Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter comes to Florida!

Beryl Bender Birch tells a great story about practicing outside with David Swenson at her house in New York on a chilly spring day. It's a great story about the power of ujjai breathing to create heat...even when it's cold!

No one can tell a story like Beryl, so I'll leave the story-telling to her (ask her to tell it if you go to one of her workshops), but in this morning's practice that story kept coming to mind.

Winter has finally arrived in Florida. It either actually froze last night or got very close...our first freeze day this year. Despite the space heater in the studio, I just couldn't seem to warm up! I don't think I ever actually broke a I made the focus of practice the ujjai breath. It was a good morning to remember that it's still yoga as long as you're breathing!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thoughts on "Heart-opening", Vulnerability, and the Ashtanga Intermediate Series

There has been some discussion lately among yoga practitioner friends and colleagues about "heart-opening". I've been a sceptic when it comes to the experience of "heart-opening". All the talk has sounded an awful lot like new age babble to me. The way I have often heard heart-opening described sounded just a little too easy to me. You just stretched the "heart-center" (chest area) and suddenly you were a warm accepting person. In my experience, if it's that easy, then it's not for real.

After a few years of practice in the Ashtanga primary series, I was willing to concede that some emotion was stored in the body. Anger and general stress show up in my body as overall muscle tension...especially in the jaw and shoulders. If I head into my yoga practice still mentally holding on to anger, then I find it very difficult to release the "activity" in any of the muscles. In my body, anger = tight!

Over the past couple years, as I make the transition from primary series practice to second series, I am slowly being convinced of the reality of heart-opening...though not quite in the way it is often described. Heart-opening cannot be coerced or forced. It happens or doesn't like everything else in practice. It's not a warm and fuzzy feeling either. It is intense, uncomfortable, exhilarating, and sometimes downright scary.

What is slowly coming out of second series practice is a willingness to suspend my disbelief. This practice, if I am to do it fully, asks that I be both willing to be vulnerable and willing to move toward fear. This, I think, may be the seed of heart-opening.

There are days when I feel like the intermediate sequence asks too much of me. When life stuff is at its most daunting, there is a feeling of "walking the plank" as I move into that first backbend. I have to make a conscious choice to be willing to open up the body physically which does, as it turns out, also require that I mentally and emotionally open up. If I try to hold back mentally and emotionally, then the muscles themselves will also resist. It seems they are, after all, connected.

Years of practice have created a foundation of trust in this practice and in my teachers. It is this that has allowed for an increasing openness in all aspects of practice on the mat.

The next to see how this will translate off the mat!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ashtanga Yoga Closing Sequence

I watch myself on those days in practice when I'm kind of looking forward to the end of practice. Maybe I'm feeling tired or maybe my attention is being pulled away from practice by plans for later in the day. These are the days that I catch myself rushing through the closing sequence of postures. It takes some effort to wrestle my attention back to the mat and resume a steady breath.

Ashtanga yoga sometimes gets described as a "yang" practice (as opposed to "yin" yoga). This is probably as a result of the continuous movement and shorter holds in poses compared to some other yoga styles. This is not a complete picture of Ashtanga yoga though. There is a place for longer holds in "restorative" postures in the Ashtanga practice no matter which sequence is being practiced. That place is in the closing sequence of postures (backbends, shoulder stand, headstand, lotus finishing postures).

In my own practice, I try to match the intensity of the overall practice with the energy and time I put into the closing poses. As my practice gets more intense and I work deeper into the body, these postures have been very important for restoring equilibrium and balance both physically and mentally before laying down for rest/savasana.

As the year and semester wrap up and time for practice is sometimes limited, I will keep trying to pay attention and catch myself when I'm rushing towards the end of practice finish line and instead take the time to breath where I am.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Strength and Flexibility in Yoga Practice

I've been noticing an interesting relationship lately between the weather and ease or difficulty in morning yoga practice. I first noticed a long time ago, that in warm humid weather my muscles were considerably more amenable to deep bending and stretching. Lately though, I've been aware of another layer.

Central Florida is finally experiencing some Fall type weather and things are a little cooler and drier. This means I have to work a little harder on breath and bandha to create heat. Fall weather in central Florida can switch from cool and dry to warm and humid at any time though. This has made me much more aware of how the weather can affect tendency toward greater strength or greater flexibility.

While I've been aware for some time that I tended to be more open on warm, humid days, I have more recently noticed that on those same days poses requiring more strength are more likely to fall apart. On the cooler, drier mornings, poses requiring more strength than flexibility (i.e. laguvajrasana or arm balances) often feel stronger and steadier.

