Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Here's to the Practice!

I'm off on vacation starting tomorrow, so this will be my last post of the year. I'm planning for some real time day job, no teaching, no blogging. I'll be spending the next week having some leisurely morning practices (with no hurry to be at work on time!), spending some quality time with my husband and some time with friends.

I'm ending the year on the blog with a quote by Tim Miller from the 'Guruji' book.

Guy Donahaye asks this question:
"Where do you think the legacy of this practice will go after Guruji stops teaching?"

And Tim begins his answer with this:
"Years ago, those of us who were practicing ashtanga yoga and feeling great benefit from it would say to each other that it's only a matter of time before this stuff catches on."

It has, of course, "caught on". :)

...and the legacy is all of us...those who practice in a shala, those who practice with groups, those who practice at home alone.

So my toast to the New Year: Here's to the Practice!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Yoga Sutra 2.18-2.25: Moving the Viewfinder

Yoga Sutras 2.18 - 2.25:

"Nature, its three qualities, sattva, rajas and tamas, and its evolutes, the elements, mind, senses of perception and organs of action, exist eternally to serve the seer, for enjoyment or emancipation. The gunas generate their characteristic divisions and energies in the seer. Their stages are distinguishable and non-distinguishable, differentiable and non-differentiable. The seer is pure consciousness. He witnesses nature without being reliant on it. Nature and intelligence exist solely to serve the seer's true purpose, emancipation. The relationship with nature ceases for emancipated beings, its purpose having been fulfilled, but its processes continue to affect others. The conjunction of the seer with the seen is for the seer to discover his own true nature. Lack of spiritual understanding (avidya) is the cause of the false identification of the seer with the seen.
The destruction of ignorance through right knowledge breaks the link binding the seer to the seen. This is kaivalya, emancipation."

-translation by B.K. S. Iyengar

This is a big chunk of Yoga Sutra for a single blog post, but as they all sound to me to be moving towards the same point I thought I'd just post this whole section.

What I'm hearing from this section of the Yoga Sutra:
I need the world to push against. I need all the things that irritate me and frustrate me and amuse me and impress me. I need something to be attached to in order to catch myself in a moment of attachment and get a glimpse of what that looks like. It's in knowing what attachment looks like that I can begin to see what non-attachment looks like. Practice has given me a method of really hearing how loud the world in and outside my mind is. It's only now that I know what the noise sounds like, that I notice when it's missing, when it's gone quiet.

"The conjunction of the seer with the seen is for the seer to discover his own true nature."

Something I that catches my attention throughout the Yoga Sutra that is echoed again here is Patanjali's suggestion that this non-attachment is a process. He does suggest that disentangling ourselves from all the stickiness is possible, but also seems to suggest that we won't learn to step out of our "relationship with nature" until we have spent some time tangled up in the web of defining ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in.

"The relationship with nature ceases for emancipated beings, its purpose having been fulfilled, but its processes continue to affect others."

I notice a sort of back and forth in life of feeling more deeply tangled in situations as they arise and then feeling space from them. Much of the feeling has to do I think, with where I'm standing when I look at life stuff. Moving the viewfinder has a lot to do with what I see and how caught up I feel in "nature" versus how much space I feel.

A great recent post by Patrick got me thinking more about what happens when you stand somewhere else.
Here's an excerpt:
"Nurture's not easy if you're a boy, especially if you're one with good exposure to gender politics. Obviously, nurture is marked feminine in this culture. I was having lunch last week in the campus center and sitting near a table of about eight college guys: sporty, trendy, loud. The energy coming off them, the sheer extroverted testosterone, was absolutely tactile, touchable, visible. Instinctively, I didn't care for it, because those guys mocked me for years when I was in my teens, but then I re-looked at them, imagined them as guys who'd maybe gotten curious about the US yoga trend and walked into my room. And that changed everything; they became powerful bodies with curiosity, with shyness, and immediately I developed a sort of intimate empathy with them. Just to play with it, I let my view switch from one to the other, reinventing the human beings in front of me by means of different lenses. Then it became very funny and amusing and I turned someone that I used to be, into a tool in my toolkit."

I love that! What if the next time I feel stuck, when I feel absolutely glued to one definition of a situation, what if I just stood somewhere else?

"The destruction of ignorance through right knowledge breaks the link binding the seer to the seen. This is kaivalya, emancipation."

Friday, December 10, 2010

It's Not Discipline, It's Love

Several years ago at a workshop, I remember David Williams saying that he didn't do a daily Ashtanga practice because he was disciplined, but because he just loved the practice. (paraphrasing here as I didn't write it down)
...I also remember wanting to roll my eyes when he said that...

Of course daily practice requires discipline! Getting out of bed is hard!...but I think I do really understand what he meant. I love this practice. I couldn't walk away from it if I tried.

This week was definitely a testament to that. I was grumpy from the first sound of the alarm on Monday and I'm not sure I've fully shaken it off yet. Unseasonably low temperatures made leaving the warmth of the covers for a COLD studio a struggle. (My studio space is unheated, since I live in Florida and most of the year it's not an issue.) I have so much respect for those of you up north who do this...I don't know how you manage it! A combination of the cold weather, ladies holiday and a headache that I couldn't shake for 3 days left me feeling distracted and like a lead weight most of the week. I'm sure all the extra sugar I've eaten lately didn't help matters. ;)

Discipline alone would not have gotten me out of bed this week. Only love of the practice could manage to drag me out to the studio, turn on the space heaters, and nudge me into the first surya namaskara. Once I was there, I was still glad to be there...despite the lead weight body and distracted mind.

David Williams might be on to something...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Think of Your Practice in Terms of Decades...

A student of Tim Miller's once said at a workshop that I was attending that Tim had advised her to think of her practice in terms of decades rather than in days or months.

It's been more than 10 years now since my first led Ashtanga class. I've been hanging on for about 9 years of regular practice; it's been a mix of Mysore classes and home practice. The biggest shift in that time has been a move from focus on the physical to focus on the mental. I found the primary series exhausting and daunting for a long time. I don't now. It's comfortable, familiar and soothing to my nervous system. On the one day a week that I practice primary now, it's a joy to do.

It's interesting to me that although the poses that present my daily challenge in the intermediate sequence ask increasing physical efforts from my body, it's really the mental challenge in this sequence that I find the hardest. Kapotasana is an intense, deep stretch, but it's really the mental challenge of convincing myself to go there and then to stay there that I wrestle with. It's much the same with Karandavasana. That pose asks so much strength from my body. The biggest challenge for me is staying with it and using all the strength that I have to do what I can. It is so easy to let the mind convince me that "I can't" and then give up and fall out before I really have to.

A similar shift has mirrored practice on the mat in my life off the mat. I started practice with a lot of physical irritation. I wasn't crazy about the body I was given and would have gladly traded it in for a different model. I felt glued to body image issues lingering from childhood and teenage years.
...and while there are still ghosts of that "stuff" that I notice from time to time, I am physically generally comfortable now.

The big lesson of the first decade for me seems to be: "when the body goes mostly quiet, you can really hear the mind...and it is LOUD!"

The primary series has done it's work and for the most part left me with less "physical white noise". Now I watch the second series push all my buttons and listen to my mind yell in protest. I can't wait to see what the next 10 years will bring. :)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Yoga Sutras 2.12-2.17...the Grinchmas Edition

Haven't posted much on the Yoga Sutras recently, so here's a section to ponder on...

Yoga Sutras 2.12-2.17
The accumulated imprints of past lives, rooted in afflictions, will be experienced in present and future lives. As long as the root of actions exists, it will give rise to class of birth, span of life and experiences. The wise man knows that owing to fluctuations, the qualities of nature, and subliminal impressions, even pleasant experiences are tinged with sorrows, and he keeps aloof from them. The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided. The cause of pain is the association or identification of the seer (atma) with the seen (prakrti) and the remedy lies in their dissociation.
-Iyengar translation

This is definitely a time of year when I have difficulty getting off the hamster to speak. I leave most family gatherings feeling insecure, full of self-doubt and just generally picked on. As the lone liberal yoga teacher, field biologist and vegetarian of the family, I do stand out...despite efforts to stay quietly in the background. The rest of the family have sensible stable jobs mostly having to do with either numbers or computers. "The holidays" leave me with that panicky feeling that you might get in a cave if you were afraid of enclosed spaces or on the edge of the Grand Canyon if you were afraid of heights. I have the urge to bolt and hide from all things "holiday" related until the whole business is over. Those who of you who love this time of year can feel totally free to think I'm terrible person...I understand.

