Saturday, December 31, 2011


Wikipedia defines Shradda this way:

Śrāddha (श्राद्ध, shraaddha), Hindu ritual performed for one's ancestors, especially dead parents
Śraddhā (श्रद्धा, shraddhaa), the Sanskrit term for "faith", in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

B.K.S. Iyengar, in his translation of the Yoga Sutra defines it this way:
"trust which comes from revelation, faith, confidence, reverence"

On the cusp of a new year and on the tail of a visit with family, I find myself leaning hard on the practice: shradda.

Occasionally, when I've been jumping into Bakasana B, but not landing it, because I was holding back, not really going for it, my teacher has said to me: "Shradda, Christine. Trust it."

Those are words I remind myself of over and over again. Shradda. Trust it.

There are big risks ahead. There have been days in the past weeks where I felt like I was drowning in uncertainty. Waves of fear and doubt were knocking me over. Doubt voiced by well-meaning people was swamping my confidence to the point where I felt knocked to the beach, eating sand.

A recent post on Deborah's blog touched a nerve as I was reminded that I have the opportunity to explore this relationship with fear, doubt, and trust daily. As she shares from her workshop with David Garrigues, second series is very much about risk-taking. It is not, however, blind risk-taking in a close-your-eyes-and-throw-yourself-over-the-cliff type of risk taking, but rather a practice in walking toward what you know you can do with eyes wide open...even when it scares you more than anything.

Yoga Sutra 1:20 says "Practice must be pursued with trust, confidence, vigour, keen memory and power of absorption to break this spiritual complacency." -Iyengar translation

...and I'm reminded that life, which the practice mirrors, must be pursued in the same way.
Shradda. Trust it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Observation and Clarity

so as of my last posting, I was headed out to a weekend workshop on observation with my teacher and looking for clarity...

After a weekend of seeing myself through others eyes, clarity has been found...if only briefly.

What I observe, or think I observe is a function of the eyes I'm using to to do the seeing.

My teacher and the friend I traveled to the workshop with both have a particular talent for making me feel very loved just as I am...
...with all my eccentricities, odd habits and my tendency to either rant loudly about the things I am most emotional about or not talk at all...a happy medium is not something I do well.

When I look through their eyes, I don't so much see good or bad or loud or quiet, just the complexity inherent in anyone worth getting to know...that is everyone. They've made space for all the idiosyncrasies that I often don't make space for myself.

A friend asked if, after all these years of practice, I had noticed any particular physical changes in my body....was anything different? His hypothesis: you could see differences just from the past couple years of practice in my shoulders.

so I went on a quest to track down some photos and find out...observation time! I started looking at childhood photos, followed it through the teenage years and then looked again at photos taken after about 4 years practice. I was startled. You can read my life in my shoulders...if you're looking...

Childhood: shoulders strong and relaxed...confident
Early high school: shoulders in and down...a sort of miserable hopelessness
Senior year high school: shoulders not as far curled in, but more tense...angry, defiant
After 4 years practice: shoulders stronger, starting to settle into the back, less tension...starting to find a way into balance

It's amazing what I see when I really look.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How to See

I have the feeling that someone has pulled the end of a loose thread and I am starting to unravel...

In the past few days I've tripped over (or walked into?) the edge of the door and left a nice bruise on my foot. I've hit my "funny bone" (what's funny about it, really?) on the top of the car door resulting in my whole hand going numb briefly and an additional lovely bruise. I returned to my bike at the end of the work day on Tuesday to find the back tire flat for the second time in a few days...

Is any of this really a problem...

I've been thinking lately, that really it comes down to what I see and how I see it, clarity or murkiness.

This morning's practice was cold (by Florida standards) but despite that, I reveled in it. I watched thoughts come and I watched them go. I set a pace for the breath and then relaxed into it, finding the feeling of being carried from one pose to the next. I'm content with the challenges that my practice presents at the moment. For the moment, I'm interested and curious about them without fretting about whether I will ever be strong enough to see them change. It's enough to feel the shoulders come alive as I lift and hop in nakrasana and yet know that there is so much more possible.

I'll be spending this weekend with my teacher attending his weekend "Observation Workshop". It's my favorite of all the workshops that he teaches aside from regular Mysore practice with him. He's the only person I know that teaches a workshop entirely focused on how to see. I'll be returning for my fourth round of this workshop...yes it's that good.

...because what I think I know about how things really are often comes down to how I see them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Belated Gratitude

This may be the time of year when I lean most heavily on the practice.

I've often found it especially hard to see clearly over the weeks that are referred to by malls and movies alike as "the holidays".

Fellow Ashtangis who maintain an asana practice and a "parenting practice" often refer to parenting as Seventh Series. As I am not a parent, I won't presume to understand the depth of challenges that they uncover. I might though, presume to suggest, that being a daughter, or a cousin, or a niece, or a daughter-in-law, at times too approaches seventh series.

My biggest difficulty with "the holidays" is with my own feeling of murkiness.

Underneath the swells of expectation and disappointment that come and go over these weeks is the steadiness and constancy of practice.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Creativity and the Structure of Practice

A new Wired Science article says using a framework or a form to work within increases creativity.

The article has this to say: "The larger lesson is that the brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. And this is why constraints are so important: It’s not until we encounter an unexpected hindrance – a challenge we can’t easily resolve – that the chains of cognition are loosened, giving us newfound access to the weird connections simmering in the unconscious."

...More evidence that it's bumping up against the supposed obstacles that opens up my mind and nudges me toward a clearer picture of reality.
There is wisdom in working within the structure of the practice.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cycle of Vulnerability and Withdrawl

I've been thinking a lot lately about vulnerability and my tendency to cycle through a mental phase of opening up followed by a phase of pulling in. A post on Expansion and Contraction from new blogger, Abhyasa, gave me some more food for thought.

It's interesting to me to watch where the fear and discomfort come up.

Physically, I associate opening up with back-bending and if that is true, then physically, open is my default. I have never been afraid of "doing" back bends. I was never afraid of dropping back. I have never been afraid of kapotasana. I have "lost and found" both drop-backs and kapotasana several times now over the life of my practice, yet even when they were tight or puzzlingly inaccessible, I wasn't afraid of doing the poses.

Physically, I find back-bending, at the least, energizing and at the most, euphoric...but for a long time that post-back bend exhilaration was almost always followed several hours later by a feeling of panic...a sort of vague feeling of vulnerability, a feeling that I had opened up too much. I'd have a sudden need to both physically and mentally pull in, curl into a ball and close up. The deeper the back bends and the more of them I was doing, the greater the need to close up once the post-back bend euphoria passed.

Mentally, outside of practice I followed the same pattern: the deeper the opening up, the greater the feeling panic afterwards and the greater the desire to pull in and withdraw.

For a long time, I felt a certain amount of guilt when the openness overwhelmed me and I closed down. Why couldn't I maintain openness all the time? Why the post-openness panic?

The wisdom of the Ashtanga sequencing is slowly working it's magic and the physical ups and downs are leveling out. Mental patterns are following the physical ones. Physically, I am sloooooowly building strength to match the bendiness I was born with. I notice as the body evens out, so does the mind. There is more steadiness underneath the openness and I am extremely grateful for every bit of it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Too Much Thinking

This morning was one of those mornings where I just craved the practice.

I've been thinking far too much lately...plotting, analyzing, figuring, psychoanalyzing, and projecting.