I try not to get too attached to either version of practice as it's all likely to change again tomorrow anyway. It makes me wonder a bit though about all the factors outside myself that I allow to influence my steadiness and flexibility (in the broader sense) when I step off the mat and start the rest of my day. I am hopeful that the practice of catching myself when I'm feeling attached to any one expression of a pose in yoga practice will translate to catching myself when I'm feeling attached to any particular circumstance off the mat.

These are the things that I love about the Ashtanga yoga practice...the discoveries and the work never end!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thoughts on Yoga Practice during the Holidays

Over the past few days, I've been thinking about how difficult it can be to keep doing your daily yoga practice during the big holidays. Often, there is a bit...sometimes a lot...of stress that goes with these holidays. It seems that the times when I need my practice the most are some of the times that it is most difficult to make the time to practice. There are often lots of expectations and demands on our time over these few weeks. I have found though, that making the time to maintain my yoga practice is worth it, even if it means I let some other activities go during the holidays. If I keep up with a daily yoga practice, I have far more energy to share with family and friends.

Here's some of my thoughts on how I keep practicing during the holidays:

I travel with a yoga mat. I have a small, light weight mat that is fairly easy to pack into a car or take on a plane. If I bring the mat, it's there reminding me to practice!

I get creative about where to practice....hallways, kitchens, porches, even large bathrooms will work. Really, any mat sized space will do.

I look up class schedules for Yoga Studios in cities where I'm visiting. It's fun for me to practice with new groups of people and I now have several "studios away from home" that I look forward to visiting when I'm in town.

Finally, I try not to over do it when I'm visiting family and making time for practice. I do some shorter, abbreviated practices when time is short. No one in my family is going to wait on me to finish a 2-hour yoga practice on Christmas morning! So, I work to find a happy medium. I do a short practice and then move on to enjoying some quality time with my family.

Anyone have other ways to keep up with yoga practice during busy times and while traveling? I'd love to hear what works for everyone else!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More on Practice...what I practice when I'm short on time

I've been asked recently what to practice at home when there just isn't time for everything. There is definitely not one answer to that question. What works for me on one day doesn't necessarily work the next....but here's a quick run-down on the most commn places that I break the primary series when I'm short on time or energy and just can't do it all.

If time is really short: 5 sun salutation A

A little bit more time: 5 A and 5 sun salutation B
...a side note...Pattabhi Jois once told David Williams that 5 A and 5 B should be considered the "daily minimum practice"

A little more time and energy: I add the fundamental standing poses (padangusthasana through parsvottanasana) on to the sun salutations and then do the closing sequence starting with backbends.

Another place I stop is after all the standing poses. I'll go to closing poses from there.

Lastly, I sometimes break off practice after navasana and go to the closing poses from there. It's another good stopping point for me if, for whatever reason, I'm not going all the way to the end.

No matter what I'm practicing, I always begin with sun saluations and end with rest.

This is just what has worked for me. Please chime in and share other ways that you make yoga practice fit within "real life"! :)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Discernment in Practice

If you watched the great video clip of Beryl Bender Birch I posted recently, you know that she wisely said that she doesn't feel she can teach anyone how to teach. She can only show them how she practices.

So to everyone who has asked me "How do I practice at home?", I have to say there is not one answer to that, but I will describe a little bit about how I practice at home and hope that is helpful to those who have asked the question.

Regular practice at home without a teacher present or the sounds of others breathing is not easy, but like lots of not so easy things, it is very rewarding. One of the layers that is slowly peeling back in my home practice is leaving a sharper awareness of discernment. For me this has been a long time coming. One of the most difficult things for me to judge when I first began practicing at home was when to push the edge and challenge myself and when to back off or even cut the practice short that day. There have been days when I continued on with practice when I should have heeded my body's suggestion to stop. There have also been days where I have done only what was familiar and comfortable when I had the energy and focus for challenge.
Only doing the daily practice itself has provided a way in to discern what was appropriate for any particular moment. Paradoxically, the way to learn how to practice at home, is to just start practicing at home. Part of home practice for me is learning to accept in that moment whatever comes up in practice and letting go of whatever expectations I might be harboring about how the practice should go. Again, definitely not easy, some days easier to practice than others, but always worth it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Beryl Bender Birch...learning to teach is all about learning to practice!

I wanted to share this great video clip from one of my teachers that is posted by Omega (retreat center in New York).

Wise words from Beryl Bender Birch on the importance of practice!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Effort and Ease in Practice

Recently, I've noticed that a lot of teachers (myself included) have said some version of the following to students: "It doesn't matter if you ever do "x". In this case "x" is some challenging pose or transition. Leg-behind-head is a popular one to insert into the sentence. What I mean is: "Don't obsess over poses. Yoga is more than poses."

Lately, though, I wonder if this is a disservice to students. If there is anything that "doesn't matter" then, why try? If we don't put forward any effort towards the places, poses, tansitions that are challenging, then half of what makes up yoga asana according to the yoga sutras is not there. The yoga sutras say "Sthira sukham asanam" Yoga asana is effort and ease.