How much of what I feel at this time of year is a mental and physical response to a pattern set off by a date on a calendar that I allow myself to respond to without pause....maybe not an "imprint of past lives", but an imprint of past decades for sure. Patanjali seems to me to suggest, that if I don't change the pattern, I'm doomed to repeat it, Groundhog's Day style, for a long time.

It reminds me of a great recent post by Claudia talking about our chances to pause and make the decision to do it differently this time.
She says: "I cannot always control the first arrow, my dad will die, my sister will stop talking to me, that will come, it's life. I can however, work on my reaction to this arrow, I can control my own reaction, observe what happens in me but not react, clean up my own neurosis."
...beautifully said and so true. That in essence is our work.

I like this section of the Yoga Sutra because it suggests that all the patterns we have created...even the "holiday dread" can be changed. "The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided."

Unfortunately, it also suggests that there is work to do to shift the pattern and that work is mine to much easier to complain about others.... "The cause of pain is the association or identification of the seer (atma) with the seen (prakrti) and the remedy lies in their dissociation."

Right then: I am not my job, my political views, the food I eat (or don't eat) and neither is my family. Despite their concern over what I do with life and my puzzlement over what they do with theirs, we do care about one another...and I think Patanjali would agree that if we can keep the focus there, it is enough.
"The cause of pain is the association or identification of the seer (atma) with the seen (prakrti) and the remedy lies in their dissociation."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Yoga and Injury

I'm going to dive in and write just a little bit about something that stirs up a lot of chatter from time to and injury.

It's on my mind because, of course, I've managed to injury something...sprained my thumb actually. Apparently there is not really a good way to fall out of Mayurasana. I went too far forward, panicked as I realized a face plant was imminent and when into some weird roll to the side...unfortunately with my arms pinned underneath me...ouch!
As injuries go, it's not really too bad. Most of the swelling went down in a couple days and I'm able to practice on it. Palms to the floor is no problem; I just can't reach the thumb around to bind anything at the moment.

The whole process of working through injury and all the muttering that surrounds the topic is so interesting to me! I'm always puzzled with the view, often from those who don't actually practice yoga of any style, that when an injury happens, someone was doing "bad yoga". Often it's the pose itself that gets the blame; chakrasana gets mentioned in this context as does chaturanga. (Check out a great article on chaturanga, injury and the shoulder joint by David Keil.)

First of all, it just seems unfair to have this expectation of perfection from anything physical. If I twisted an ankle playing basketball with friends or stumbled over something in the street while going running, no one would bat an eye! Secondly, If my attention to the present moment were so steady that it never wandered and I was always perfectly aware, then I wouldn't need asana practice...I'd already be enlightened!!

Right then, now have the ranting out of my system...on to some thoughts on the process of working through injury...

Over the course of about 9 years of regular practice, I have tweaked things from time to time. Thankfully, it hasn't happened often and only in 2 cases has it taken more than a couple weeks to heal. Every time though, I've gone through a similar mental process during practice while modifying to accommodate the injury. Injury always seems to prompt a super steady focus in my practice. The thought of having to give up practice completely or that I might make the injury worse seems to draw in all my attention to every breath and movement. I follow each movement so carefully, scanning the body to see how the injury is responding to every shift.

It always gives me a lot to think about as far as attention during practice and what practice really consists of. It's always just a little bit humbling to back up (so to speak) and modify poses that I'm used to doing full expression of. This is a good thing! It reminds me practice is whatever I can do with my best effort at paying attention. If this is really to be a lifetime practice, then there will likely come some day when I will have to let full expression of some pose go. Better to start practicing that now from time to time.

As Ashtangis we have 3 places provided to place the attention: breath, bandha and driste. When my body points out very clearly that I wasn't paying attention, it's a reminder to refocus my attention on the fundamentals.

Monday, November 1, 2010


A third and last post of my thoughts on David Keil’s adjustment workshop…
Whether a workshop is great or just ok depends for sure on the quality of the presenter’s material and how they share it, but I think it also depends on the group of participants. The adjustment workshop in Savannah was especially good because everyone really wanted to learn.

All the time spent assisting others and being assisted got me thinking…we never really practice alone.

Even early in the morning, when I’m the only one in the studio or when I throw my mat down in a quiet spot somewhere, ostensibly to practice alone, my practice is really not "mine". It's really a cumulative product of everyone who has ever guided me, assisted me or just breathed alongside of me...along with my own "stuff" of course. When I think “I” have just done something new that I’ve never done before in my asana practice, I should really be thinking “we”. I might be doing the action, but the credit goes to everyone who was along on the ride.

If I think of it like this, it gives the ego’s hold on thoughts of "achievement" a good shake. This shifts my feelings to ones of gratitude and makes me smile. I realize that we never really practice in isolation. The community and lineage is always present.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More thoughts from David Keil's adjustment workshop...

David's workshops are very much hands-on and the adjustment workshop was no exception. Interestingly though, some of the thoughts that have been swirling around since the workshop actually came out of the first 45 minutes or so of general discussion about adjustments.

When you put the obvious physical stuff aside, the workshop group seemed to come to a conclusion that an effective adjustment (verbal, physical, or energetic) came down to student-teacher relationship. There needs to be both a willingness on the part of the teacher to communicate in a way that the student can understand and a willingness on the part of the student to listen for the adjustment to be effective.

It’s interesting to me that after all the fuss in recent years over whether to use physical adjustments (people usually love them or hate them) that it all really seems to come down to relationships…probably the most complicated, yet rewarding, part of life that we navigate. No wonder we have such strong feelings about adjustments!

As a teacher asking students (and I do think it is always asking, never demanding) to go somewhere physically vulnerable or uncomfortable is a big deal (supta kurmasana adjustment anyone!?!). …and then to see students willingly go where they’re asked is humbling. To hear David’s thoughts echo my own on the mutual surrender of ego in this process gave me lots more to ponder on.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Savannah Adjustment Workshop with David Keil

I'm just back from a weekend workshop on adjustments for yoga teachers by my Mysore teacher David Keil. I now have a head full of thoughts on all manner of teacher, student, and practice related subjects....and a sore body. We were either doing poses while being adjusted or adjusting poses for most of a day and a half straight...whew!!

I follow David all over south Georgia and Florida to catch his workshops, but Savannah is definitely one of my favorite locations to catch one of his workshops. The resident Ashtangis from the hosting studio are such warm, fun people. If you're in the area drop in to a class here or here.

In fact, one of the coolest bits of the weekend was spending both some "downtime" as well as some "practice time" with other Ashtangis who live on the same crazy schedule as mine...nothing like a 9 pm bedtime on Saturday night to get your non-yoga friends rolling their eyes! Ah...I may still be crazy, but so nice to be reminded that I'm not the only one.

More posts on the workshop and the thoughts that have come out of it this week!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Not Exactly Comfortable"

One of my students used the phrase "not exactly comfortable" to describe some assisted deep backbends in practice yesterday.
I love this phrase! It's so descriptive of the backbending experience for many people...and if you're super comfortable then there are more backbends!

Deep backbends could be a metaphor for life off the mat. The practice of staying with what is "not exactly comfortable" is slowly making it possible for me to stay with any number of experiences that I might have missed out on otherwise. The best parts of my life are often "not exactly comfortable". The most inspiring life stuff is often more intense and more uncomfortable that I might like, but also more amazing than I thought possible.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Paradox and Contradiction

One of my students noticed a seeming paradox in the way the physical practice works with the mind. If the body is very uncomfortable, you can't seem to work on quieting the mind. On the other hand, if the body is very comfortable in a pose, the mind tends to wander off and start doing its own thing. Both are definitely true in my practice. If there are lots of little irritations in the body and it does not want to quiet down, then the mind doesn't seem to want to quiet down either. On the other hand, if the body is quiet and the mind is busy chattering, then I can be fairly sure that my most challenging poses will bring my attention back to the moment.

Practice is actually full of paradox and contradiction. In that way, it is a true mirror for life.

I've been thinking a bit about why we are able to "do" or "not do" certain poses....I put those in quotes as we all have our own definition of what "do" looks like. :)

I think there's both a physical and mental answer to that question. After 9 years of practice, I still do not lift up and jumpback...why?
The physical answer is that my upper body and core strength develop very sloooooowly. The mental answer is that I just don't want that transition very badly. I'm not all that fussed about it actually.

...but even with slow development of upper body and core strength, handstand drop-overs are really coming along...again why?

I've started to think that in order for poses to happen physically there are 2 things that need to happen in my mental practice. First of all I have to want to do the pose. If I don't actually want to do it, then I won't do the work....but paradoxically, I also have to be ok with the idea that even if I do the work, the pose may never happen. I have to be willing to do the work without expectation of results. There has to be non-attachment, but not apathy. Only then do I really pay attention to each breath and each moment. Only then is this yoga.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For...

