend years just trying to understand all of the myriad interpretations of the word itself).

Our story begins with a young woman who has been discovered alone in the mountains, living a primitive life, with no knowledge beyond that of her day to day struggle to survive. She is adopted by an academic researcher and her husband, and slowly they teach this young girl to speak, and eventually, to read.

One day, the young girl wanders into the family's library and discovers a collection of children's books. Over the course of a year she reads through these simple books, learning a little of the world beyond her experience. After she finishes these stories and improves her reading abilities, she opens up the first volume in a collection of encyclopedias. Her understanding of the world starts to unfold and expand, like a blossoming lotus.

A few more years pass, and she has come to the last remaining book in the family library. Inside the back cover of this book she discovers a stamp with the address of the local library branch. On her first visit to the small library, she is overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge still to be discovered. She thinks, "surely this library must contain all of the wisdom and information of the world". Years later, after spending countless hours working her way through the card catalogue, she comes upon a reference to a journal that isn't available at this branch. The librarian tells her that she must go to the university library where the academic journals are kept.

At the university, the young woman finds herself amongst floor upon floor of bookshelves, all containing knowledge previously unknown to her. Through her research, she learns of the great libraries of the world and her journey continues on, and on, and on. The more she learns, the more she discovers there is to learn.

Of course, I'm not alone in feeling like this. We've all heard the expression "the more you learn, the less you know" (although those TV commercials from my youth conveniently left out the second part of that statement), and we've certainly all contemplated the expansiveness of the universe while staring up at the stars and felt a little, well, humbled. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by Yoga's oceanic body of knowledge and history, I'm excited — realizing that I could spend the rest of my life learning and discovering ever-deepening levels of understanding, watching it all unfold before me like the aforementioned lotus flower, bringing more and more beauty and peace into my life.


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Namaste,
Brian




Monday, March 12, 2012

Day 13: In form of...

Shameless, I know.


Monday, March 12, 2012
Flow w/ Debra E.
5:00 - 6:30 p.m.


Thanks to a wild wind storm and subsequent power and water outage (we're on a well system, so when the power goes out, so does our well pump), I missed morning Mysore so that I could go to the store and buy the emergency water jugs I've been meaning to buy for months. I ended up going to a later class led by Debra — who reminds me of Adaptation-period Meryl Streep. She led us through an Anusara-inspired flow that included a lot of new-to-me poses, which made it a really fun practice.


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I find it refreshing to step outside of the Ashtanga practice with regularity, not only to re-visit favourite poses not included in that tradition, but also to give me some perspective on my physical growth. Lately, when I attend and non-Ashtanga class, I'm often struck by how much stronger and more flexible I've become through my regular practice. When I go through the Primary Series, it's less apparent — perhaps because the leaps between the progressive poses are so great (at least for me), or maybe because I'm just so focused on all the intricacies of the individual poses that I'm unable to see my own growth as a whole. I know that I can bind 1 more finger in Marichyasana A than I could last week, but that still seems fathoms away from where the pose will eventually take me:

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I was also reminded in this class how much I enjoy yoga's animal-derived poses. Last night we did Garudasana (Eagle Pose):

It got me to thinking of how I'd love to start a class for kids that consisted mostly of animal poses and how much fun it could be to bring them to life with storytelling interwoven with the asanas. I've also been thinking that the "animasanas" could be a key connector to my shamanic practice, but I'll be exploring that more, later.

All of this to say that I think it's really important for me to not get locked into one style of yoga. Personally, I think that Ashtanga is the most solid base, and even in it's limited form there is room for an incredible amount of growth, but there is still so much more to explore and so many enjoyable and useful asanas in other styles. And while the Ashtanga Series doesn't allow for much creative expression, it does give you all of the tools to work with — and not feeling locked into that one style will allow me to take those tools and freely express whatever my heart desires (or needs).


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Namaste,
Brian





Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day 12: Meditation is Murder

This man is not sleeping.


Sunday, March 11, 2012
Hatha Flow Class with Michelle H.
10:30 – 12:00 p.m.

Meditation
12:30 – 1:00 p.m.

Yoga Anatomy
1:00 – 3:00 p.m


Today was our first official day of teacher training. We started off at 9 a.m. (which seemed extra bright and early thanks to daylight savings time) with an introduction to the course and overview of the first 3 limbs of Ashtanga yoga ("Ashtanga" literally translates to "eight limbs").
"These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one's health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature."