The feeling of walking into the pre-dawn calmness in the studio was a very soothing one. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. I wanted nothing from the practice other than the space and time to step out of the mind and just be in the body for a little while. Tensions from the week rolled off as the familiarity of moving and breathing took over. I was startled out of my reverie of contentment as I watched things happen in my practice that I have been working towards for a long time, in some cases for years. One breath after another, inhale, exhale, watching impossibilities become possibilities, finally surprised into laughter.

The mind is a funny animal.

Much thanks to Karen who ages ago posted a link to Frontal Cortex...a blog on neuroscience. I've been an avid reader ever since. It's interesting to see that neuroscientists and Ashtangis often ask the same questions...we just apply different experimental procedures as we explore the ways in which those questions might be answered.

Thoughts from the neuroscientist folks on the mind:

A clip: "In recent years, however, neuroscience has dramatically revised our views of mind-wandering. For one thing, it turns out that the mind wanders a ridiculous amount. Last year, the Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth published a fascinating paper in Science documenting our penchant for disappearing down the rabbit hole of our own mind. The scientists developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals, asking them about their current activity and levels of happiness. It turns out that people were engaged in mind-wandering 46.9 percent of the time. In fact, the only activity in which their minds were not constantly wandering was love making. They were able to focus for that."


A clip: "Since the Israeli psychologists began studying loss aversion in the early nineteen-seventies, it has been used to explain a stunning variety of irrational behaviors, from the misguided decisions of investors—they refuse to sell losing stocks—to the stickiness of condo prices in the aftermath of a housing bubble. It’s been used to justify our fondness for the status quo—the present may stink, but we still don’t want to lose it—and the cowardice of N.F.L. coaches, who are far too afraid to go for it on fourth down. Loss aversion even excuses our social habits: studies have shown that it generally takes at least five kind comments to compensate for a single criticism. (The ratios are even worse for criminals: a person convicted of murder must perform at least twenty-five acts of “life-saving heroism” before he is forgiven.) This is an impressive amount of explanatory firepower for a theory rooted in hypotheticals.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence of Kahneman and Tversky. Like Darwin, they helped to dismantle a longstanding myth of human exceptionalism. Although we’d always seen ourselves as rational creatures—this was our Promethean gift—it turns out that human reason is rather feeble, easily overwhelmed by ancient instincts and lazy biases. The mind is a deeply flawed machine."

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Most Friday evenings I take a modern dance class at the studio that feeds the local ballet company in my city. I wanted to take dance as a kid, but I also wanted to take gymnastics and the parents ruled that I could choose one.

I chose gymnastics and loved it until the day that our teacher yelled at me for not activating my "core" muscles when doing a handstand over the vault. She was spotting and as I was bendy but not strong, I sort of crumpled. Also, I was 11 and hadn't the faintest idea how to find my core muscles.

More than 20 years later, I am still mesmerized by movement and feel compelled to seek it out. Now, 2 years into taking a weekly modern dance class, I'm struck by the parallels, the sort of complementary language, of modern dance to Ashtanga vinyasa yoga.

There is technique underneath both disciplines for sure. My calves and adductors in particular feel it after dance, but like the Ashtanga practice, with steady attention and practice, the technique is improving.

...but like the Ashtanga practice, there is always more than technique. I have watched dancers with near perfect technique that catch no one's attention because there is a quality missing underneath the precision. I might call that quality, energy, or maybe surrender, or maybe love.

This past Friday was a small group in dance, just 2 of us "regulars", which gave our teacher a chance to dance with us. Our teacher particularly makes me smile because she has been extremely patient with my complete lack of technical expertise in dance. She asks only that I work at it....and she looks like a normal person. She does not have a "ballet body". She is incredibly fit, amazingly strong and when she's really dancing, you cannot take your eyes off of her.

Watching a friend practice the next morning and waiting for the moment when my help would be needed in an assist, I was struck by the similarities to watching my dance teacher.

The technique may be the language, but the energy created by love and devotion to any discipline expressed through movement is mesmerizing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Gambler

"On a warm summer's eve
On a train bound for nowhere
I met up with the gambler
We were both too tired to sleep
So we took turns a-starin'
Out the window at the darkness
The boredom overtook us, and he began to speak

He said, "Son, I've made my life
Out of readin' people's faces
Knowin' what the cards were
By the way they held their eyes
So if you don't mind my sayin'
I can see you're out of aces
For a taste of your whiskey
I'll give you some advice"

So I handed him my bottle
And he drank down my last swallow
Then he bummed a cigarette
And asked me for a light
And the night got deathly quiet
And his faced lost all expression
He said, "If you're gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right

-The Gambler
The Gambler has been stuck in my head this morning. I don't know why, but am throwing it out there. We might as well all be humming it together.
I know it's not the Yoga Sutra or anything, but really, if it came down to it, I think Patanjali and The Gambler could hang out.

I spent a really amazing week with my teacher doing morning Mysore with a small group of 3 or 4 people a couple weeks ago. For a change, I wasn't injured or grieving or sleep deprived. For 5 days I really worked at practice and it was wonderful. I returned home and promptly got sick...woke up with a fever on Monday morning and it stuck around for the next 5 days...yuck.

While sulking over a "bad" week last week and a not especially stellar start to this one, I've caught myself labeling them. After all this time and practice still labeling them as good weeks and bad weeks as if I really have any idea what the broader repercussions of the decisions I make will be.

We never really even know which cards we're holding let alone how they'll play out in the big game. I make my best guess based on what I think I know and am wrong again and again.

"Now every gambler knows the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away
And knowin' what to keep
'Cause every hand's a winner
And every hand's a loser
And the best that you can hope for
Is to die in your sleep
Or maybe the best that I can hope for is to learn to stop fighting it, to reach back into the time that I spend on the mat and pull out the practice of leaning into the honesty of discomfort. I can lean into the act of playing the best hand I think I have always knowing I will never hold all cards.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Life and Practice

After a long week, I've spent the evening watching back to back episodes of 'My So Called Life' (the best TV show ever!). I was 16 when the show aired so not only was I the "target audience", I very much wanted to be Angela Chase.

Watching the show always leaves me with the feeling of being transported back in time. For just a little while after I turn off the show, I can almost physically feel again the agony of each long, uncomfortable moment that was me at 16. I alternated between manic elation and furious anger. There was no ease, no equilibrium, no equanimity.

Which gets me thinking of course about whether anything has changed. Am I a "grown up" now or am I still too hooked on the excitement of dramatic ups and downs to realize how tired they leave me?

I am reminded often that I very much need the mirror that practice provides each morning. It's a daily, unflinching reflection of all that I still hang on to and all that I am still grasping after. I'm grateful that beyond the reflection the practice also provides the tools to realize the stillness and deep quiet that is possible in the moments that I take a deep breath and let go.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Happiness is...and A Blog Honor

Happiness is being sat on by your teacher and then having your leg squashed down your back! I so love my teacher's adjustment for eka pada sirsasana...ahhhh. I just cannot get into that sticky bit deep in the hip on my own.

I'm in Miami this week for 5 days of practice with my teacher. I always blanch at the cost of getting a place to stay down here, but I'm being rewarded with 5 days of practice in a group of just 4 students...yes just 4! I'm soaking up the attention. :)

...and in other news I was named a 'Versatile Blogger' by Nobel! Thanks first blog honor!!

The rules for acceptance of this award are these:
1) Thank the person who gave me this award and link them back to their post.

2) Share 7 things about myself.

3) Pass this award along to 15 recently discovered blogs and let them know about it!

Right then, check off number one.