So back to legs-behind-the-head...and the question: Does it matter? Full disclosure, yes I can put my leg behind my head and on most days I can put them both back there...but does it matter? On the one hand, no. Of course it doesn't. On the other hand, this has been one of the most challenging aspects of practice for me. The effort required, the attention needed, and the patience to practice these poses for years while seemingly no progress was made were transformative. In that sense it matters.

So, does it matter if you put your legs behind your head, come up to standing from backbend, or hold a handstand? No, of course not. It matters that you do what you can do with attention and breath. Does it matter if you try to do what challenges you in practice? Yes, I think it does. If there is no effort involved, then it is not yoga asana. The work to make the impossible become possible is where the yoga happens.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Yoga and Physical Health

There is a lot of talk about the benefits of yoga beyond the physical. Yoga is, after all, defined in the Yoga Sutra as "controlling the mental chatter" or "quieting the mind". Some days though, the physical health benefits of yoga are enough. Here are some more great words from B.K.S. Iyengar about yoga and health...and at his age (92? I think?) he ought to know whether there really is anything to this yoga stuff!

"Most people ask only from their body that it does not trouble them. Most people feel that they are healthy if they are not suffering from illness or pain, not aware of the imbalances that exist in their bodies and minds that ultimately will lead to disease. Yoga has a threefold impact on health. It keeps healthy people healthy, it inhibits the development of diseases, and it aids recovery from ill health."

-B.K.S. Iyengar from 'Light on Life'

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Practice, and all is coming"-Pattabhi Jois

If I had to be labled as either the turtle or the hare in a race, I'd definitely be the turtle. While I may set out to be the hare some days, it never works out. If things are going to happen for me, they're either going to come along slow and steady or not at all. Yoga practice is much the same. Pattabhi Jois famously said, "Practice, and all is coming". B.K.S. Iyengar said in 'Light on Life", Success will come to the person who practices". You can define success however you like, but I don't think what Mr. Iyengar said applies only to practice on the mat. It's a great thought to take with you through the rest of the day.

One of the things I love most about Ashtanga yoga practice is that there are no short cuts. There is no faster way to "get" any pose, any transition, or any other aspect of practice. You just go along doing daily practice and aspects of practice evolve at their own pace. I've spent years just doing what I can do in particular poses or transitions and they do come along in time. Once you arrive at any particular "place" in practice, however, some new understanding comes along and changes everything! It forces me to work with what is going on right now and let go of thoughts of what might or might not happen later.

After 80-some years of practice, I suppose Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar know a little something about practice. As a friend very wisely reminded me recently, just keep at it.

Now, onto the real practice, as I try to live in this moment for the rest of the day.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Concentration in Practice

As promised, more eloquent words from Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar:

"If you want a simple way to remember the relationship between asana and concentration (dharana), it is this: If you learn a lot of little things, one day you may end up knowing a big thing."

from his book 'Light on Life'

In the Ashtanga tradition, asana is only one limb of the 8-limbed practice. Ashtanga literally means "8-limbed". Concentration (dharana) is another limb of the practice. Yet, the way in which we practice asana is also the practice of dharana, concentration. We bring our attention to what we are doing right now. When we notice that our attention has wandered (maybe when we wobble out of a pose :) , then we bring our attention back.

I love the suggestion in Mr. Iyengar's choice of words, that this work takes time! Concentration is not easy, but I know everything else is easier for me when I put in the work on concentration. As Mr. Iyengar puts it, I hope that one day I too "may end up knowing a big thing"!

Monday, October 12, 2009

I occasionally get asked whether yoga is a religion. The short answer is no. While, yoga may reflect the cultures that it came from, it is not a religion. I was very interested to come across the following paragraph in "Light on Life" by B.K.S. Iyengar. He puts it much more eloquently than I could, so here are his words:

"Yoga is not meant to be a religion or a dogma for any one culture. While yoga sprang from the soil of India, it is meant as a universal path, a way open to all regardless of their birth and background. Patanjali used the expression sarvabhauma -universal- some 2,500 years ago."

Thank you Mr. Iyengar
...more great quotes from "Light on Life" in future posts!
...a great book, definitely worth a read, and reread

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Moon Days

Traditionally, Ashtanga yoga is not practiced on the day of the full moon or new moon....but why??

The best explanation I have read comes from Tim Miller's website. Tim is one of the most senior Ashtanga teachers in the west.
Here's a link to what Tim has to say on moon days:

In my own practice, sometimes I do practice on moon days and sometimes I don't. I try to be mindful of my energy level and let that dictate how much asana practice I do on those days.