You can read more about the limbs here. We followed that up with a Hatha class led by new instructor  Michelle, who brings a lot of experience to the studio and some BKS Iyengar influence — which is similar to Ashtanga (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga yoga guru, and Iyengar both studied under Krishnamacharya, the founder of modern yoga). I really enjoyed the sequences that Michelle put together and it was nice to practice some variations on the usual Primary Series flow.

We followed asana practice with a half-hour guided meditation that brought up a few things for me, one of which is the habit some people have of falling asleep during Savasana or meditation. It happens frequently enough — you're lying in sweet repose after an energetic practice, working to relax your body fully, melting into your mat, psychically shooing away distracting thoughts, when you hear it: the tell-tale signs of a Savasana Sleeper: the low, deep breathing that is inevitably followed by the chest rattling snores of a seasoned afternoon napper. Suddenly, you're no longer concerned with plans of what to make for dinner — you're now involved in an internal struggle to stay on your mat and not get up and chuck your eye bag at the offending snoozer.

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When this happens, it brings to light many things. For me, Savasana and meditation are active states of being. While many of us are able to easily settle our bodies after the physical portion of class (the asanas), it requires further dedication and concentration to steady our minds and reap the benefits of meditative practice. As I see it, giving in to sleep is problematic in a couple ways: when you're sleeping, you're not only not participating in an essential part of the practice, you are also disrupting others from their own practice. It's hard enough to focus on stillness when we have so many thoughts zipping around our minds, cars are driving by outside, church bells are ringing, the next class is chatting outside the studio door — that when someone starts snoring I just want to scream, "OH COME ON! REALLY??".

Moments like this reinforce the idea that our practice is our own — that it's up to us to not worry about what the person next to us is doing, that we should focus on making sure that we're present within ourselves and doing the work that we need to do (remember "you do you"?). For me, that means working at not judging the snoozer, to accept that there's merely another external distraction present, and to treat it as benignly as I'd treat the ticking clock — although there have been moments where I've been tempted to ask, "please, could you just PLEASE STOP WITH THE TICKING??". It's exactly the type of thing that meditation, and yoga, can help you to cope with. It's some kind of cosmic joke when situations like that arise while you're doing the thing you need to do to cope with the other thing. So, next time someone starts sawing logs in Savasana, I think instead of trying my hardest to not whip my lavender scented eye bag at them, I'll be doing my best to not laugh out loud. Now that's progress.

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In case the Savasana Snoozer is reading this, here are a couple videos that you might find useful :-)


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Namaste,
Brian




Friday, March 9, 2012

Day 11: Reflecting on Moon Day

A photo of the full moon from our front deck.

Friday, March 9, 2012
Led Primary Series
Instructor: Deb C.
6:30 – 8:15 a.m.


Today's practice was a tough one for me. I don't know if it was a loss of momentum following yesterday's Moon Day (traditionally, Ashtanga practitioners take full and new moon days off — learn why here), or if it was the poor sleep I had last night (lots of wild dreams and waking up), but I felt a little sluggish this morning and it was a real mental struggle to stay focused and motivated. The great thing about a led class is that if you are having difficulty with motivation, the momentum and pace of the sequence and the energy of the rest of the group will carry you through. All things considered, I'm still grateful that I made it to the mat this morning.

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Appropriately enough, I spent a lot of time yesterday reflecting — I mean, what is the moon if not a giant reflector for the sun? It started when I realized that since I quit my job in advertising last summer, I've returned back to the weight I was before I took my first job in that industry almost exactly five years ago (for the record, I gained 20 lbs in the add industry). It made me realize that I've come back full circle to who I was physically and creatively. I not only feel physically lighter, but I feel spiritually lighter as well — as if shrugging off the weight of conformity has lightened the load on my heart, allowing my true self to re-emerge.

I've now swept up the rubble, cleared out the dead and tangled overgrowth, laid a fresh layer of soil and am ready to start a whole new growing season, just in time for spring. Funny how that worked out.

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Namaste,
Brian



Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Day 10: Matryoshkasana





Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Ashtanga Foundations
Instructor: Deb C.
6:30 – 8:15 a.m.

Often during deep Savasana, visuals or thoughts will arise that help me integrate the practice I just had. Today, a couple images bubbled up from my unconscious (or the collective unconscious? There's my old pal Jung again...), one was a visual representation of the kind of perpetual rebirth and exponential growth that we undergo when we are engaged in an ongoing psychological, spiritual and physical practice such as yoga.