Number two, seven things about me on no particular topics:

1. I'm a biologist in my day-job...native plant conservation, soil and water quality issues, that sort of thing.

2. I love the beach, but don't often make the trip...even though it's only a couple hours away.

3. I love the season in Florida that makes many Floridians flee the state...the hot humid summers...stellar practice weather!

4. My current favorite pose is nakrasana. It just feels so goofy and fun.

5. I'm terribly inept at all things'd never know that I come from a family of engineers.

6. One of the few things I miss about living up north is picked-from-the-tree-ripe apples.

7. One of the few things I miss about living in Miami is picked-from-the-tree-ripe mangos.

and 15 versatile bloggers....the envelope says:

1. Inside hand's down, all-time favorite read in the blogosphere.

2. Reluctant Ashtangi...I know Kai has stopped writing, but the archives are still up and she a great attitude about practice and life.

3. Susananda...posts don't appear often, but when they do I can always seem to relate.

4. Yoga for Cynics...title says it all

5. Stardust and Fairy Magic...painting with words

6. Massivist Missive...incredible a photo journal of a thought

7. Leaping Lanka...great blog. If you are new to Jason's blog, be sure to go back and read the archives of their trips to Mysore...good stuff!

8. Furry Wombat...amazing photos!!...and always a good read.

9. Chin to My Shin...definitely a way with words. It's like you're there, walking in her shoes.

10. City Mouse Trailing Spouse...this one is a recent discovery for me. Love reading about the challenges of keeping practice and teaching going through life's transitions.

11. Comments from a Yogi Anatomist...the best info on practical anatomy advice anywhere for Ashtangis out there. I might be biased though, since David is my teacher.

12. Beets Butter and Mountaintops...honest, heartfelt, good stuff.

13. Damn Good Yoga...a great chronicle of daily practice life.

14. The Confluence Countdown...a newish blog, great read and especially fun for those going to the confluence (me!) as we countdown to the event.

15. Friday Bear...this one has nothing whatsoever to do with yoga. I just have a thing for bears....and who wouldn't like to see a cool bear picture in their google reader every Friday. :)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mind Chatter

The physical part of practice is quiet. No doubt there are subtle changes simmering under the surface, but at the moment I'm enjoying the plateau. Breath has been steady and I'm finding myself moving through the practice savoring the familiarity.

I think of the Ashtanga practice as a lot like that venomous tentacula vine from the Harry Potter books. If I just sit quietly for a minute, I find that the practice has started working it's tendrils in everywhere. While I'm busy keeping my eyes on asana practice, the practice itself is twining itself up all of life off the mat.

The practice of "noticing" is making its way into the rest of my day to a greater and greater extent. I find myself in practice noticing a sort of under-the-surface chatter even though the asana and the breath feel quiet. The quieter the physical aspect is, the louder the mind sounds. The awareness of a seeming constant buzz of thoughts, anxiety, and discomfort with being truly still is making itself heard off and on during the rest of my day.

I find that I don't quite know what to do with it. Sometimes, just the awareness that it's there is enough to quiet the buzzing of mind chatter a bit and sometimes it's not.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Food Experiment

Practice is at a happy plateau. There are plenty of opportunities for refinement of movement, breath, and attention, but no immediate frustrations. Even mayurasana has settled for the moment into something that I can move through without the sort of "ick" feeling that it's brought up for the last year or so.

...but leave it to this practice to keep quietly peeling back the layers even when I'm not really looking.

The one thing that I have been noticing in practice lately is a feeling of heaviness. I ignored it for awhile, not liking at all what it seemed to be pointing to....arg. My weight had crept up. I am very much an emotional eater and after a roller coaster spring, too much cheese and chocolate had made themselves felt.

So began the food begins week 5.
What happens if I explore food in the same way as I might explore my asana practice?

The findings so far?...
I've constructed a number of patterns based on early mixed messages about food, health and body image. These patterns aren't serving me, but I'm finding the process of beginning to dismantle them very uncomfortable...uncomfortable in the early years of leg-behind-head kind of way...uncomfortable in the way of any pose that leaves you whimpering on the mat, staring into the face of fear and doubt. There is a lot here that I don't want to see.

The practice is good at being the rough spot to rub against as I shed habits like skin. Despite it's proclivity to point me directly at all the uncomfortable places, I trust it. I trust it because out of the years of practice is slowly coming a realization that I am not broken. I am enough just as I am.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Technique and Freedom in Practice

I enjoy seeing new students arrive at the studio and love watching them puzzle through their first Mysore class. I say as little as possible when they ask over the phone or by email. "How does it work?" I just encourage them to come and try it...because, really, what is there to say about Mysore class anyway? borrow words from Pattabhi Jois, "You come. You do."

The Mysore style Ashtanga practice always reminds me of this quote from A Wrinkle in Time...

"Mrs Whatsit: A sonnet is a very strict form of poetry is it not? There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That's a very strict rhythm or meter, yes? And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?

Calvin: You mean you're comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?

Mrs Whatsit: Yes. You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."

The practice also reminds me of childhood piano lessons. I spent what seemed like an interminable amount of time practicing technique, learning notes, counts, scales. I was taking piano lessons because I wanted to play music, to create that indescribable feeling when a great song hits you and changes you.
Years went by before I could see that underneath great music is technique and to create great music that is outside the framework of technique takes an incredible depth of understanding of the framework itself.
I never really looked for that kind of depth when it came to playing music and I remain a very mediocre pianist.

I think I'm only just beginning to appreciate the kind of freedom that can be created from surrender to the strict form that is Ashtanga yoga practice.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Confluence

I'm going to The Confluence.

...and any one who knows me really really well might ask me why?

I have a teacher. I was done sampling teachers and searching in that way on a morning in November in 2005.
I was at a small group, week long, Mysore workshop...just 4 people and our teacher. Late in the week, I was having a "tight hip" sort of day. It was the moment for supta kurmasana and it just wasn't going to happen. My hips were tight and both legs were not going to go. My teacher didn't push it, just helped me with one leg at a time and did so with no sense of disappointment or impatience in me or my practice. It might be the first time I ever really stopped fighting that pose and just let it be. That was it. I had found a teacher.

I've dropped into the occasional Mysore room in other cities while traveling for work or visiting family. These visits are a bit like any other visit to a new place. They're fun, but there's also a certain feeling of wanting to be "on my best behavior", to be polite and considerate...all those niceties that were well honed in my mid-western upbringing.

...but I'm not sure there can be much "nudging of edges" until you drop the niceties....and that I think builds on trust that only comes in time. why the Confluence then...5 of the most senior western teachers, sure...but I've never met any of them.

Patrick has touched on the reason here

and Owl has reiterated the reason here is an excerpt from Owl's post that so beautifully describes the reason I am going to the Confluence:
"The sophisticates who have done the work and then just let their awareness open up... who have the discipline to stay open and let stuff continue to happen to them... these are the ones who are more alive than we are."

I'm going to Confluence because I want to here the stories of "The sophisticates". If practice on the mat can differ so much from one day to the next even within the same body, then how different must the experiences of these 5 senior teachers be....and yet when I hear them speak or when I read what they have to share, there is a feeling that they have all arrived in a very similar place.
There is a sense that they take themselves and their lives very lightly.

More than anything else, during the 4 days, I am looking forward to hearing about the work that they put in to make such lightness possible. I've seen video clips of asana demonstrations by most of the teachers that will be at the Confluence workshop and they are beautiful to watch, but it is their lightness and ease in life that has impressed me far beyond what they can accomplish on the mat.

