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!