I am curious how other practicioners feel about practice on moon days. Anyone want to chime in on this?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Give Back Yoga Foundation

A quick post today to spotlight the "Give Back Yoga Foundation"! This fantastic new venture for taking yoga and other services to underserved populations was started by Beryl Bender Birch, some of her senior students, and colleagues. They've done some great work already and provided avenues for more great work to happen where it's needed.
Get more info at their website:

Friday, September 25, 2009

It's a Breathing Practice!

Over the past year or so, my teacher has added some challenging poses to my yoga practice. It seems that at just the moment when I start to feel all pleased with myself about "what I can do", my teacher adds another layer of depth to my practice! ...which is as it should be and one of the many reasons I continue to practice with him. :)

Slowly over the past few weeks though, it has become very apparent to me that in the the places where I am challenged, I rush the breath. Suddenly 5 breaths sounds more like 3 breaths! So, my new work: take 5 full complete breaths in the intense, challenging poses and transitions.

It has made me wonder, if I'm rushing through the places in my yoga practice that are uncomfortable, then what else in life am I rushing through...and maybe missing out on due to discomfort?

Ashtanga yoga practice really is a breathing practice. The physical postures have multiple purposes in the practice, but I really think one of the primary reasons for the poses is to challenge the breath. Lengthening the breath and really working for a steady breath in challenging postures forces me to "lean into" the intense poses....and therein lies the work that brings about transformation in practice!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beauty in Practice

A student practicing behind me at a class this week complemented me on my practice as we were walking out of the studio. I appreciate their kind words, but I really think that it is the practice itself that is beautiful regardless of who is doing the practicing. While advanced practicioners may demonstrate the grace and control that is possible after many years, beginning practice has its own beauty. If you have never had the chance to watch an Ashtanga yoga practice, I encourage you to go to Youtube and search "Ashtanga yoga". You will find clips of every stage of practice...and they are ALL beautiful to watch.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When do we practice yoga?

When discussing the benefits of daily yoga practice compared to "once-in-a-while" yoga practice with students, I often hear the sentence "I don't think I could do that." Current yoga culture in the west often depicts yoga as a workout, something to increase strength and flexibility and perhaps workout some of the stresses of modern life as well. Casual yoga asana practice certainly has these benefits.

Yoga as defined at the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, however, is something different. Yoga is what happens in those few brief moments between thoughts when the mind goes quiet. Daily yoga asana practice is a tool for learning to create more of those quiet moments and stretching them to last a little bit longer when they do happen. How does reaching to touch the toes and breathing make space for the mind to be quiet? I don't know. I can say that in my experience, if my body will not be quiet, then it is very hard, if not impossible to get my mind to follow. When my body is calm, relaxed, and steady, it is far more likely that my mind will for just a moment step off the hamster wheel and pause.

For me, this shift in focus has only come from daily asana practice. It has changed my perspective on what is "yoga" and what is "yoga practice".

Beryl Bender Birch is well know for asking this question: "If the practice of yoga is really the practice of quieting the mind, then when can we practice yoga?"

The answer, of course, is "All the time!"

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Return to Home Practice

I'm back on my own for practice this week. The workshop is over and this week I will see how long I can hold onto the intensity of practices with a group and a teacher that I enjoyed last week. There are benefits of doing long stretches of home practice alone and of regular practice in a studio or shala with a teacher. I have had both experiences. There are days when I am wistful for the years that I spent practicing in a studio with a teacher. On the days when I was tired or my focus was wandering, the energy from the teacher and other students would keep me going.

On the other hand, I would not trade for anything the adventure of these last few years of home practice. I have really begun to experience the practice from the inside out. When there are no mirrors for your practice in the form of a teacher's suggestions and adjustments, then all you know is what you experience.

I have been fortunate to practice with my teacher for a few days a couple times each year since the shift to doing primarily home practice. These few days with my teacher are invaluable for establishing a base line of what is possible, establishing some feeling of where practice may be heading, and soaking up some great energy to keep practice going.

The practice itself has also been an invaluable teacher, however. Really looking to answer my own questions that come from practice, rather than looking to someone else for all the answers has brought another layer of depth to both practice and teaching. While I am overwhelmingly grateful for the times that I spend practicing with my teacher, I am also learning to embrace the days when the practice itself is the teacher.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Days 4&5: Mysore Workshop with David Keil

Since time seems to have gotten away from me, I'm combining some thoughts that have surfaced since my last 2 practices in David's workshop. The results of the last 5 days of practice are now settling into my body and my thoughts have shifted to the energetic aspects of this yoga practice. I remain fascinated by the ways in which this yoga practice brings physical practices together (breath, bandha, driste) to produce something larger than its composite parts (energy). Additionally, when a group of practitioners come together to practice, another whole layer of energy is produced. The various practitioners in the group support one another energetically as the whole group moves and breathes their way through the practice sequence. Although those statements still sound a bit "New Agey" to my ears, they describe my experience, none the less. I am extremely grateful to everyone who came out to be a part of the practice groups this week and hope they too took away some part of the group energy and will be inspired to continue their practice.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Day 3: Mysore Workshop with David Keil