This growth can be envisioned as a sort of reverse Matryoshka doll series. We often start out as this little solitary being — simple, solid, sturdy, with thick walls and a tiny bit of space inside. When we embark on transformative work, we'll start to have breakthroughs where that old version of ourselves expands into a slightly larger version. It may be recognizable as you on the exterior, but inside, there's a little more room. Our energetic presence seems to grow a little. People might start to engage with you a little more easily, sparking up interesting conversations in the checkout line at the health food store as you find yourself buying seaweed flakes for the first time.


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Then, after you start really practicing yoga 3 or 4 days a week, that "new and improved" version of yourself might suddenly bust out into a whole new version of you, with even more space inside, and a little more beautiful on the outside. You'll start to recognize this additional interior space as you clear out some of the old junk you've been holding on to for years. Remember that guilt you've been carrying around since high school prom? You'll suddenly realize that you have absolutely no use for it and put it out by the curb (or better yet, burn it in the backyard in a shamanic ceremony). Ah, more space!

Now you'll start looking for ways to fill all that extra space. Maybe you'll start reading the Bhagavad Gita or Deepak Chopra, start growing your own food, or start chanting. Whatever it is, you're hungry to fill that space up, but this time you're on a mission to fill it with something worthwhile — something spiritually nutritious.

Next thing you know — BOOM — you've expanded yet again. The difference between this kind of expansion and the kind that's currently afflicting a good part of a world that is gorging itself on junk food and bunk media is that, while you might be getting bigger and bigger energetically — your waistline and credit line are probably shrinking ...along with your grocery bills, liquor store bills, cable bills... gluttony is fattening and expensive. Spiritual expansion is cheap, but the payoffs are priceless. No amount of plastic surgery, tanning or expensive clothes could replicate the glow that you'll be emanating — and you'll certainly bring a little more light not just into your own life, but into the lives of everyone you touch.

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For me, it's wonderful to think that within us all is a series of infinitely expanding, progressively more beautiful and radiant versions of ourselves waiting to bust out. We might need to do a lot of tough work to crack through those first few, but as we continue working, the shells get thinner and thinner just as our power and drive to transform is ever increasing.

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Namaste,
Brian


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Day 9: The Hummingbird Effect


One of the many hummingbirds that started visiting us this winter.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Unled Mysore
6:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Had a good, long and productive practice today. The studio was pretty quiet, with just Deborah and myself there. It's nice to have days like that in the mix, as I find it encourages me to slow down, and not feel any pressure to "perform" and just do whatever I need to do for my practice that day — which reminds me of something my wife Deb and I saw on American Idol the other night. A young female contestant, when trying to get two other ladies to stop fighting, says to both of them, "You do you, and you do you". We laughed about how perfect that phrase is, and how we could all benefit from that little lesson.

Today, "me doing me" involved starting with a full course of Surya Namaskar, which felt WAY more fluid and effortless than it did only last Tuesday. I was able to maintain a constant breath throughout, whereas last week I would find myself having to take an extra breath around the number 8 and 12 Chatturangas of Surya Namaskar B (here forth called "SNB"). Last night I re-watched a video of David Swenson performing the Primary Series and I picked up on this little thing he does when it's time to turn your foot inward before doing the Warrior part (#7 and #11) of SNB:

EDIT: The original video was removed by YouTube (thanks for the heads up Matt!) but I found an alternate that breaks down SNB really well. As a bonus, the instructor has a nice accent.



That little deliberate turn/step he does with the back foot smoothed out that whole section for me. I love when little things click into place and have a ripple effect on the rest of the practice. I don't know what I was doing before, but I think I was probably aimlessly turning my foot in while already thinking ahead to the step forward. The difference is that I'm now performing all the parts of the sequence deliberately, and with focus, whereas before (like, yesterday), I had that one little piece that was a gray area (see yesterday's post for more about gray areas). It's amazing how shining a light on other parts of your practice, as we did yesterday, can cause you to subconsciously start shining lights on other parts that you didn't even realize were "gray areas".

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If the "Butterfly Effect" is the idea that "a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state" (thanks Wikipedia), then I'd like to propose this: "shining a metaphorical light on one place in a system can result in the illumination of a later state" be coined "The Hummingbird Effect". The hummingbird is, after all, a symbol of stopping time, savouring the moment, then moving forward.