Yoga Sutras 2:7-10

"Pleasure leads to desire and emotional attachment. Unhappiness leads to hatred. Self-preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all afflictions. It is found even in wise men. Subtle afflictions are to be minimized and eradicated by a process of involution."
-translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

Backbends have returned to my body after a few months of being mia. For the moment the tug-of-war between comfortable leg-behind-head and comfortable backbends has reached a truce. Backbends are deep and the feeling of being in need the the tin man's oil can for my hip flexors has receded. Physically, practice feels good...but along with the physical practice comes the mental and emotional layers of practice.

In my body, the return of deep backbends has brought the return of backbend "stuff"....all the stuff that you hope you might not have to look at...until you open the body and there it all is, waiting for you. When my physical practice is comfortable, the challenges appear elsewhere.

The 4 sutras above from Yoga Sutra book 2 are a good summary of my week; I've been oscillating between attachment to pleasure, irritation, impatience, and feelings of self-preservation. It's nice to think that if Patanjali felt that these sutras were important enough to include, that I likely have lots of company here.
I like that the sutra that follows these suggests that moving beyond this "stuff" is a process. The word process suggests to me that this too will take time.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Egoism is Limiting the Possibilites, but Yoga is Living Like Anything is Possible

Yoga Sutra 2.6
"Egoism is the identification of the seer with the instrumental power of seeing."
-translation by B.K.S. Iyengar my few readers may have noticed that I took a break from ponderings on the Yoga Sutra lately. I paused in reading the sutras to read this book by Chogyam Trungpa along with a great group of fellow Ashtangis, bloggers, and others. You can read more of our discussion here.

It's interesting to me that it was at this particular sutra that I paused because the book that I was reading during the break is essentially a book about this sutra...

I like both Mr. Iyengar's and Chogyam Trungpa's broad definition of ego. It's easy to think of ego as pride, but that seems too simplistic to me. The broader yogic and Buddhist definition of ego makes sense to me. The Yoga Sutra seems to be saying that anytime I identify myself as being "something" in particular, that is ego. Having now examined my practice with the background of Chogyam Trungpa's definition of ego, I feel like this practice is a genuine one. I feel like the practice is a genuine path (even if I wander off the path from time to time) because I see the practice constantly nudging me out of the ego traps that I fall into. Every time I start to define myself in practice as one thing, as "bendy" for example or as "not strong enough", the practice changes and the definitions are no longer true...if they were ever true...

I'm starting to realize that as soon as I define myself as something, I limit myself to that and all the other possibilities become unavailable. If I rein in the ego and resist the urge to define myself, then I have a world of possibilities in front of me.

Chogyam Trungpa has some wise words to say about this:
"We really know when we are fooling ourselves, but we try to play deaf and dumb to our own self-deception."
-from 'Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism' by Chogyam Trungpa

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thoughts on The Practice of Learning to Teach the final post from my week of practice with my Mysore teacher...

I usually spend some time watching David teach when I attend Mysore practice weeks with him. He usually teaches at least 2 classes a day when teaches the "Mysore weeks" and I generally practice at one of the sessions and watch the other. He has always been very supportive of this. Watching my teacher teach is one of the ways that I learn to be a better teacher myself. I am in awe every time I watch a group of students grow in their practice over the course of 5 days with David as their guide.

It is a particularly special week when I hand David the reins and turn my own students and studio over to him. His ability to see what is going on in a students physical and mental practice always amazes me!

Watching David teach always reminds me of how much I have to learn as a teacher. Here are a few things that I was reminded of during the week:

1. Teaching is a practice and it is a lifelong practice just like asana practice.

2. There are no short cuts to being a good teacher. I will only continue to grow as a teacher, by teaching, acknowledging my mistakes and learning from them. Time, patience and practice are the only way.

3. What I teach comes out of what I practice.

4. I need a teacher to guide my teaching practice just as I need a teacher to guide my asana practice.

5. A sense of humor is absolutely required for teaching this practice :)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thoughts on Practice with David Keil

David (my Mysore teacher) says it's his job not to believe the stories we tell ourselves.

It's a good thing too because I've collected lots of stories over the years about why I will never do x, y, or z pose. Most of the stories are just excuses for me not to try. I've stopped giving David my excuses because by now I know what will happen. He never disagrees with my stories, just listens, smiles and says "Ok, let's just try this then." We set up some part of a pose and then sooner or later I'm doing it without realizing it.

Now, I've stopped telling myself the stories a least for those 5 days that I'm practicing with David. I know enough to know that anything is possible even if I can't see how it will happen. Slowly, I'm starting to carry this lesson off the mat and into the rest of my life.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Thoughts on Choosing a Teacher it's been total radio silence on the blog for a couple weeks. The daily schedule ramped up with all kinds of busyness as I got things ready to host my Mysore teacher for a week. I followed up on the Mysore practice week with a few days of vacation in the pacific northwest and then returned and promptly caught a cold. Finally, things are settling back into their places and I'm finding time to get some thoughts out into the blogosphere from an awesome week of practice with my teacher. why have a teacher anyway? Does anyone really need a teacher?

I can't answer those questions for anyone else, but I definitely need a teacher. For me personally, there are two layers of practice that I'm most aware of. (I suspect there are more layers that I'm unaware of.) I am most aware of the layer of physical practice and the layer of mental practice. I have stayed with my current teacher because he has been able to guide me through both.

Here are a few reasons I still practice with the same teacher that I've been practicing with for the past 6 years or so.

1. He won't take me anywhere that I'm not willing to go. He will do his best to encourage and explain new poses, transitions, or deeper expressions of poses, but if I really don't think I should do something at any particular moment, he never forces it.

2. He is continually asking me to see the practice in new ways, so it never gets too comfortable or routine.

3. He's been able to convince me that the impossible is really possible.

4. He's not in a hurry. He's patiently watched my practice evolve over years and has never once suggested that I wasn't moving along fast enough.

5. I trust him, personally and professionally. This trust both comes out of and enables all the qualities I've described above.

As a teacher myself I only hope I can someday guide my students towards the same sense of vision and patience in practice that my teacher has helped me find in mine.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Knowing When to Eat the Cake...

Ashtanga yoga practice seems to have quietly, when I wasn't looking, rearranged my life. Others have noticed that it has happened to them as well. Slowly, habits change almost imperceptibly. Diet changes and sleeping patterns change. These might seem like obvious changes made to accommodate a strong physical practice....but lately I've noticed 2 new layers emerging.

First, I notice that while I'm inclined to stay with the patterns of diet and sleep that provide the most energy for morning practice, I'm not attached to them. Most of the time I'd rather minimize sugar and go to sleep early...but sometimes I'd really rather eat the cake with a complete acceptance of the after-effects of cake. If I was looking in from the perspective of someone who had never done this practice, I might expect it to, at some point, squash any desire for the "complete experience of cake" (literally and metaphorically speaking), but that is not what has happened. Instead, practice is slowly providing the space to see what I really want in a particular moment. It's increasing engagement with life (cake and all!) rather than avoidance of it.

Secondly, ...and I wonder if this is the influence of second series... I notice changes in relationship habits. New habits in relationship are emerging in the same way as lazy habits of choosing food without awareness were quietly subverted by practice and emerged as new habits of choosing food that is sustaining. As a self-described introvert (time to set the label aside perhaps?) habits in relating to the people who daily cross my path have, until recently, been sliding down a well-worn groove probably first carved out in my pre-teen years. Slowly, practice subverts what I thought I knew about myself. Layers peel off one by one and I am surprised by moments of openness and contentment.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Evolution of Practice

Fair warning this post is a bit rambling and mostly just a collage of thoughts about practice that have been tossing around in my mind.

My practice over the past few years has been an adventure, physically, emotionally, and mentally. I made the transition from primary practice to intermediate practice in the traditional way. My teacher added on one pose at a time making for a loooooong practice for a few years before my practice was "split". Those long practices opened me and drained me. I went through phases of "post-practice euphoria" (which I remember someone in the blogoshpere referring to as the "really good mood" side effects of second that!). I went through phases of feeling "too open", a feeling of overwhelming vulnerability. I went through phases of feeling anxious, a kind of post-practice anxiety hum throughout the day.
Phew!! When they called the sequence "nerve-cleansing" they meant it.

When my teacher split my practice a year ago, practice seemed to shift into a new phase. At the same time my practice was split, my teacher suggested I do the newly shortened second series only practice with full vinyasa....all the way up to standing and back down between each pose. He also suggested I do it that way for 3 weeks before I decided how I felt about it...good call on his part. For 3 weeks, it felt really HARD! Every time I came up to standing, there was a wave of seems I had some breath work to do. By week 4, I loved the new practice. While there were still unsettling "nerve-cleansing" experiences, I felt like there was some ground underneath me again.