After another great practice this morning, I'm most aware of how practice has shifted over time. What felt initially like a physical practice now feels much more like a mental practice. Certainly it still shows itself physically, but the hardest work is in my mind, not my body. This is all the more apparent when my teacher adds a new pose to my sequence. The practice becomes mental; approaching something new with the attitude that "with time and practice anything is possible". Over and over again in yoga asana practice I meet new poses or challenges within poses and have to make a mental choice about how to work with them. I can decide before trying or after a feeble attempt that they are too "hard". Sometimes, I take that easier road. I can also decide to leave the possibility open that the pose will happen even if I don't see how it will happen yet. This has been the more rewarding work. I have great hopes that, like the poses themselves, this work too will get easier with time and practice.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Day 2: Mysore Workshop with David Keil

Another great day of practice today. Once or twice a year, I take a week off of work and focus on yoga practice. For me, this is the only kind of vacation that I return from really feeling rested! I go to sleep early, eat well, and really pour all my energy into daily asana practice. Regular daily practice outside of "yoga vacations" ebbs and flows with all the responsibilities of being a "householder" i.e. having a job, family, and stuff that takes energy besides yoga practice. Sometimes practice just gets whatever energy is leftover after a long day. These few days a year when I put yoga practice first are a rare treat and I am so grateful for them when they come along.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Day 1: Mysore Workshop

A couple times a year, I am fortunate enough to spend 5 days practicing Mysore style Ashtanga yoga with my teacher. The night before the first class is like Christmas Eve for me. I'm always so looking forward to practice the next morning that I toss and turn and finally fall off to a restless sleep. Last night was no different. After a restless short night, practice was heaven. There is nothing more soothing, yet also energizing, than quietly moving through practice to the sound of ujjai breath. Some breathe slower. Some breathe faster. Everyone is moving with their own breath and doing ther own work, but we are doing it together.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Part 3: Why Mysore Style?

"Mysore practice is like being the driver in a car on a trip to somewhere new for the first time. Led practice is more like being the passenger in that car. You may be able to find your way back to the destination a second time having been either the driver or the passenger, but chances are good that you were paying more attention if you were doing the driving."

-paraphrased from Beryl Bender Birch (unfortunately, I didn't write down her exact quote in class)

Okay, last and final post on practice styles, for awhile anyway. Next week will include a daily post on the each of the 5 days of the Mysore workshop with David I guess this still isn't the last word exactly...

so a few more ramblings about practice styles...

-When you memorize a sequence of poses to practice, then you can practice anywhere! Nothing is holding you back.

-Muscle memory of what is next in the sequence removes the need to "think". I have found more space to keep awareness on what I'm feeling in practice when I don't have to think about it. Since in my day job I'm a biologist, I already spend quite a bit of time "in my head" analyzing things. It's been very liberating to have some small bit of time each day where I work less analytically and more intuitively.

-I cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. I'm just not a talented multitasker. So, if I'm listening to a teacher guide the class, then I'm not listening to my breath. Same thing happens to me visually. If I'm watching a demonstration by the teacher then I'm not keep my eyes steady on the gazing point for the pose. Only when the outside stimulus is minimal am I able to shift the focus from the external to the internal world. I am hopeful that this skill to will build in the same way that the physical practice grows over time. I would love to see that day when I can keep steady concentration no matter what's happening! Until then, I have lots of practice to do and in my own practice I need to minimize the external stimulus to learn the skill of paying attention....which means mostly Mysore practice for me.

-I have become far more aware of the pace and strength of my breath when I'm initiating the pace. There is more room then for the normal daily variations in pace and strength.

-A different kind of relationship has developed with the teachers that have worked with me in a Mysore class. I have been less apt to take suggestions as criticism when they are offered one on one with very specific intent. A greater level of trust has developed which has given me more confidence to "dig a little deeper" in practice.

There is often a tendency to place something we are familiar with, say aerobics class, around something unfamiliar, say yoga, and make it fit. I've found the greatest benefits from yoga when I stopped trying to force it into an "aerobics class" format and worked at it more like I learned to play the piano as a kid. The same analogy would work with sports if you're not a music person. To learn any new skill, you begin with the fundamentals, not with the flamboyant. In piano, you begin with scales not Bach. In order to someday play well, there is lots of daily practice. It is finally when you can stop thinking about the small details like what notes come next, that you can express larger themes of the music intuitively.
That is really my best explanation of Mysore style Ashtanga yoga practice.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Part 2 of Why Practice Mysore Style?