Friday, August 5, 2011

On teaching...

There's an interesting conversation going around the cybershala on teaching yoga and more specifically on teaching Ashtanga...You can read some thoughts from Nobel, Patrick and Claudia which has gotten me thinking...

I never intended to teach yoga.

I started taking yoga classes in whatever style was cheapest when I was was 1994. I took generic "hatha" classes, I took vinyasa classes, and I dropped in on some classes that today I'm not even sure what it was exactly. In 2001, I took my first Ashtanga class, a full led primary. After an hour into the class, I was sure I was going to keel over dead at any moment and was definitely sure I wasn't going to make it through the whole class.

I made it through the class and went back.

In late 2002 I moved to Miami and in the spring of 2003, I went to my first Mysore style Ashtanga class. I had found my "yoga home". I was a bit intimidated at the beginning of my first Mysore class while I sorted out how the whole thing worked, but I left that first class delighted with the feeling of being able to steer my own practice under the guidance of a teacher. I had done a home Ashtanga practice for most of a year at that point and found the best of both worlds in the Mysore room.

You know that feeling when you first meet a new boyfriend or girlfriend and you think they're so amazing that you want them to meet every one of your friends, so that each one of your friends will now also know how completely amazing this new person is?
...well, that's how I felt about Mysore style Ashtanga yoga...I was absolutely infatuated!

I spent 4 years in Miami soaking up as much yoga as possible. Every year on my birthday, I took the day off of work and went to the early morning Mysore class. It was a present to myself; there was no where else that I would rather have been.

When, after 4 years, we moved from Miami to a much smaller town, I was a bit heartbroken to leave my teachers. I had searched google and could find no evidence of any Mysore style classes in my new town. One of my teachers said just before I left, "If you don't find what you're looking for in a yoga class there, then you teach it."

I didn't find any Mysore classes in the new town. There was a led class at a local studio that I attended, but it just wasn't the same...and often it left me frustrated. I knew that so much more depth was possible from a yoga practice. I tried convincing the studio owner to try teaching Mysore classes. She wasn't interested. She was of the opinion that any kind of hands-on adjustment was going to cause injury and that I was going to "yoga hell" for even suggesting that they could be helpful. Most frustrating though, was not the lack of adjustments or assists, it was the loss of that feeling of steering my own practice, but with the support and encouragement of someone who had navigated those same waters before me. I did a teacher training...200 hours over the course of about a year and a half.

...and I started a class

For the first year, I taught a class once a week at a community center for free. I had 2, sometimes 3, students. I was honest about how new I was to teaching. I'm fairly certain I learned more than the students did in that year, but they found something in those practices that kept them coming back. For that, I am grateful beyond words.

I did learn some useful, broad perspective sorts of things in the teacher training that I took...but really, what I've learned so far about teaching, has come from 3 places:
1-my own personal, daily practice...daily time on the mat
2-my teaching practice...teaching Mysore and learning from each class
3-from my teachers...guidance and ecouragement that comes from their years of experience

I've been teaching Mysore style Ashtanga yoga for about 4 1/2 years now and practicing for about 10. In the lifetime of an Ashtanga practice, that is barely any time at all.

On a more aware sort of day, I realize that teaching yoga is much like meditation. It's not something you do. It's something that might happen when the conditions are right. My job is to help students learn to set up the right conditions and then get out of the way, so the practice itself can do the teaching. Some days I do a better job than others. My teaching practice, like my personal time on the mat, is exactly that, a practice.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Interview with David Keil: Part 3

Part 3 of my interview with David Keil on Mysore style practice!

Interview with David Keil: Part 2

Part 2 of my interview with David Keil on Mysore style practice!

Interview with David Keil: Part 1

A bonus this week!

While my teacher (David Keil) was here this week, I spent a little time interviewing him on why we do this Mysore style practice anyway. There are lots of rumors flying around out there about what Mysore practice is and what it is for. I had a lot of fun interviewing David and digging in to some of those topics.

Enjoy!...and we would love to hear your feedback on the interview. :)
Parts 1 of our interview is below. Parts 2 & 3 will be posted separately.

Day 3 & 4

Ahhhh...2 more amazing practices. My focus this week in practice has been on relaxing, smoothing the breath out from the first sun salutation and riding it out to the end. There is usually a bit of unraveling right about laghuvajrasana and again at tittibhasana, but all in all it's better, steadier.

What I've become more and more aware of as I spend time with this sequence is how much of a conscious decision relaxation has to be. I have to make a firm decision not to fight the awkward, uncomfortable or just plain deep places.

These weeks with my teacher go so fast!...but what a way to spend a week! I've spent 4 mornings doing this practice, which I love, with help from my teacher and have been practicing next to some of my favorite people. I couldn't imagine being happier. :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day 2

Ahhh...second day of practice with my teacher and all the sticky places are opening up and things are settling into place. The intensity and depth of intermediate tends to catch me by surprise in these weeks where I have David's help to nudge things into less explored territory. One of the surprises of this week so far is that the usual feeling of being sort of knocked over by a wave of energy right about kapotasana is not happening. Breath control continues to improve and there's now more a feeling of riding the wave than being knocked under water by it.

SI joint issues were much improved today and I was actually able to get the leg behind the head without pain...and enjoyed one of my favorite adjustments in eka pada shirshasana!
Highlight: I got a "good" in nakrasana!...woo hoo!! Compliments from my teacher are gold...that one will keep me going for months. :)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Day 1

so nice to have my teacher here for the week...

This morning's practice was an interesting mix of surprises. My left SI joint is still sore!...leg-behind-head is modified. David's adjustment for eka pada shirshasana is one of my favorites...such a nice deep stretch in the hips, but had to give it up today. :(

Karandavasana and mayurasana were not least as my interpretations of them go. Mayurasana was especially a surprise...who knew that, while it felt like nothing was changing as I slogged through it everyday, it was shifting around a bit. I felt much less like I was about to crash onto my face today as David assisted me by supporting my legs! Maybe there's hope for that pose after all.

The nicest part of the practice though was the part that is the hardest to put into words. The feeling of being able to surrender, knowing someone is there to help in the sticky places, knowing that for 5 days I don't have to do this all on my own is worth so much. At the sound of my teacher's breath I immediately relax into the practice in a way that I just don't on my own. I'm so happy to just practice for the week.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On Having a Teacher...

My teacher arrives in 2 hours! A week of practice with him starts tomorrow morning.

These weeks of practice with my teacher are something that I look forward to like nothing else. Months of quiet home practice alone mean that a week of practice with my teacher stands out in stark relief. I work harder; practice is more intense and digs just a little deeper than in the quiet mornings alone.

I've managed to tweak my SI joint again...arg. I'm mentally preparing to modify leg-behind-head if needed, but still hoping I won't have to...ahhh attachment (*wry smile*).

So as I look forward to the upcoming week of practice with my teacher, I want to share a couple posts from other Ashtangis who've written recently on what it means to have a teacher and to be a student.

First from David Garrigues: Guru Purnima 2011

and then from Alex Medin interviewed by Deborah Crooks: Talking with Alex Medin

Practice posts to come this week!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Karandavasana a pose post for a change...

I've been working on karandavasana for a couple years now and I'm really coming to love this pose, not of course because I do it with any special amount of grace. I definitely don't. I'm learning to love it because of the kind of work that it asks for.

