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.