Practice seems to have shifted into a new phase once again. Strength has been slowly building to support the openness. Practice is feeling strangely steady and strong although it's now accompanied by a bit of unfamiliar tightness. I'm loving the new steadiness, but am interested to see whether this will be a short-lived phase or whether it will stick around awhile. :)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mental Gymnastics

After a very full week, I keep thinking of that far side comic where the student raises his hand and asks his teacher, "Mr. Osborne, May I be excused? My brain is full."

It's been a very mentally, emotionally challenging and busy my practice focus for this morning was breath. I set my attention on the breath and set my intention to watch the thoughts as they went by with minimal intervening.

What I noticed:

No wonder I'm so tired! By the time I'd finished the primary series I'd mentally relived most of my week and rehearsed everything I was set to do later in the if living the week once wasn't enough, my mind decided it needed to go back and do it over again.

My mind is very inclined to rewrite every decision and situation so that I'm in the right and feel validated....ick.

My mind was very busy mentally planning, organizing and manipulating all potential activities for the day, the next day, the day after that.

Mentally, I spent lots of time in the past and in the future...but in this moment?, not so much.

My mind paused twice for a few poses each time and I had a brief glimpse of mental quiet. One pause towards the end of standing poses into dandasana and a second pause at kurmasana and supta kurmasana. This second pause especially interests me as this was the pose that I struggled with for years in primary practice. It still amazes me that after all the years of intense uncomfortable work in this pose, it now gives a the feeling of soothing my nervous system and quieting the mind like nothing else.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Yoga Sutra 2.4-2.5: What is Real?

Yoga Sutra 2.4-2.5:
"Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows whether dormant, attenuated, interrupted or fully active."

"Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidya."
-Iyengar translation

B.K.S. Iyengar says this in the commentary on 2.5:
"Naturally we make mistakes, but when through want of understanding, we fail to reappraise or reflect, error becomes a habit."

This brings up a question in my mind. What is real and where has "error become a habit"? In what situations have I moved through with a fair try at equanimity and grace and when have I reacted out of habit instead of reflection?

These two sutras really parallel my asana practice at the moment. I'm finding that second series is a very different kind of work for me than primary. Second series asana practice is digging right in to every fear, vulnerability and insecurity. As layers of carefully constructed "self-protection" unravel, I'm asking these same questions more often. Am I that?...or is this a habit, another layer to peel off? Have I been mistaken avoidance of insecurities and vulnerabilities as strength?

It brings to my mind again the zen proverb on Beryl Bender Birch's website "Only when you can be extremely pliable and soft, can you be extremely hard and strong."

...Ah, lots of work to do here...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Random Practice Thoughts

At some point during a happy practice yesterday afternoon, the teacher who's class I was dropping into mentioned that I smile a lot in practice. I hadn't really thought about it until he mentioned it....but having thought about it, yes, I do smile a lot in practice. I'm happy in practice.
Add in my joy at practicing with a group and I'm really happy. After 4 or so years of primarily home practice, I don't take practicing with a group for granted anymore. The constant sound of ujjai is calming and I always have an easier time settling into practice with the sound of others breathing. Throw in the occasional adjustment or assist and the chance to share with other people the one thing I am most passionate about and what's not to smile about? :)

Practice Notes:
It seems I'm being revisited by the backbend vs. leg-behind-head tug of war. This has come and gone twice now and it seems it has returned for round 3. Currently, leg-behind-head has the rope on it's side. Backbends feel stuck and INTENSE! Easy dropping into kapotasana has disappeared and been replaced with dropping with a thud and clawing my way in. Likewise, comfort is gone from drop-backs. Lots of rocking and bent knees required just to drop back and come up. I've been adding the first few poses from second to my twice weekly primary practice to see if I could even things out a bit. No luck yet, just sticky backbends and achy hips.

Thoughts or suggestions from any of you out there in Cyber Shala World?

some extracurricular backbending maybe?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

David Keil Returns to Gainesville

I've been really blessed to have found amazing teachers along the Ashtanga yoga path. They have all provided insights and invaluable encouragement along the way. Now that the time I spend with them is limited due to distance, I especially look forward to the few weeks/weekends I spend with them each year.

The next circled dates on my calendar are at the end of August (Aug. 30-Sept. 3). David Keil, my primary Mysore teacher is coming to town. For 5 days, I get to turn my studio and my students over to David...and I get to be a student myself. The night before a week of Mysore classes with David is like Christmas Eve for me. I'm so excited for the next morning to arrive that the alarm can't come early enough!

Stay Tuned for a Guest Blog Post by David on what Mysore style Ashtanga practice is all about!

The mental countdown of weeks has already begun...and I'm storing up a mental list of questions about practice and teaching. I'll be blogging during the week and sharing it here. :)

If you're in the area (or not) and want to join in the fun (August 30-Sept. 3), the details are on the workshop page of the website....only 4 spaces left!

If you can't make it to Gainesville, catch David in Tampa at the beautiful Treehouse Yoga, Sept.27-Oct.1

Friday, July 16, 2010

Yoga Sutra 2.3: The Things That Get in the Way

In sutra 2.2 Patanjali says yoga reduces the sutra 2.3, he names the afflictions:

"The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego, or the sense of 'I', attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life" --Iyengar translation

so I'm pondering on where each of these show up in my practice...where do I have a chance to work on them?

"ignorance or lack of wisdom"
I'm not sure there are specific parts of practice that come to my mind when I think of lessening this affliction. Much of practice is a regular reminder that I have so much to learn! Time itself may be the best teacher when if comes to "lack of wisdom".

"ego, pride of the ego, or the sense of 'I'"
Hmmm...lots of work to do here. This makes me think specifically of Uttitha Hasta Pandangustasana. It's the moments when I think "I've got this!" or "I'm good at this!" that I inevitably fall over. Ego has a tendency to metaphorically "knock me over" in life off the mat as well. A willingness to laugh at myself is definitely helpful here.

"attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain"
The method of samavritti (literally means same waves) or equal breath makes me more and more aware of my tendencies here. I notice that in asana practice, I tend to let the breath get longer in the places of comfort (a nice forward bend) and shorter in the places of discomfort (chataranga or anything requiring strength to hold). If I hold the rest of my life up to the same light of awareness, the same is true. Lots more work to do here on the mat and off.

"fear of death and clinging to life"
I've heard it said more than once that all fears are ultimately a fear of death or "non-being" (though at the moment, can't recall just who actually should get the credit for saying that). The daily work of doing something that brings up fear (the particular fear triggers keep changing as my practice evolves) has been one of the greatest gifts that I have gotten from this practice. All the things in my life that have brought the greatest amount of joy have started with a moment when I made a choice to "take a deep breath and jump!"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Yoga Sutra 2.2

Yoga Sutra 2.2 "The practice of yoga reduces afflictions and leads to samadhi."
-Iyengar translation

B.K.S. Iyengar has this to say in the commentary on this sutra: "The purpose of this yoga is to minimize all impediments to meditation and thus bring the intelligence to full, vibrant life."

I really like what Mr. Iyengar has to say in the commentary on this sutra. This practice really is "householder yoga", a practice to teach me how to live in the world with greater equanimity and joy. It is not a way to escape from the world. The long-time teachers and practitioners set good examples of what is possible here by maintaining practice and all the "householding" responsibilities with admirable grace and light-heartedness. It is definitely something to aspire to.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Some random thoughts on balance in life...

This past post from Jason apparently hit home when I read it because it's still on my mind 2 months later...

When I'm faced with two equally good options of how to spend my time or when I'm faced with one activity I feel obliged to spend time on and one I want to spend time on, I tend to have the same initial response...I'll do both! Unfortunately, the decision to do it all does not in fact change the available number of hours in the day...

As an Ashtangi with a day job and teaching responsibilities, I'm still wrestling with this. When I'm running a little short on hours in the day, I tend to steal them from sleep.

Some creative schedule management has resulted in squeezing an extra 30 minutes or so of sleep into my morning and I'm definitely feeling it. More sleep = a stronger and more alert practice = a more alert day = better decisions made during the day.

All the same, I think I'd love to be one of those people who can really function on say 5 hours sleep...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Blog Anniversary!

I'm celebrating's my 1-year blog anniversary!

I started this blog a year ago in my continued efforts to both take part in the wider Ashtanga community (hello "cyber shala"!) and build a local Ashtanga community.