The more days that go by as I practice this pose, the more aware I am of where my work is and where it is not. The physical strength to do the pose is building slowly and is becoming a little more accessible each day, but really I've been content to wait for it. I'm not one for a lot of extracurricular preps in order to "get" a pose. I'm more apt to just make a couple attempts in each practice and then move on....a sign of laziness perhaps, but that is where my practice sits at the moment.

The work that has me especially intrigued with karandavasana at the moment is not the physical work. The longer I do this pose, the more I see how much of this is in my mind. It fascinates me to step back and watch the mental processes change and evolve each day as I approach this pose. If I am going to take the pose as far as I can physically on my own without any assist from a teacher, I absolutely can't let the mind leave the present moment. As soon as I think one step ahead of where I am physically, the pose is gone. If I think about making the lotus while jumping into Pincha position, I go right over into a backbend. If I think about landing the lotus while I'm trying to move the legs into lotus, I fall out with no lotus.

It fascinates me and amuses me to watch the mind get bored and try to rush the process each time. I can almost hear it: "Are we still doing this pose? Why is this taking so long? This is too slow; let's move on to something more exciting."

When I finish karandavasana, I can almost feel the mental strength chaturangas for the mind

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Practice has been very ordinary lately and I'm discovering that I find ordinary very soothing, comforting almost. Much of time, I'm content, both on the mat and off. I don't write much about it as there's only so much to say about ordinariness regardless of how many ups and downs are contained within it.

I'm reading Richard Freeman's 'The Mirror of Yoga' at the moment and Richard has this to say about ordinary practice:
"When you practice non-exotic, everyday yoga--looking deeply at the ordinary experience, becoming more honest and more kind--there is a great sense of relief."

...and then I saw this beautiful post by Laine who says:
"It's funny sometimes, when you realize how utterly ordinary heartbreak is. When you are sitting in yoga class looking at your toes and realizing that if you tried to put what (and who) broke your heart into words it would just sound so ordinary."

I taught a modified Ashtanga class to a group of older folks for about a year and one of the students who was just about to turn 80 surprised me one day after class. She had been coming to class maybe once or twice a month for a few months and had just finished reading the book 'Eat, Pray, Love' before class. After class she wanted to know: "Were we going to get enlightened soon then?"

Despite her nearly 80 years of life experience, she was still looking for a way around the ordinariness. She expected more drama from her fledgling yoga practice and was, I think, a little disappointed when it seemed to her like nothing dramatic was happening in her practice. Eventually we didn't see her in class much anymore, so it's hard to know whether she would have ever seen the relief on the other side of the boredom.

I'm suspicious of anything too exciting, but that doesn't stop me from getting hooked in by drama. The farther I go up, the farther down there is to come. One of the aspects of Ashtanga that originally attracted me to the practice was the routine nature of it..same poses, same order, everyday. It was only once I really dug into the practice that I found all the upheavals within the ordinary routine of practice. Dig any one hole deep enough and whatever's below ground will come spurting out for sure.

I agree with Richard. The ordinary, non-exotic kind of yoga practice is enough and is a relief. Ordinary practice and ordinary relationship has enough depth and vibrancy to last lifetimes.

I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert's new book, 'Committed', the sequel to 'Eat, Pray, Love' and I think she would agree with Richard Freeman. Ordinariness is a relief.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Yoga Practice, Yoga Performance

I was babbling on about yoga practice once and a friend was patiently listening. Finally, he stopped me and asked if there was ever a "yoga performance". Puzzled, I asked him to elaborate. He explained: I kept going on about my "yoga practice". He wondered if it was always practice or if there was ever performance?

At the time this made me laugh. I'd never thought about what I do in "yoga practice" in quite that way, as yoga practice in preparation for a future yoga performance. I said "No, there was no "yoga performance", just "yoga practice".

This week, I've been thinking that I answered too quickly. Maybe there is "yoga performance". Practice is what I do every morning on the mat. Once I leave the mat, it is in some sense maybe, a yoga performance. Every day is another chance to explore what is possible. I'm not sure that the tough choices get any easier or more comfortable with a daily yoga practice. My yoga practice does seem to provide access to greater awareness of what choices are in front of me...although I would not necessarily equate greater awareness with greater ease or comfort.

I'm reminded this week of the Buddhist story of equanimity:
...I wish I could find the author and give credit properly...but it starts something like this:

"A man's only son is thrown off a horse and breaks his leg. The man's neighbor says "Oh, this is bad!" The man says, "Maybe, maybe not". The army recruiters then visit the village and take all able men off to serve in a war. Since the man's son has a broken leg, he does not have to go. The man's neighbor says, "Oh, this is good! The broken leg is a blessing!" The man says, "Maybe, maybe not."

The story continues in this vein with one event happening after another that we would typically label as "good" or "bad". The story illustrates that nothing is that simple as nothing can be disconnected in that way from everything else.

On Monday morning, our beloved mix breed dog, Asha, died. We miss her terribly. I would like to label this event as "bad", but I cannot entirely do that. In response to the sad news, my husband and I have been flooded with messages of kindness and love from friends and family. It is a reminder that there is always light and dark if I look for it. They are not separate from one another.

My work then as I finish my morning "yoga practice" on the mat is to do my best each moment at "yoga performance", using the experiences of practice to guide my responses to events as they happen, leaving room for the unexpected. I'm sad, missing a very devoted companion, but also feeling very loved and connected as I've been reminded that nothing happens in isolation.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Non-attachment and Love

I've been pretty quiet on the blog front lately. I've had lots to think about. It relates to yoga only in the way that everything relates to yoga if the picture is broad enough, so I'll toss some of those thoughts out here.

I've been in several Yoga Sutra study sessions at workshops with Beryl Bender Birch. In each session the idea of non-attachment has come up at some point. Beryl will often have us go around the room and name something we're attached to. The same answers always come up: partner/spouse, children, family, pets, career, house, city...and someone always says yoga. The idea of non-attachment to non-living things that are none-the-less important is generally something that the group has no trouble wrapping its collective head around...but then the group starts to wrestle a bit with the idea of non-attachment to the living beings that are important to us. How do we reconcile non-attachment with love?

I was at a workshop with Beryl only few days after her husband of 20-some years, Thom Birch, had died suddenly. We wrestled with these same questions at that workshop and I saw what it looked like when someone with 30 years of yoga practice came to face this question in a very direct way. Beryl grieved for the husband she missed, but not in an overly-dramatic, grasping way. Years of practice of non-attachment meant that she was able to let go with some amount of grace. Years of love meant that it still hurt.

I do not yet have her grace.

A week ago, Asha, our beloved mix breed dog was diagnosed with liver disease. There is no cure and very little that can be done to treat it. The prognosis from the vet is that she might live 2 more years, or maybe considerably less...they just really don't know. She's only 3 1/2 years old and is very much a "fur-baby" so this is especially tough. I find myself wrestling with these same questions of non-attachment and love. When the liver function is reduced to the point that she can no longer enjoy being a dog, will I be able to make the right decision?...a decision that comes from loving non-attachment?

Ultimately, these events are what I practice for. Nearly every day on the mat these questions come up even if I don't catch them at the time. When I do a pose, realize it's not happening, resolve to revisit it again the next day, and let it go, I set a pattern of non-attachment. When I give in to frustration because things aren't going as I'd like, I set a pattern of grasping, and of attachment.

When I can get myself/ego/identity out of the way, there is room for grace and for love even amidst pain.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ashtanga Yoga: A Root-Centered Practice

I haven't posted much for a couple weeks...I've been filling up my time with other things and haven't had anything in particular that I wanted to write about.