If you ask the question, "Why do you do yoga practice in the Mysore style?", you will likely get a different answer from everyone that you ask. My own answer comes from my own practice. part 2 of this series describes some of my experience in both Led and Mysore style Ashtanga yoga classes.

My first Ashtanga class was a Led style class. The instructor stood at the front of the room and described/demonstrated the poses. The class followed along with everyone attempting the same poses together. Although I had been attending yoga classes in other styles for a couple years, this was my first Ashtanga class. After the first hour of class, I was really starting to wonder if I would make it through the rest of the class! It was too much for my body all at once.

A few months later, I moved to a different city and tried a Mysore style class. I had an entirely different expereince. Moving at my own pace with no verbal or visual guide was both intimidating and liberating. On the one hand, I wasn't sure if I was doing poses "right". On the other hand it was much easier to really focus in on what was happening in my body without either rushing to keep up or waiting for others to catch up.

My first Mysore class was 7 years ago and my bias in my personal practice has been for Mysore style classes ever since. It was the aspects of learning to practice in the Mysore style that really made it possible for me to develop a steady, consistent, and daily home practice when no classes or teachers were available. It was that daily practice that really began to provide all the benefits that are attributed to yoga.

Now, years later in my practice, I've found that there are of course, benefits to both ways of and final installment on Ashtanga yoga practice styles: Benefits of Led and Mysore styles of Ashtanga yoga practice

Stay tuned...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Part 1 of Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga Practice

Apparently, I have a lot to say about this as I sat down to write a post about why Ashtangis practice in the Mysore style and I filled 5 pages! in anticapation of the upcoming Mysore style practice workshop, this weeks blog posts will be a series of posts on Mysore style practice.

So first the basics...Part 1: What is Mysore style practice anyway?

Mysore is a city in south India. It's the city where Sri K Pattabhi Jois taught his style of yoga (called Ashtanga) until his death this past spring. The way in which classes were taught by Pattabhi Jois in his shala was different from the way most yoga classes are currently taught in the west. Students newly arriving at his class would learn only a few fundamental poses on the first day, maybe just Sun salutation A. They would then memorize the order of those poses and learn the correct way to breath in them (vinyasa). When those poses were steady, a new pose would be added. This process would continue over weeks and months and years. Students would slowly learn new, more challenging poses only as their body was ready for them. Classes were composed of any student who wanted to learn this method of yoga. Consequently, advanced, intermediate, and beginning students all practiced together. Students moved through their sequence of poses without constant verbal and visual cues from a teacher, instead moving at the pace of their own breath. Pattabhi Jois would move among the students assisting each in th places where they needed help. As this style of practice emigrated to the west, it was referred to as "Mysore style" after the way Ashtanga yoga practice was done in Mysore, India with Pattabhi Jois.

So here ends part 1...same bat time same bat station for part 2!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Upcoming Mysore Workshop with David Keil

I'm so looking forward to the upcoming workshop with David Keil! Five days of mysore practice with one of the best teachers and I don't even have to leave town for this one!
I know I'm really looking forward to this because I actually had a dream that I was at the workshop last night. In my dream I got 2 new poses to work on and I have to say, in my first dream attempt at the new poses, they were pretty wobbly!
If you are in the Gainesville, Florida area and are interested in the workshop, there are still some spaces left in the 7am or 9am sessions.
For more info go to Ashtanga-Yoga-Gainesville.
For more info about David and his fantastic workshops go to:
See you there!

Monday, August 3, 2009

"I can't go back to yesterday - because I was a different person then." ---Lewis Carroll

I've mentioned before that one of the mistakes that I make from time to time in home practice is trying to do too much. If I did a pose one day, then I should be able to do it the same way the next day, right? Well, no actually.

I'm a slow learner when it comes to this sort of thing. It has taken some time to pry the fingers of ego off of daily yoga practice. It has been easy to want to acheive. On the other hand, it has been very rewarding and humbling to play each daily practice as it comes. That too starts to play with perspectice in life outside of yoga practice. Starting each daily yoga practice without an agenda has been a practice in itself.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Practicing 6 Impossible Things Before Breakfast

The Queen of Hearts, 1999 (oil on canvas)

"I can't believe that!" said Alice
"Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again. Draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."
"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." --Lewis Carroll

I've been a big fan of all Lewis Carroll's books since I first read Alice in Wonderland. Nowhere else have I read so much that sounds nonsensical and yet is so true! The longer I do this yoga practice, the more I'm aware of the times I let "impossibility" get in the way of great opportunity. One of the things that has amazed me most about my teacher and one of the primary reasons I return again and again to practice with him is his gifted ability to convince me that anything is possible. Daily practice of the "impossible" in yoga practice started to bleed into the rest of life at some point. It all started by "believing six impossible things before breakfast".