They also happen to symbolized love, joy and beauty. A perfect symbol for growth, no?


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Namaste,
Brian



Monday, March 5, 2012

Day 8: Tricky trikonasana

Finding the trick in Trikonasana,
then wiping the slate clean.


Monday, March 5, 2012
Foundations Class
Instructor: Michelle W.
10:00 – 11:30 a.m.


Mysore was cancelled today so I ended up at Michelle's Foundations class, which was so beneficial that I may be sticking with it as my Monday practice for a while. It was a small group and we spent a lot of time really breaking things down, and were able to request any poses that we've been having trouble with, or as Michelle put it, "any gray areas". I immediately thought of Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose), which I've been having some difficulty with, particularly with my foot position and finding the sweet spot where my weight would feel even between the front and back feet. For me, it always ends up feeling like most of my weight is in my front foot, which turns the pose into a very challenging balancing act instead of a great spinal twist.

To help us find that strong base, M had us experiment with different foot positions while focussing on getting our front hip back (closing up Mula Bandha), maintaining an inner rotation on both legs and really bending at the front hip crease before attempting the rest of the twist. It took freeing up my mind a bit and allowing my stance to be wider that I thought it "should" be, and I found that slightly bending my front foot really help me to find a stronger base. I have a long way to go with that pose, but I feel like we made some progress today, not just with that, but in other positions as well.

Classes like this are a great compliment to the usual flow or Mysore practice as they allow us to slow down and really spend some time getting things right. When we started to get too rooted into any particular pose analysis, a well-timed series of vigorous Surya Namaskar A helped to reset and rebalance the body. Like shaking an old Etch-a-Sketch — you never really wipe out the last drawing completely, and you can go back and retrace that ghosted image, further refining it every time you return to it.


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Namaste,
Brian




Sunday, March 4, 2012

Day 7: Free your mind, and your asana will follow

“A mind is like a parachute.
It doesn't work if it is not open.” 
― Frank Zappa
My Uncle Ezio introduced me to Frank Zappa when I was 15.
I'm still learning things from FZ.


Sunday, March 4, 2012
Hatha Flow
Instructor: Michelle W.
10:30 a.m. – 12 noon


Had a great practice today. I felt rejuvenated after my oil bath yesterday and taking it easy — although I couldn't help myself from working on hip openers while watching the UFC fights in bed —  and my body felt fresh and ready for practice this morning. Starting at 10:30 felt like a luxury, which is nice on a Sunday. Our instructor this morning was Michelle, who does a fantastic job of breaking down poses to their foundations and giving clear instruction on alignment, which I found very helpful and timely. I know my wonky knee appreciated it. I didn't hear a peep from it all class, which was amazing. She has a way of explaining things that really clicked for me — especially how she showed us to use your hands to open your chest and pull your shoulder blades together to get a sense of what the whole "lifted heart/shoulders back" thing feels like. I thought I had it pretty good before, but after today I think I've really got it.

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Michelle mentioned an interview she heard with blind poet John Mikhail Asfour this morning where he talked about his "disability" as a gift (you can listen to the interview here), which reminded me of something I was discussing with Deb the other day (my wife, not my teacher, although I learn a lot from both). It was about how I've started to see my own injuries and physical challenges in a new, more positive light, and how they are actually preparing me to be a better teacher down the road. For starters, they are forcing me to slow down my practice and concentrate on the basics, looking at every element of the pose and correcting old habits or learning new things about the proper alignment that no one has showed me before I was forced to ask.

Furthermore, having to work through these limitations myself will hopefully teach me to practice patience and compassion with my students who may have their own physical challenges, whether due to age, injury or otherwise. I'll also perhaps be even more conscious of making sure they understand the proper alignment and form and any modifications available, so that they can work within their limitations yet still reap the benefits of the pose, safely. Lastly, I will strive to teach with humility and transparency, so as to provide encouragement to students who may be struggling with injuries and who might think "I can't do this! I'll never do this because of my hips, shoulder, knees etc.". I want to show them that you can work through anything and still enjoy the benefits of yoga.

What it all comes down to is this:
I want to show my students all of the amazing, inspiring, practical, enlightening things that my most valued teachers have shown me.

But first, I have to learn those lessons myself.


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Namaste,
Brian