I've still been reading my favorite blogs around the Ashtanga yoga blogosphere though and a few days ago, one of Nobel's posts especially caught my interest.

Nobel asks: Is Ashtanga practice by itself sufficient for a core-centered practice?

The real answer to any good question is, of course, "that depends".

On a pretty good day, I realize that there is not going to be a point in life when things stop changing. I thought for a long time that things would settle down, be steadier, when [insert next personal milestone here] happened...when I finished grad school, got a job, got a better job, moved to a different town.

I credit my Ashtanga practice for the few clear moments when I realize that steadiness doesn't come from having just the right life situation. It comes from the inside out. I make steadiness happen or I don't as the case may be.

Nearly everyday I feel like there is some uneven ground beneath my feet. Many steps I take are uncertain ones and some feel more like giant leaps into the what to do and where to go when the ground opens up underneath you?...back to the practice.

My short answer to Nobel's question in the comments to his post was this:
Yes, Ashtanga yoga is enough for a core-centered practice, as long as you're not in a hurry. If we are talking specifically about the physical strengthening of the core muscles, I think the time it takes to develop core muscles depends somewhat on body type....just like some people increase upper body strength faster than others, the core muscles develop more quickly in some bodies than others. I watch students in my Mysore room work diligently at practice, but some still develop strength and lightness sloooowly.

...But is that really what we mean when we ask about Ashtanga as a core-centered practice...just really awesome abs?...or just the ability fly our legs through our arms and land? If this is it, then Pilate's or some time at the gym might be a better match.

...But as I've watched practice change me over the years, I've watched it provide access to a true source of steadiness that gets stronger over time even as life events shake up the ground underneath me. The longer I practice, the less I'm concerned about whether my core muscles are physically strong enough to do any one pose or transition in particular.

Nearly 10 years of practice and I still can't lift up and clear the floor with my toes when I jump back....But amid crazy busy schedules and all kinds of changes this past year, I'm still standing. It leaves me with no doubts about the core-centeredness of the Ashtanga practice.

...Or maybe core-centered is not really the right phrase. Maybe we should call it a "root-centered practice" Steadiness starts from Mula bandha, the root lock and as Nobel puts it in a recent post, like a root for a tree "it [yoga] sustains you" .

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Finding Strength

I've been thinking a lot about strength lately...especially since the fun Friday, where I joined in with people from all over the world and practiced with Sharath via live streaming video.

I've been doing the primary series for a while now....long enough that several years ago, it stopped feeling hard. There are still places in that series to work (Hello jump through and jump back!) and I imagine that there always will be work to do in primary if I look for it....but it doesn't feel hard like it did at the beginning.

I think the change in perception comes from two places. One, the obvious, I'm stronger and more flexible. I can move in and out of postures more efficiently and with less effort. The second reason that I suspect primary seems easier, is that I tend to compare it to the feelings I have practicing intermediate...which is a whole different kind of challenge. back to Sharath's led class... Besides an odd missed count or two, there were two poses that really caught my attention when I was practicing along with the streaming. The first was headstand. The second was utpluthi. I noticed them both for the same reason. I realized as Sharath was counting that I don't usually stay in either of those poses for that long. Somewhere along the way, I had started cheating myself of chances to work on increasing strength, something I keep saying I want....interesting. As I was hanging out there in headstand, waiting for Sharath's voice to say I could come down, I noticed something. It's not that I'm not strong enough to stay there. Actually, I noticed, I am. What really happens is that my mind gets bored. Mentally, I start to wander off topic. I start thinking about breakfast, how late I am for work. I let the mind talk me into something it finds more exciting.

I'm noticing this is really the beauty and the challenge of intermediate series for me. It's building on the willingness, developed in primary, to stay and breathe where I'd rather not. In all the places in intermediate where I tend to "give up the pose early", it's really not the body that I'm wrestling with, it's the mind. Karandavasana is not so much about the strength to hold myself up, but more about having the mental willingness to lock the attention onto tiny shifts in balance for the duration of the pose and most importantly to keep it there. When the mind goes, the pose goes.

If I'm really working in my intermediate practice, then the series of poses added over the last couple years by my teacher, pincha mayurasana, karandavasana, mayurasana, and most recently nakrasana, produce a kind of mental anguish by the time I'm done. My body will feel good, very alive, nicely stretched, muscles gently sore...but my mind will feel like a wrung out sponge.

...just when I find that, physically, I'm getting stronger, it becomes clear that there are whole other dimensions of strength.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Yoga Sutras 2.49-2.53

"Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention. It is to be practiced only after perfection in asana is attained. Pranayama has three movements: prolonged and fine inhalation, exhalation and retention; all regulated with precision according to duration and place. The fourth type of pranayama transcends the external and internal pranayamas, and appears effortless and non-deliberate. Pranayama is not only an instrument to steady the mind, but also the gateway to concentration, dharana."

-translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

Breath…I have so much to say about breath that not many words comes out. The more I feel about the importance of something, the harder it is for me to say something coherent about it.

During most of the day, most of the time, I think most people rarely take a single full breath. It’s the source of our energy and we sip at it.

If we do nothing else, as yogis and yoginis, let’s teach the world to breathe. It could change everything.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Belief: Mayurasana and Pushing Buttons

I don't often talk about the specific asana ins and outs of my practice on the blog. I don't talk much about it because I think reading about it would be boring. That doesn't stop me from talking about it to friends and family in person...but after a few minutes of "pose chatter" their eyes start to glaze over. :-) I get up. I do the poses. Some days they go more smoothly than others. Over time there is more ease, less effort....yawn...

...but I'll deviate a bit today for a short rant and a bit of self pity....fair warning.

At the moment, I hate mayurasana. I've never really hated a pose before. There were, and are, lots of poses and transitions that I struggle with. For any number of reasons, that doesn't especially bother me. I've waited years for things to open enough to do a full expression of a pose. Again I've worked for years to strengthen things enough to hold a pose together. There never seemed to be a reason to hurry. what's the difference with mayurasana?

I think it comes down to belief.

For a long time, (like years) I didn't really believe that this practice was something I could do with any sort of skill or grace. I could muddle my way through the fundamental poses, laugh about how weak my upper body was when trying to hold chaturanga, and that was okay. I was a "smart kid" with a venomous hatred for all things "sporty" and a knack for breaking things as I clumsily knocked them off counters. A hike in the woods?...great, count me in for sure. A game of kickball?....oh god no. I used the words of others, of family, of friends to reaffirm what I thought I already knew...physical grace was for other people.

...but I kept practicing

...and the unexpected happened. I got more flexible. I got stronger. I learned to breathe. Each new pose seemed equally impossible, so when some new pose happened in my body for the first time, I accepted it with delight. I was never disappointed when I couldn't do something, because I had no expectations that I would be able to.

...and over time, the practice and my teacher slowly worked to change my belief. Maybe this was possible after all?

I thought I might hit a wall with karandavasana, but no. Even there, my teacher showed me how to break it down into pieces. I patiently worked on each one. There is still alot to do on this pose. It's challenging, sure, but doesn't especially frustrate me, because I can find a way in. As I work on it, it improves.

With mayurasana, for the first time, I am disappointed. I am frustrated to the point of tears, to the point of wanting to stamp my feet and yell that it's not fair. Mayurasana is pushing buttons. The feeling of someone taking a sharp stick and poking at all the tender and vulnerable spots has been a hallmark of second series practice for me. Layers and layers of feelings and experiences that I thought were gone have risen to the surface to be either embraced or burned away for good.