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Primary Series: Paddling in Place

Donald Miller, an author that I respect, wrote a great blog post about the parallels between writing a book and paddling a boat across a large body of water (think really big lake, or a bit of ocean).
To paraphrase: He likens the excited feeling of starting out in the boat to that of starting out on a new story. The early bit goes fast. You feel like you'll be at the end in no time. Then, you get into the middle. The middle is the sticky part where you feel like you're paddling in place and getting nowhere. Yet, the middle is the place that really changes you. (End of paraphrase here...additional note: I'm not doing his writing justice, you should really read the blog, and I was just far too lazy to quote it verbatim).

For years, the primary series was like that for me. The first part of the series was a steady practice early on. It came quickly. Then I spent years paddling in place in Supta Kurmasana feeling like it was never going to change. Only after arriving at the other side and spending a couple years paddling in second series did I start to understand what my teacher meant when he said "Supta Kurmasana is one of the most transformational poses in the primary series." After sharing this with a student who was having his own experiences with Supta Kurmasana I heard my own earlier thoughts spoken back to me. The student said in a skeptical voice "Well, if that's what transformation feels like." And so it does sometimes feel a bit like paddling in place.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I woke up feeling like I had been run over by a truck yesterday, for no particular reason. I had eaten well the day before and gone to sleep at my usual time...just one of those days. So, I opted for a restorative practice yesterday morning. It looked a lot like a short Ashtanga practice, because that's what it was and because Ashtanga is a restorative practice. Sometimes I just need to dial down the intensity.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Relaxing the Grip in the Framework of Tradition

So I read this from Pema Chodron's book "When Things Fall Apart"...
"In his own way, Trungpa Rinpoche devised such a course for his students. He'd have us memorize certain chants, and a few moths after most of us knew them, he'd change the wording. He'd teach us specific rituals and be extremely precise about how they should be done. Just about the time we began criticizing people who did them wrong, he'd teach the rituals in a completely different way. After years of this sort of training, one begins to relax one's grip."

After reading this, my first thought was "Ah, that's just like Ashtanga yoga!" My second thought was " Wow, I still have a lot of work to do as far as "relaxing the grip"! I like structure and routine. It gives a certain amount of background familiarity to the chaos of everyday life. I generally don't like surprises, even the good ones. I like time to mull over and prepare for what's coming next.

When I started an Ashtanga yoga practice, I thought it was great. We do the same poses in the same order every day. There is a system and an order. It only took a short amount of regular practice to discover that while we may do triangle pose or a standing forward bend everyday, it is never the same triangle pose or forward bend twice. No two practices are ever the same.

I often have the feeling that my teacher is watching my practice for those places where I'm just a little too comfortable. It seems to be just that moment when he appears next to me asking me to change some aspect of a pose. Almost always the first sensation that I notice is mental resistance. I don't want to change it. What I'm doing now is comfortable and familiar. So the work in practice for me is often to "relax the grip". I think because Ashtanga yoga provides such a precise structure I have been able to begin the work of relaxing my grip on "how things should be". It has made all the difference for me to have the structure to push against.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fear in Practice

I like to give examples to my students of why yoga asana practice in the studio is also practice for life. It's an important moment when they realize that they probably can do something (say a backbend or a handstand) but they are afraid of it. They're physically ready and able to do the pose, yet it still brings up fear. I almost always say the same thing. Asana practice is a good place to practice doing what you're afraid of every day.

I'm not talking about being afraid of injury or a fear of straining something by doing a pose. That's an entirely different subject. I'm talking about unattached elemental fear. In practice we learn to do what we're afraid of despite the feeling of fear. When that process is familiar it's something that accompanies us into the rest of life. A feeling of confidence builds when fear comes up and you stay with the practice. This has been one of the greatest benefits of yoga practice for me. It's both an exhilarating and humbling practice and I have at least a lifetime's worth of work still to do!

I came across this great quote in a book by Kathy Dobie. It was attributed to anonymous in the book. "No interesting project can be embarked on without fear. I shall be scared to death half the time."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Evolution of Driste

I've been wanting to write about driste but have had so many thoughts on the subject as my practice has changed over the years that I wasn't sure where to start or where to end! I suspect more posts on driste will follow this one. Driste is Sanskrit for "gazing place" in yoga. In Ashtanga yoga there are 9 places you might hold the gaze in asana practice. As most students know, where your gaze goes, your thoughts and body tend to follow. Balance can be tricky if my gaze is on what my husband is practicing next to me or what the birds are doing in the yard. Yet, after awhile, it is possible to shift the gaze in a pose (I'm thinking specifically of utthita hasta padangustasana here. :) and not take your thoughts and balance with it. There was a great post by Karen recently on the evolution of driste in her practice. I think this is a great example of the 8 limbs of Ashtanga overlapping and intersecting. We do asana practice with driste (the third limb) and when we have a moment where the thoughts do not follow the gaze, we experience pratyahara (sense withdrawl) which is actually the fifth limb! So, after learning to keep the senses steady on one sensory input (one gazing point) we can learn to remove the senses from the input entirely (pratyahara). This practice never stops amazing me!