This day comes nearly 9 years after my first Ashtanga class. I remain as passionate about, in love with, and fascinated by this practice as ever. The opportunities to share that as a teacher and as a fellow student mean the world to me. a spirit of gratitude, a heartfelt thanks to every student who has come through my Mysore room. I have learned as much from each of you as you have from me. Thanks to my teachers who have patiently nudged my practice along and who have been so supportive of me stepping out and sharing the practice as a teacher.

A thanks as well to all the readers who have stopped in and visited my blog....and if you've never commented before, leave a comment!...say Hi!
Looking forward to see what the next year of blogging will bring. :)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book 2: The Book on Practice

Sutra 2.1 "The Yoga of action consists of austerity, self-study and surrender to the Supreme Being."

I've been looking forward to reading my way through book 2 of the Yoga Sutras because it encompasses the sutras that directly relate to the physical "active" practices of yoga. Interestingly, both commentary from Iyengar and Maehle suggest that, of the 4 books in the Yoga Sutra, this one is most applicable to beginners. They describe beginners as those who still have work to do on the outward practices (the limbs before meditation). I'm definitely a beginner.

It also interests me that the first sutra in a book for beginners includes words like "austerity" and "surrender". They both suggest to me that this "Yoga of action" is something that is going to involve some discomfort! Beryl Bender Birch likes to translate "Isvara" (Supreme Being) as "aware presence" or "present moment". I like that translation as it gives this sutra a broader meaning. It suggests that yoga practice is going to involve surrender to what is larger than myself in any given present moment.

Beryl also likes to point out that friction, irritation and general mental suffering arise when we push against the present moment rather than surrendering to it. She's a wise person! if only that wasn't so hard! I've actually gone so far as to throw a kicking and screaming temper tantrum in asana practice...this was years was only one was there to see it. :)
I had tweaked something in my back while at work after several days spent heaving around bags or fertilizer. I was very frustrated that I could not do my "full practice". The result of said tantrum?...a bruised foot.

The moments when I have moved toward surrender have been worth the discomfort every time. That said, I'm not sure it gets any easier to accept that the world is larger than my tiny sphere in it. Ego can be so loud! ...and that I suppose is the reason that Book 2 of the Yoga Sutra is the "Book on Practice". "Practice and all is coming" -S.K.P.J. ...but maybe not all is coming in this lifetime...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Paying Attention

Essentially every yoga injury that I've had has been the result of one or more of the following:

1. Got in a hurry and moved too fast
2. Wasn't paying attention
3. Was paying attention, knew I shouldn't do something, and did it anyway

I'm going through a phase of little tweaks in asana practice lately...I consider it my body's way of getting my attention. The newest tweak is a funny sort of strain on the back of the right knee. I attribute this one to overzealous flinging of the legs when jumping through. I suspect I hyper extended it and it is pushing back. This one belongs in the "got in a hurry and moved too fast" category.

Asana practice is such a mirror for the rest of my life. I'd say most of the life events where I have the feeling of wanting to back up and try again are also a result of the above three situations. I'd like to think my overall attention has improved over the years...there are less yoga tweaks than early on and I have the sense that there are less "life tweaks" too, but that's harder to say for sure.

The most interesting part for me is that none of the strains or aches of yoga or life have ever been all bad. Nothing has ever been all black or all white...really just different roads to the same place. I can't often see that in the moment though.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Yoga Sutra: 1.41-1.51

I haven't posted on the Yoga Sutras in a while...what I imagined as a spring project has rolled into summer...

I was a bit stumped for anything I could say about sutras 1.41-1.51, the last sutras of book one. These 10 sutras describe the transition from the experience of meditation to the experience of samadhi.

I think the experiences described in the 10 sutras fall into the "practice and all is coming" category. When I have such an experience, I'll be sure to let you know. In the mean time, I'll keep working on concentration practice (dharana) as well as the rest of the "lower limbs"...but do read sutras 1.41-1.51 for yourself.
What's possible with practice and time is extraordinary.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Yoga and Change I've been asked this question a few times now...In one student's words: "Is it normal to lose poses?" which she means: is it normal for your expression of a pose to look one way for a while and suddenly one day, it's different? Yes, yes, and yes.

There has yet to be anything static in my practice and I suspect the same holds true for others. While a pose is never the same twice, some changes are more noticeable than others. As a natural backbender, I took my heels without much effort on my first try in Kapotasana. Initially, it was not a pose that I struggled with (although there were and are plenty that I struggle with daily). Some time after, when my teacher introduced the various leg-behind-head poses of second, I lost Kapo. It was puzzling. One day it was there and then one day it was suddenly a crazy intense pose and even my toes seemed very far away. As I wound my way through the experience, over months, Kapo to heels returned, but it's different.

If there was one thing that seemed much clearer to me during the months of that particular transition, it was that the act of doing the pose and noticing whatever was going on was "yoga". The expression of a pose, what it looked like on any particular day, was really neither here nor there. As it has been quoted around the cyber shala: The particular expression of a pose "doesn't last, doesn't satisfy, and isn't me" (-Daniel Ingram I believe; someone correct me if I've gotten that wrong.)

I love Kaivalya's description of a personal body gremlin who moves around hanging out in one place in the body today and settling into a new spot tomorrow. It's such perfect description of the endless little openings and shifts that occur in the body.

The ongoing shifts in my physical practice play back into my mental practice, never letting me get too comfortable, too attached or inattentive in a pose...because as soon as I do, it changes.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Yoga and Life

more on yoga and life...

I'm having a week...can't decide what kind or how I feel about it. Tuesday, I got hit by a car while biking home from work. I'm fine. I have some lovely purple bruises and my left elbow doesn't feel great in chataranga position, but I'm really fine.
Initially, I was just all around pissed off...angry at the driver who failed to yield and who should have had no difficulty seeing me right in front of her...angry about the impending bike repairs.

After something like 9 years of daily Ashtanga practice, though, it seems I can't help but step back and watch all of the inner and outer drama. Noticing is a habit now. I am on one level dealing with all the life stuff (making alternate transportation arrangements, taking the bike in for repairs) and on another level watching my own response to it.

I'm fascinated with how the body responds to the inner drama and vice versa. Wednesday morning, I did a gentle half primary. I wanted to take it easy in case there were any injuries that were slow to appear and I just couldn't face the intensity that I feel in second series. All the inconveniences of being without my regular transportation started to pile up, but I moved through the day with a reasonable amount of steadiness.
This morning, I did most of my regular second series practice with modifications for my left elbow....and as I know well by now, when you open up the body, you open up everything else. Sure enough, by mid-day I was holding back tears and counting the minutes until I could leave work. The physical experience is not separate from the internal experience.

The whole experience reminds me of Susan's recent post. I didn't feel any initial fear or adrenaline during the actual being knocked off my bike part. It took 48 hours for a few tears to leak out and it does have much the same feeling of "backbending weirdness" or "nerve-cleansing tears" as she put it...and in that way it feels familiar.

Tomorrow, I'm looking forward to nice grounding Friday primary practice and then picking up my newly repaired bike at the shop....and hoping for a quiet, uneventful weekend.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Practice is life. The two are not separate, just two expressions of the same thing. The time I spend on my mat is a chance to remove extraneous variables and watch myself respond to triggers. What happens when I am tired or uncomfortable? I notice impatience and frustration come up. Hmm. What to do with that? I can express it by forcing poses and letting the breath disintegrate into a raspy mess. Experience suggests that I'll be happier with another choice. So, what to do then? Sit back, watch the physical expression of frustration. Notice areas of tension. Concentrate the breath there. Notice what happens on the inhale. Notice what happens on the exhale. Use what is accessible, body and breath, to change what is not.

Asana practice is a laboratory for my life. It's a place to remove the complications of extraneous circumstances and look at the essence, fundamentals and common threads. It's my chance to slow down the pace and catch myself in moments of fear, discomfort, or ego...and to see what happens when I choose a different response than what I might elect out of habit.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Random Practice Thoughts

I woke up feeling rested a few minutes before the alarm this morning, which is unusual as I get up pretty early. Despite the moon day, I had plans to practice. I started the first sun salutation and discovered that apparently my last attempt at karandavasana yesterday was one attempt too many. Arms were sore and serratus was really sore. Ah, the results of over-enthusiasm. A few years ago, I probably would have pushed through it. Today though, I cut it short and dialed down the intensity. I'll enjoy primary that much more tomorrow.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Yoga Sutra 1.40: Objects of Meditation

"Mastery is achieved when the mind can concentrate on any object from the smallest atom to the entire cosmos." Sutra 1.40 Maehle translation

The two translations of the Yoga Sutras that I use the most were done by Iyengar and Maehle. It's interesting to me that the commentary in both translations of this sutra is similar. They both talk about starting to learn to pay attention by using more accessible "objects of meditation" and working up to more challenging ones. It seems to me like a parallel to challenging the breath through asana practice. You start the practice with fundamental asanas. When the breath is steady and easy, you add more challenging asanas, pushing the edges of maintaining a steady breath. It makes sense to me that steadying the mind would work the same way. Start with the basics, then, when the mind is steady, add more challenge.