I was still frustrated after this mornings' practice, unusual for me. As I was stomping around the kitchen, my husband asked why I was frustrated. My answer?..."I think my boobs are too big to do mayurasana." ...he burst into laughter.

Yes, it's of course, it's absurd. It's ridiculous in some sense that existential angst is brought on by my attempt to wedge my elbows under my chest and pick my toes up off the floor. Then again, in some sense it's not so absurd. This is a practice designed to help me see what is actually there in front of me. Samskaras by definition, run deep. It takes some creative digging perhaps to bring them up to the surface to be examined.

The more I see, the more my beliefs are challenged....because when you believe so firmly that you can't, what do you do when you see that you can?

Mayurasana is pulling at deep samskaras and asking big I really enough, just as I am?

My teacher seems convinced that doing this pose is entirely possible for me...with practice of course. This will not be the first time that I lean on his belief in hopes that it will drown out my own doubts.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Looking in the Mirror: Asana as a Door to Yama and Niyama

My trek through the Yoga Sutras continues... ...sutras 2.35-2.39 describe all that comes from following through on the yamas. Likewise, sutras 2.40-2.45 describe what's possible when we follow though on the niyamas.

...but as I wrote in my last post on the sutras, my observance of the yamas and niyamas is definitely a "work in progress". I find that I don't have much to say about all the loveliness that Patanjali describes. Sure, years of asana practice is steering me in the direction of yamas and niyamas. Moments of quiet and clear-headedness are definitely more plentiful than in my pre-practice days....but there are still so many moments of stickiness that any presumption that I really observe yamas and niyamas in each moment is laughable.

As always, the first place that I notice myself getting tangled in all the stuff that I put in my own way is in asana practice. Sunday's practice found me running on the hamster wheel. I watched my mind leave breath and bandha only to attach itself to a situation that was not mine to be concerned about and was really, none of my business....driste violation! Practice is the best mirror I've found.

...which brings me to Yoga Sutras 2.46-2.48 "Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit. Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached. From then on, the sadhaka [student] is undisturbed by dualities" -translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

These sutras are my favorite, probably because, while I would hardly claim to have met perfection in asana, when it comes to asana practice I can at least find a place to start the work. On a clear day, I might even see a little bit of the road out in front of me, maybe even see my footprints behind me and notice some of the places where I've wandered off the road on the foggy days.

Iyengar's commentary on sutra 2.46 has this to say: "But in any asana the body has to be toned and the mind tuned so that one can stay longer with a firm body and a serene mind. Asanas should be performed without creating aggressiveness in the muscle spindles or the skin cells. Space must be created between muscle and skin so that the skin receives the actions of the muscles, joints and ligaments. The skin then sends messages to the brain, mind and intelligence which judge the appropriateness of those actions. In this way, the principles of yama and niyama are involved and action and reflection harmonize."

Mr. Iyengar's comments give me hope. If his vision of the limbs of practice is right, and I venture he knows considerably more than I do on the subject, then my morning asana practice is enough. If I do it with all the honesty that I can manage, then it's all the mirror that I need. Practice and yamas and niyamas will come...or in the wisdom of Pattabhi Jois: "Practice and all is coming."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Yoga Sutra: Yama and Niyama (Restraints and Observances)

I'm still reading the Yoga Sutras....albeit, slooowly.

Yoga Sutra 2: 30-31 "Nonviolence, truthfullness, nonstealing, sexual restraint, and nongreed are the restraints. The five restraints practiced universally, uncompromised by type of birth, place, time and circumstance, constitute the great vow."

Yoga Sutra 2: 32 "Cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-study and devotion to the Supreme Being are the observances."

Yoga Sutra 2: 33-34 "If conflicting thought obstructs those restraints and observances, the opposite should be contemplated. Obstructing thoughts like violence and others, done, caused, or approved of, stemming from greed, anger, or infatuation, whether they are mild, moderate, or intense, will result in more pain and ignorance. For to realize that is to cultivate the opposite." -translation by G. Maehle

Thoughts: As far away as I might feel from any of the yamas (restraints) or niyamas (observances) at a particular moment, practice continues to nudge me in their direction. For that, I am grateful. If I look at the list of yamas and niyamas as a list of "How to Be Good.", then what I see is a list of lovely sounding impossibilities. If I look at the yamas and niyamas as a practice that is cultivated (love that word) one breath at a time, then I see the possibilities of change...slowly....with time and practice.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Driste and Not Falling Apart

A student asked if I would write something on driste. Here's your post Bob! (*waves to Bob*)

There are a list of reasons that I might not have practiced this morning.
1. I strained something in the left shoulder/pectoralis on one side in modern dance class a couple weeks ago and it's still sore and tweaky (although improving).
2. I've been doing a lot of biking and I'm feeling tightness in my right hip (where it seems that all tightness in my body resides...), right IT band and outer knee.
3. I slipped in the shower a couple days ago and caught my inner ankle on the bathtub knob....which has apparently sharper edges than I gave it credit for as I now have a long deep scrape where a chunk of skin was removed and a lovely purple and green bruise.
4. I slept on my right shoulder in some way that my body did not approve of and now have strange catches and aches coming from the right shoulder joint.
5. The time changed a little more than a week ago and early morning practice now has me getting out of bed with that slightly delirious feeling of getting up several hours before the sun for a long drive to some far away airport...

...But I practiced anyway.

...and yes I'm getting to driste...

...Because really what I notice and react to has a lot to do with what I see.

...And what I saw this morning was a studio filled with patches of moonlight. It was warm enough that I didn't need to turn on a heater, so the only sound was that of my own breath. When I looked out the windows, I saw piles of bricks and construction debris...the materials being used to expand the studio space at my house where I teach Mysore classes. Every new pile of materials and every new phase of construction makes me smile.

In the past couple years, spring, especially March and April, have been quiet months at the studio. It's post-"New Year's Resolution" time and pre-summer vacation. It usually trickles down to just 2 or 3 regular students with a committed practice. This year's group of regular students are a particularly committed bunch and we have had quite a few busy days in the studio.

It's a small space, a "packed house" is 7 students....and that's good. It's allowed for lots of individual one-on-one time and helped to build relationships between students. When it's mat-to-mat, it's best to just decide to befriend your neighboring practitioners from the beginning. :) on a recent busy day in the studio, we had a short chat about driste and maintaining attention on our own practices despite the challenge of the close quarters.

What happens when I move my driste? attention and actions follow. Many of the random things I wrestle with over the course of a day could be considered "driste violations". Does it matter what someone else did, said or didn't do if it doesn't have anything to do with me, and there is nothing I can do to actively change the situation? No. Those are the moments when I need to put my eyes back on my own practice/life and wrestle my attention back to where it serves some purpose.

How and what I see changes everything that follows. This morning I chose to see much that I have to be grateful for. I can move, breath and I get to spend some part of each day doing what I love most: practicing and teaching Mysore style Ashtanga yoga.

I don't always make that choice. I can share plenty of examples of getting bogged down by driste violations, far too many really. But this morning, I put my mat down in a puddle of moonlight and got on with it.

credit goes to Loo, whose blog you can read here, for the broader idea of driste violations

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Blackberries, Asana and the Eight Limbs of an Ashtanga Practice

I began a walk through the Yoga Sutras about a year ago with this post: Yoga Sutra 1.1: Yoga Begins Now.