Test Post

I'm working on connecting the blog with facebook and twitter for speady updates of blog posts. Let's see if I've been successful!?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Home Practice, Part B

The question that I hear most often after "How do I practice at home?" is "Where do I practice at home?". Practice is possible just about anywhere. A firm floor and space the size of a yoga mat are a good start. I've known many creative apartment dwellers who practice in living rooms, on balconies, and in kitchens. You can rearrange the furniture just about anywhere to make a yoga mat sized space. I've practiced in hallways, bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. Some of the spaces have been more conducive to practice than others. There's always the chance that when you start rearranging the furniture you'll suddenly feel compelled to vacuum instead of practice yoga! Experiment within your own space to find what works. One of my teachers tells a great story about practicing the entire primary series in a London airport when he was there on a long layover between flights. :) You really can practice just about anywhere!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Home Practice

The question I am asked more often by students than any other is "How do I practice at home?" The most honest answer is really that you have to find the answer to that question for yourself. The biggest mistake I make in my personal practice is trying to do too much. Somewhere between those two statements are the suggestions I give to help students make the transition from dropping in to a class to really developing a practice.

Here are some of the suggestions I give that have come out of my own practice. Please comment with tips of your own that might be helpful to all of us who do home practice!

#1 Start Small
It's easy to feel overwhelmed if you try to go from a class once a week to 6 days a week home practice. You may end up not doing any practice at all beacuse it just seems to daunting to get started. Try starting with the goal of doing a few sun salutation A and B three times a week. When you have a routine and are consistent, then add the first few standing poses and a short closing sequence. Build the home practice slowly over time.

#2 Practice with a friend
It's more fun and you will help to keep each other motivated.

#3 Stay connected with a teacher.
Drop into a class with a teacher when you can. If there are no classes in your area or you can't make the class due to other responsibilities, travel to a workshop once or twice a year. It helps to keep you motivated, challenged, and it's a good idea to have a teacher observe your practice from time to time.

These have been helpful for me as where I live now is several hours from the nearest Mysore class. It's amazing how grateful I am to practice with my teachers now that I only see them a couple times a year!

Sunday, July 12, 2009


I have been fortunate to practice with wonderful teachers who have always emphasized the importance of the breath in practice. Yet, only in the last few years of Ashtanga yoga practice have I really become aware of how much the quality of the breath can change the quality of the practice. Uneven breath at the beginning of practice leaves me tired before I even begin seated postures. Shallow, speedy breath leaves me light-headed. It has taken time to begin to connect all these dots. The breath it seems is like everything else in Ashtanga yoga practice, a bit of a paradox. You do as much of something impossible as you can until it becomes possible.

Monday, July 6, 2009

If there is one thing I would like as a teacher to share with my students it would be "just practice". Just show up on the mat, as often as possible. The second thing I would hope to share once you arrive on the mat, "breathe". Certainly, there is more to yoga that, but those two step will take you a good long way toward your goals, whatever they may be. Once you start, there will likely always be another layer of work to do presumably until the elusive samadhi. This is at least what I've found in my own practice. There is no end to practice. There is always somewhere to go. Regardless of where my work is at that moment, however, I always begin the work with the same 2 steps. First, show up on the mat. Second, breathe.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why a Blog?

In my previous incarnation as a horticulturist and yoga student in another city, I was blessed to fall into a vibrant group of dedicated ashtanga yoga students and teachers. They supported and encouraged my transition to a dedicated yoga practice. I didn't know how lucky I was until it came time to move. While the new city and job suited me better, I remain just a bit wistful for the ashtanga community I was apart of for three and a half years.

On the other hand, I probably never would have started teaching if I hadn't moved. I left a group of highly qualified teachers. There would have been no need for me to teach. It was only when I could not find what I look for in a yoga community, that I thought to try to offer that myself. I am still a long way off from that ultimate goal. Much like yoga practice, in teaching yoga, there is always somewhere to go, some new challenge, something else to learn!

My intention for this blog is to offer and participate in a little bit more of the yoga community I envision. It is one more place to encourage students to practice. The first step is just getting on the mat! It is also a place to direct some further thought to questions that come up in class. It's a place to record references, books, DVDs, etc. that might be of interest. Lastly, it will be a place to record some thoughts generated by my own practice. I've found others' thoughts about the ups and downs of daily practice enlightening and encouraging. I hope my thoughts will be to this end as well. Suggestions and comments from those of you who drop in to read will be most welcome!