Ultimately, I suppose the two are really not that separate. Pranayama is, after all, using breath control to control energy and mind. Breath is both an object of meditation and a physical reflection of the steadiness or unsteadiness of the mind.

...I do have the feeling though, when it comes to a steady mind, I'll be working on the basics for a long time...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Purging the Clutter

Through a very generous gift from a student, I am now the proud owner of a pile of Ashtanga primary series Dvd's and books. Among the set is a copy of Matthew Sweeney's 'Vinyasa Krama'. I happily took the book off my amazon wishlist and commenced reading.

Something I read has been on my mind for a couple days now. He says, (and I'm paraphrasing as I don't have the book where I'm writing from) "It's very difficult to quiet the mind in a cluttered space." He's speaking in reference to setting aside a space for yoga practice. Well, my studio space is tidy and uncluttered, but the rest of the house...hmmm...not so much. An artifact of my recent busyness is an accumulation of piles of stuff.

This weekend's activities: purging! I actually love the feeling of throwing out and giving away stuff. The feeling of getting rid of physical stuff is very cathartic, almost as if I'm tossing mental and emotional gunk out with it...and maybe the mental quiet of yoga practice will stay with me a little longer if the rest of my physical space is as tidy as the space I set aside for asana practice.

Happy Friday Everyone!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wise Words from Beryl Bender Birch

Ah, the whirlwind continues, but I'm going to squeeze in a blog post anyway.
After a year and a half of part-time work, then a lay-off, then more part-time work, I'm back to full time work...a mixed blessing. It's exciting work with great people, but does inevitably soak up much energy and time. I expect blog posting to be a bit erratic as the new schedule sorts itself out.

I spent the past weekend having some recharging time. I was fortunate several years ago to be able to complete a 200 hr teacher training with Beryl Bender Birch. I completed the 200 hrs in bits of a week here and a weekend there over the course of about a year and a half. I try to make it to at least one weekend with Beryl every year. There is nothing like having actually done the practice for something nearing 40 years to give you perspective on things! I always leave the weekend with Beryl feeling clear-headed and heart-warmed. This past weekend was no exception.

I usually don't take notes, but this time I did feel like there were a few things that I wanted to write down and thought I'd share here.
So here are a few of Beryl's thoughts from our afternoon discussion session:

"A single thought has a physical expression."

"Yoga is so much like scientific inquiry. Verify things with your own experience."

"Pranayama is energy management. If you can learn to manage your energy on the mat, then you can learn to manage it "out there"...but before you try to manage the energy layer, spend some time learning to manage the physical body."

"Don't squander your life. Do what you can with what you have to ease the suffering of others when the opportunities arise."
---I have always admired Beryl for the way she ends each session of each workshop by reminding us to take the focus off of ourselves and start looking around.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pantanjali on Practices for Quieting the Mind

In Sutra 1.33-1.39 Patanjali goes on to list examples of the many kinds of things that we can apply our attention to in order to still the mind. The list is diverse. There really is a practice for everyone. In fact in 1.39 Patanjali basically says that: "The mind can also be stabilized by meditating on any suitable object". (-Maehle translation)

Other practices that Patanjali mentions that can be used to quiet the mind:

1.33 "Clarity of mind is produced by meditating on friendliness toward the happy, compassion toward the miserable, joy toward the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked."
1.34 "Or from exhalation and retention of breath (prana)"
1.35 "Or by contemplation on an object that helps to maintain steadiness of mind and consciousness."
1.36 "Or inner stability is gained by contemplating a luminous, sorrowless, effulgent light."
1.37 "Or by contemplating on enlightened sages who are free from desires and attachments, calm and tranquil, or by contemplating the experiences of dream-filled or dreamless sleep during a watchful waking state.

I am grateful to have found a practice that works for me. I did my fair share of "practice shopping" early on. I spent a few years trying classes in this style of yoga or that style of yoga. It wasn't until I settled in to one practice and was consistent about it that change started to happen. The focus on the physical body and breath as my meditation object works for me. The focus on bandha is subtle enough work to last me for a lifetime. Perhaps next lifetime I will be ready to focus on a quality of light?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thoughts from Kaivalya of the Cyber Shala on Sutra 1.32

...just had to share some beautifully written thoughts by a fellow blogger and member of the cyber shala...

If you haven't checked out Kaivalya's blog yet, now's the time! It's a great record of the ups and downs of incorporating yoga practice into your life, written with a great sense of humor!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Quieting the Mind

Yoga Sutra 1.32:
"Adherence to single-minded effort prevents these impediments."
-Iyengar translation

At this point in my journey through the Yoga Sutras, I'm starting to wonder if the whole book couldn't be summed up by Pattabhi Jois when he said "Practice and all is coming." Patanjali's main theme thus far seems to be: Choose a practice. Keep practicing.

Despite having met all of the obstacles at one point or another, I do keep practicing. The lust for handstand may be what gets me out of bed and onto the mat, but the work of paying attention is the same.

It's interesting to me that Patanjali says the important thing is to maintain "single-minded effort", but doesn't say that any one practice is better than any other provided that the object of meditation is "conducive to steadiness of consciousness" (sutra 1.39). The emphasis seems to be on staying with the chosen practice for the long-term.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


As I continue to juggle all the things that are important to me, I wonder if, as "householders", we have in some ways chosen a more challenging path than a renunciate. Probably, if I really did move to a cave with nothing but my own mind for company, I'd find that the challenges were different ones, but equally demanding. All the same, as I work to keep balance, I wonder if the choice to stay engaged with the multiple aspects of "householding" life is one of the more difficult choices we make....and one of the most rewarding?
...makes me think...

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Yoga Sutra on Saddness and Frustration

Yoga Sutra 1.31:

"Sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of the body and irregular breathing further distract the citta."
-translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

...or another translation...

"Suffering and frustration, unsteadiness of body, inhalation and exhalation result from the distractions."
-translation by Maehle

We bring everything that we are with us to the mat. Whatever I'm feeling definitely shows itself in my physical practice. When I'm frustrated or upset, my teacher can hear it in my breath...and I can hear that in the breath of my students as well. One of the most challenging times for me to do a strong yoga asana practice is when I'm genuinely hurting over something. The Ashtanga asana practice requires an amazing amount of openness, putting us in a vulnerable place. It's hard to go there when you're in a moment where you really want to close in and put the armor up. On the other hand, when I have managed it, those have been some of the most rewarding practices.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Yoga Sutra: Obstacles to Practice

...we rejoin Patanjali's Yoga Sutra at sutra 1.30:

"These obstacles are disease, inertia, doubt, heedlessness, laziness, indiscipline of the senses, erroneous views, lack of perseverance, and backsliding."

-translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

My personal nemesis is inertia, probably followed closely behind by doubt. The hardest part of anything for me, yoga practice included, is just getting started. Once I do get started, self-doubts are often not far behind. I remedy this by setting aside time with my yoga teacher and with practice groups whenever I can. A nudge in the right direction from my teacher or a friend can definitely go a long way to help me keep the practice momentum going.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


My practice seems to be stuck in an endless tug-of-war between backbends and leg-behind-head. If one is comfortable then the other is not. Today's verdict: backbends comfortable and leg-behind-head definitely not.

I suspect there are good reasons for the tug back and forth. The nerve cleansing aspects of intermediate probably have a lot to do with the motion of the spine...deeply bend back...then deeply bend forward.

I asked my teacher if this tugging back and forth was going to end at some point. Would there come a time when both backbends and leg-behind-head were comfortable in the same practice? He said "Yes"...and then followed up with "and I'll let you know when I get there." Hmm...seems like I might be here for a while then.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Yoga Sutra on "Surrender"

...on with the Yoga Sutra...

so the next bit of the Yoga Sutra, sutra 1.23, states that one path to samadhi is the "surrender to the Universal Soul" or to the "teacher of the other teachers" (depending on which translation you're reading). Sutras 1.24-1.26 describe the characteristics of this ultimate teacher and 1.27 & 1.28 describe how one might go about making that connection.

