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.