...and this is the point where I acknowledge that this is pretty sticky stuff for anyone with NO scholarly background in Yoga Sutra studies (i.e. me) ...but in the interest of making my way through the Yoga Sutra and sharing that here, I'm throwing the summary text up there. You can all ponder it with me! :)

In my mind, the "teacher of the other teachers" is the practice itself. I think it is the practice itself that is everyone's ultimate teacher. I find the idea of setting aside control or "surrendering" in practice interesting. I definitely learn the most from practice when I'm open to surprises and when I'm willing to let the practice itself be the teacher rather than trying to control where it's going.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Yoga Sutra on "Practice"

...time to continue on with my journey through the Yoga Sutra...

Sutras 1.17-1.19 describe the stages of samadhi. Even the idea of reaching samadhi seems so far removed from something I could actually wrap my head around that I'm not sure there is anything I could say about's best left to Patajali. :)

...but in 1.20 Patajali returns once more to the subject of practice...

Sutra 1.20 "Practice must be pursued with trust, confidence, vigour, keen memory and power of absorption to break this spiritual complacency."

1.21 "The goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice."

1.22 "There are differences between those who are mild, average and keen in their practices.

-all from the translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

Thoughts on 1.20: The longer I practice, the more I'm starting to get a picture of what my teacher means when he says to "trust the practice". The picture is still coming together, but I'm getting the idea. I'm less apt to get worried or frustrated when I "lose" poses and more apt to recognize that while we may do triangle everyday, it's never the same triangle twice! I'm also less apt to get worried when I hit a low energy patch for a few days. The practice hasn't gone's still there...still doing it's work, just showing itself differently.

Thoughts on 1.21-1.22: This section of the Yoga Sutra is honestly kind of intimidating! I'm not sure I want to evaluate my practice on a scale of "mild, average or keen"! ...nor am I sure that such an evaluation of our own practice is even possible. I consider it a "good" practice if I get out of bed, step on the mat and do what I can in that practice. It makes me glad to know that a practitioner with all the experience and wisdom of Pattabhi Jois said simply "Practice and all is coming."

Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Day 4: yoga vacation with David Keil

I'm already feeling sad that tomorrow is my last practice with my teacher for 6 more months. The week always goes by so fast.

After doing years of mostly home practice, I've found that there are things about practicing on my own that I love, but I'm so grateful this week to be practicing with a group. It's energizing in a way that practicing alone isn't. I especially like the sound of other students breathing. It helps keep me focused and is a constant reminder to me to breath. The one CD recording that is not for sale (that I know of), but that I would love to own is just a recording of 2 hours of a Mysore class breathing. That's a call to all the established teachers out there...someone make a breath CD!

Tomorrow's goal: try to soak up the energy of practicing with a great group of students and a fantastic teacher...and then carry that into home practice next week!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Day 3: yoga vacation with David Keil

day 3 of my 5 days of practice with David...

practice thoughts:
I'm starting to get a sense of where in practice my work will be for the next 6 months of home practice. Practicing with David makes me very aware of the areas in my practice where I tend toward lazy. It also reminds me of one of the best lessons that I learn from practice (over and over again): if you don't try it, it doesn't get any easier.

Strength components of poses come very slowly to me; it is so motivating to have someone cheering me on as progress in these areas slowly appears in my practice.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day 2: Yoga vacation with David Keil

ahhh...another stellar morning yoga practice with my teacher. Today begins the new homework I'll be working on for the next 6 months of home practice...or as looks more likely the next 6 years. The new pose and other transition work feel absolutely impossible! One of the things that I love about David is his attitude of total confidence that what feels impossible to me is totally possible (with time and practice of course!)
...and one of the things that I love about the Ashtanga yoga practice is that there is no end to confronting the impossible and learning that it really can be done!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Day 1: Yoga vacation with David Keil when I first started learning Ashtanga yoga, I lived in Miami and had the luxury of a local yoga studio with Mysore style classes and multiple excellent teachers... forward a few years and I have left the big city for a smallish college town that suits me far better, but have sadly left my yoga teachers behind.

For the past 4 years I have done home practice and spent a week practicing with my teacher twice a year. This week is my week of practice with David Keil (my teacher) and this time I'm in Savannah, GA. David gives me lots of "homework" during each practice week...enough that I'm just about ready for more in 6 months when I travel to practice with him again. I have no doubt this week will be no different. It's helpful in those long stretches of home practice to know that I will see a teacher in 6 months and that he will be expecting that I have practiced! It's motivation to keep the intensity of practice up when nobody's watching! :)

Practice thoughts for today:
You know how, when your car starts making some kind of funny noise and you finally take it into the shop, that inevitably it stops making any noises and runs great?! Well, for me, practicing with David is a bit like that. It seems like every time I'm starting a practice week with David, I'm coming into it having tweaked something. I've tweaked shoulders while biking, ankles and knees while running, etc. By the end of the first practice with David's adjustments, the tweaks are gone. Everything is running great.

A big thanks to the the great group at Savannah Yoga Center! They have a beautiful studio and a great group of students to practice with.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Dropback Post

Over the past few months, several of the bloggers that I read have been sharing their experiences with standing up from backbends and with dropbacks.

...side note...I especially liked Karen's post when she ordered the "vinyl sand dune" for drop back practice!

Since a couple of my students are now on the adventure that is "dropbacks", this sequence has been on my mind.

There seems to be an importance placed on this sequence in a way that doesn't happen so much with other parts of the practice. I've been told that this is the one place in practice where everyone still receives attention in Mysore, even when there are 50 people in the room!

...So what's the big deal then? Why learn dropbacks?

I've been told that dropbacks are one of the "gateways" to second series because they build strength and control that are needed to safely approach the deeper backbends found in intermediate practice.

From my own experience, I would agree. Full disclosure, I'm a natural backbender. The bending part of backbends came easy. The dropping back part came pretty easy. The strength and control to come back up from the back bend did not come so easy. In fact, it felt like forever before I could come up from a backbend with the confidence that I would not use too much momentum and nearly fall forward or panic halfway up and end up sitting down out of it...ouch!

So, yes, I do think developing the control in dropbacks helped to pave the way for intermediate...but as I watch my students work through their own experiences with dropbacks, I think it's more than that.

The work in dropbacks develops mental and emotional strength. This sequence asks that you be vulnerable and strong at the same time. It asks that you trust yourself, trust your teacher, and that you embrace the fear of falling! These are all themes that have come up for me again and again in intermediate, but they are also themes that come up in life off the mat.

Beryl Bender Birch heard a saying once that she liked so much that she worked the idea of it into the name of her business "The Hard and Soft Yoga Institute".
The zen proverb as it still appears on her website reads "Only when you can be extremely pliable and soft, can you be extremely hard and strong."
...which is, I think, a great summary of the work which comes out of learning dropbacks.

More Yoga Sutra

Yoga Sutra 1.16 "The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul." -Iyengar translation

It gives me hope that Patanjali suggests that it is possible to see past all that distracts us from what is important and to get a glimpse of what really is.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Yoga Sutra 1.15 "Detachment is mastery in not desiring objects seen or heard of."
-translation by Maehle

Ahead of me in the next few months, I'm going to have to make some choices as far as employment goes. My current contract lasts just to the end of the year. I've got multiple options which is both exciting and daunting. As a chronic over-scheduler, my usual method of managing choices is to get attached to all possible outcomes and then try to do it all.

I'm finding in asana practice that I go through phases of attachment and detachment. It's interesting for me to watch the phases come and go. When I am first given something new to work on (a pose or transition), I'm initially fairly detached from it...usually because I don't actually believe the new pose is something I'll ever do! I notice my attachment to specific poses most when, for whatever reason, I "lose" a pose that I have been doing steadily. It serves to remind me that the practice is not the pose. It is the whole package: breath, bandha, driste, asana. When a "lost" pose does eventually return, it is always, of course, different. The longer I practice, the more I notice that grasping at poses is like trying to hold onto air. It's just not very substantial. I still get attached...still "desire objects seen or heard"...I still want handstand!

I'm grateful though, that this practice gives me a chance to do just that, practice. I can be attached to a pose and watch it happen...and then watch what happens when the pose changes, as it inevitably will. With a lifetime of practice, who knows what's possible? I hope to carry the experience of attachment and detachment in asana practice with me into the next few months as I approach this next round of employment decision-making.

Friday, February 19, 2010

It Comes Back to Practice

...on with the yoga sutra...

In sutras 1.17-1.11, Patanjali describes each of the five fluctuations in more detail, but in sutra 1.12 he comes back to the point of how to get to "yoga", where "yoga" is "the suspension of these fluctuations".

and the answer is... Practice.

Yoga sutra 1.12 "The suspension of these fluctuations is through practice and detachment."
-Gregor Maehle translation

1.13 "Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations." -Iyengar translation


There is a lot I could say about how important a consistent practice is to me, but nothing I say can possibly convey what that practice has and does teach me. I learn from my practice every day. As I said in a comment on a fellow Ashtangi's blog, I would not trade the work that I do each day in practice for anything. There is nothing like it.

I like that Patanjali points out that "long, uninterrupted" practice is the path to a quiet mind. It reminds me that there is no hurry and no expectation of instant success (whatever that might look like). If the road to a quiet mind is expected to be a long one, then it seems the best course of action is to relax and enjoy the journey...and the longer that I maintain a consistent practice, the more possible that seems!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Yoga Sutra continues...

...A return to my trek through the Yoga Sutra...

Sutra 1:5-6 "There are five types of mind waves, which can be troublesome or untroublesome. The five fluctuations of mind or mind waves are correct perception, wrong perception, conceptualization, deep sleep, and memory."
-translation by Gregor Maehle

It's interesting to me that after Patanjali defines yoga as the absence of "mind waves" that he goes on to point out that some of the fluctuations experienced are not necessarily "troublesome". It's a reiteration to me that yoga is less about right and wrong, and more about awareness of the moment. There is the suggestion, however, that we can learn to make more conscious choices about how we respond to what we are experiencing in a given moment. The fact that there are names for five fluctuations suggests that there comes a point at which we can tell the difference between them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Return to Blogging

After a few weeks off, I've made some time to return to the blogosphere. This spring has me working 2 jobs and teaching 6 classes. It's schedules like this that make me grateful for practice. One of the benefits of setting aside early morning time for asana practice is that there's nowhere else I'm supposed to be. I get those couple hours to myself. Getting out of bed early never gets any easier for me, but getting that time on the mat is always worth it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Yoga is...being willing to be surprised

Yoga Sutra 1:3-4 "Then the seer dwells in his own true splendour. At other times, the seer identifies with the fluctuating consciousness." -Iyengar translation

If yoga is that space when the mind is quiet, then that is the point where we can see things as they are. At other times reality tends to be colored by both past experiences and future expectations. I come back to yoga asana practice again and again because it is the most effective way for me to shake off what I already think I know and be willing to be surprised.

A great post by Karen that I read just before this Yoga Sutra got me thinking about practice earlier this week. She wrote about staying with what is really happening rather than seeing what we have been conditioned to expect.

Often, I catch myself coloring a situation with my expectations of how it will go. It is a big leap to give myself the space to approach anything without those expectations.

Because of my body type, backbends have, in the past, come easily to me, but leg-behind-head poses have presented a good bit of difficulty. It has been an adventure to find that the structure and sequence of second series has turned that familiar body pattern on its head! It is not just the poses themselves, but the way in which they are sequenced and practiced that gives second series its intensity.

Earlier this week I went into practice feeling frustrated, not with practice specifically, it was just a general feeling. It's not often that I find much to be that irritated about that early in the morning, but I had not slept well the night before. I started practice and found that the intensity level of the frustration increased with each backbending pose to a point that was very difficult to stay with.

I was stunned to find that when I moved into the leg-behind-head sequence, the poses were comfortable, almost soothing. With each leg-behind-head pose, the frustration and irritation dissipated as if I had come through it and out the other side. I finished practice with a funny feeling of surprise that just when I thought I knew my body and movement patterns, I was wrong.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Yoga Sutra 1:2 Yoga is...

Yoga Sutra 1:2--Yogah citta vrtti nirodhah--

"Yoga is the suspension of the fluctuations of the mind." -G. Maehle translation
"Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness." -B.K.S. Iyengar translation

Mr. Iyengar describes yoga in his commentary on this sutra as "both the means and the end". So, it is yoga when I step onto the mat and work to pay attention to breath, to driste, and to bandha. Occasionally, when there is a brief quiet pause between thoughts, that is yoga too. One is yoga as the means, the other is yoga as the destination.

Maehle translates "vrtti" as fluctuations in the mind and Iyengar translates "vrtti" as movements in the consciousness. Fluctuations and movements sound so innocuous to me. They sound like something that should be easy to manage. Another translation (which I unfortunately did not make a note of) translates "nirodhah" as "no storms". I like that. When I think of all that goes through my mind during the day it feels more like storms than mere movements...hence my love of and need for this yoga practice. :)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yoga Sutra: 1:1 Yoga Begins Now.

One of the fundamental texts to describe the art of yoga is the Yoga Sutra. As a student of yoga, I have read sections of the Yoga Sutra, but I've never read the whole thing with commentary. This spring, I'm reading my way through it and sharing my thoughts here.

A few caveats:
I'm most certainly not a Sanskrit or any other kind of scholar. I read and share only as a student who is fascinated by what those wiser yogis in the past had to say about this amazing discipline.
I hope you'll all ride along and share your thoughts as well.

Book 1: Sutra 1 Translation: B.K.S. Iyengar
"With prayers for divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga."

My thoughts:
I have 3 translations of the Yoga Sutra and each translates the first sutra a little differently. The one thing that is common to all of them is the word "now". The path of yoga begins wherever I am when I start. It begins "now". It doesn't begin when I am more flexible or stronger or calmer or wiser. Each day, I get up again and start exactly where I am, "now".

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

David Keil on Chronic Pain and Choosing a Therapist

I sometimes get asked about where to go for therapeutic help with chronic pain issues. Students are often interested in combining yoga with other therapies, but want to know who to see.

My mysore teacher, David Keil, recently wrote an excellent answer to this question that I wanted to share with everyone:

...and he is now writing a blog describing his travels as well...
keep up with David at:

Saturday, January 2, 2010

More Thoughts on Balancing Rest and Asana Practice

Almost universally among hatha yoga practices and styles is the time set aside at the end of practice for rest. Ashtanga yoga asana practice is no different. After time for asana, there is time for rest. During rest there is nothing to "do", no goals, just rest. It's time to let the body assimilate all that I have just asked of it.

(...a side note: Some yoga asana styles and some ashtangis refer to this time as savasana or corpse pose. Pattabhi Jois has reportedly said that savasana is actually a pose at the end of 6th series where, rumor has it, you can learn to stop your own heartbeat!...yikes! For that reason, I'll just refer to that resting time at the end of practice as rest) back to your regularly scheduled post...

Ashtanga often gets a reputation for attracting "type A" people. Certainly, a regular daily practice that may often last 1 1/2 to 2 hours takes a certain amount of dedication. It is also true that Ashtanga offers physical challenges to meet any level of practitioner. However, one of the biggest challenges that I see myself and students struggle with is the willingness to rest. Many practitioners that I meet find it very difficult to just rest without needing to "do" anything at that moment.

I catch myself working through that same mental tug-of-war on especially busy days. I know how important it is to rest after practice. Giving the body time to assimilate the physical practice is a vital part of receiving the benefits of this practice. All the same, it is easy to feel like the "work" is done when the last pose is finished. It is easy to hop right back up after a breath or two in "rest" and be pulled back into a busy day. Each practice that I cut back on rest pulls me into a little less balance.

The yoga sutras say that yoga asana is a balance between effort and ease. I think this extends to the balance between physical practice and rest after practice. My challenge to myself this year both on the mat and off is to keep working to maintain that balance. When I start leaning a little too hard in the direction of "effort", I will be looking for ways to pull back, always looking for balance...and starting each day with enough rest after asana practice

Friday, January 1, 2010

Thoughts on Time Away from Yoga Practice

I started the new year off with a nice long yoga practice and long unhurried rest at the end...ahhh. Practice has been a little stiff for a couple days as I returned from a 4-day camping trip earlier in the week. The hiking and cold weather certainly made itself felt!

It got me thinking about what happens when there is some time off from practice though. Generally, I practice 6 days/week, taking 1 day off per week for rest. The first day of each new practice week after 1 day off is usually a little tighter than other days. As an experiment I have tried not taking a rest day off. Not surprisingly, I was tired! I know a few practitioners that don't take rest days and it seems to work fine for them. I definitely feel better with a rest day...but what about several days off?

I was away camping and hiking for 4 days. I went with full intentions of doing some practice each day, but the weather changed my mind. We were in the midst of a cold snap, in fact the coldest weather we've had all year! Outdoor practice when lows were below freezing and the highest daily temperatures were barely making it to 50 F was not something I could bring myself to do. I am a Floridian after all!

Four days was the longest that I have gone without any yoga asana practice in years. The result? I am all the more convinced of the benefits of regular daily yoga practice with 1 day off each week for rest. Four days without yoga asana practice left me very aware and very grateful for all the benefits that this extraordinary practice provides!

More thoughts in the next post on the balance between practice and rest!