The walk slowed to a winding sort of stroll with lots of stopping to look around along the way. I've found that as I read each next sutra, it's nice to let it drift on the wind a bit and see where it settles before I say anything about it here.

Recently, I seem to be running into lots of conversations, posts and articles on the value (or not) of asana practice.

The Yoga Sutras have this to say in 2.29:
"Moral injunctions (yama), fixed observances (niyama), posture (asana), regulation of breath (pranayama), internalization of the senses towards their source (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption of consciousness in the self (samadhi), are the eight constituents of yoga."

When I look at the way my practices unfold each morning, I think each of the limbs is so entangled in the others that there cannot really be a separation of asana from the rest. The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga look in my mental image, more like wild blackberry shrubs complete with thorns and tasty looking fruit, than the graceful, tidy tree often depicted.

Asana, as I understand it at this moment, is a way of placing the body with attention that makes space for the other limbs. At one point in my day or in the evolution of my practice, asansa may look like the primary series. At another, it may look like whatever posture my body needs to adopt to meet the needs of a moment.

I think if I define yoga asana as moving with attention (or sitting...or standing...), then yoga asana can become something that quietly follows me off the mat in the morning and provides needed steadiness and ease during the rest of my day.

...and perhaps with enough time and practice, I'll navigate the tangled brambles that are the eight limbs and just be left with fruit...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Yoga: A Relationship with Practice

I'm piggy backing on Nobel's recent post today as he ponders, "Why do Ashtanga?"

Here's an excerpt from his post:
"Lately, I've been thinking about the nature of the Ashtanga practice, and how and why I came to practice Ashtanga. There are many questions that come up in the course of my reflections, questions such as: Do all Ashtangis go through the same experiences and processes in the course of encountering and starting the journey of practice? Are there common themes that run through all such encountering-and-beginning-Ashtanga stories? Or is every practitioner's story very different from every other practitioner's, so that there are no commonalities at all? Is Ashtanga for everyone? If it is not for everyone, what kinds of persons is it for? "

Great questions!...and Nobel's blog is a great one for keeping me thinking...

I dabbled in yoga classes of various styles from the time I was 16 until age 23...a bit like dating really...or something like an encounter with the 3 bears. I liked yoga in general, but no particular class was just right.

I went to my first Ashtanga class and that was it. When the time came to move to a new city, I went looking for yoga classes in the Ashtanga style. I wasn't interested in anything else.

...but why Ashtanga??

The one word answer for me is relationship.

As Nobel pointed out, within this yoga practice is structure. That structure let me dig one hole deeply. I've spent the past nearly 10 years digging just a little bit deeper to see where it would take me.

I'm not the first person to point out the similarities in the way Ashtanga practitioners relate to their practice and the way we relate to actual human beings. I've heard my teacher refer to the reasons that he is still "in love with the practice". I have "good practice days" where understanding seems to flow freely and I have "difficult practice days" where the practice and I seem, for the moment, to be at cross purposes.

...but it is that day to day digging within, that results in one deep hole. The path to depth has asked for more patience and commitment than dabbling with a little of this and a little of that, but it has also produced more steadiness, clarity and compassion. If I am going to attempt the same seeming impossibilities daily, I'm going to have to learn to cut myself some slack!

The daily relationship with a set series of poses done in a particular way (with breath, bandha and driste) have provided great opportunities to wrestle with surrender.

Nobel has this to say about surrender:
"All is coming. The practice, by its very nature, demands surrender within effort and effort within surrender: One tries one's best at every posture (effort), and if one doesn't "get" a particular posture today, there's always tomorrow's practice (surrender)."

The Ashtanga practice is subtle this way. What appears to be the same sequence of postures is never really the same twice. If I surrender to the practice as the ultimate teacher and to the guidance of my human Ashtanga teacher, then my understanding of both the practice and of myself evolve continually. As soon as I think I understand, there's more.
This process of meeting seemingly the same practice daily and frequently being startled by something new, is exciting, sometimes intense and often humbling. I don't know nearly as much as I momentarily might think I do and the practice always knows more.

To provide just one person's thoughts on Nobel's questions:
Yes, I think there are commonalities in what practitioners find within the Ashtanga practice, although of course each person's story is their own.

No, I don't think Ashtanga yoga is the technique for everyone. I think everyone could do it, but not everyone will want to....and that I think is key. This is just one path to the center. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra mentions several ways in. The important part according to Patanjali is that we choose the technique with which we can maintain a relationship...whatever that practice may be. Practice consistently, over a long time, without a break and all is coming.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Yoga for Strength

Random thoughts on gaining strength...

18 years ago now, when I was 16, I bought a VHS video from a discount bin called 'Yoga for Strength'...I should have known then that I'd end up an Ashtangi...

It's what I came to yoga for, what brought me to the mat for the first time: I wanted to be stronger.

Today, is my first practice back on the mat on my own after a week of practice with my teacher. The theme of last week's practices, yes, strength. I've gotten to an interesting part of the particular sequence that I'm practicing. Just when I'm starting to feel a bit tired and distracted, I'm met by strength pose, after strength pose, after strength careful what you wish for...

Something I've heard Beryl Bender Birch say at a few workshops that I've done with her is this: "Don't envy flexibility!" She goes on to talk about this a bit more and the subtext is always this: if you think you want someone's physical flexibility, then you have to be prepared to accept the rest of their life too.
It seems a very broad way of thinking about both flexibility and envy.

It's interesting to me because my default is bendy, but not just physically. The physical is also an expression of my default in life...flexible...the one who accommodates, agrees or easily slips out of the way.

When I came to yoga looking for strength, it seems that, although I didn't see it at the time, I was looking for strength in the broader sense as well as the physical. The two are not separate.

After years of Ashtanga practice, I can say that I found what I was looking for.

I have work to do yet balancing my agreeableness with standing up for myself. That work is found daily, in balancing in a steady handstand and then bending it into a deep backbend. It's found in controlling the transition from a strong neutral standing position into a deep backbend and smoothly returning to standing. It's found in the daily striving for a balance between effort and ease in breath regardless of what sort of pretzel is being asked of the body.

A week with my teacher always leaves me sore, tired and awash in gratitude. I remain in awe of what changes this practice can initiate and ever grateful for my teacher who continues to believe that I can be strong even in the moments when I don't yet have the strength to believe it myself.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Yoga Dreams...

I had a dream last night about mayurasana. In the dream I was doing the pose (in real life, not so much). I woke up with my arms pinned underneath me and every muscle squeezed tight.

...good to know that I'm working on my challenging poses even in my sleep...

...bad to know that apparently my mind is a little obsessed with this one...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You Know You're an Ashtangi When...

You know you're an Ashtangi when...

...the high point of my day is when my teacher jabs his thumbs into my belly during a "bandha check" and says "yes, perfect."

....really?!...for one whole inhale and exhale there was just the right amount of tension in my lower belly. for all those other inhales and exhales... :)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Being a Student...

I'm spending the week practicing with my teacher.....ahhhhh. There is just no substitute for time with your own teacher.
It makes for some intense practices when the opportunities arise only a couple times a year though.
Today's practice may have set a record for the number of times I looked up at my teacher during practice with a look that said: "Are you insane?!"...and then proceeded to put my best effort towards whatever seemly crazy request was being made.

That is of course why I have a teacher. :-)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On the Bandhas: Microcosm and Macrocosm of Mulha and Uddiyana

A third and last post coming out of my thoughts on David's anatomy workshop...

An interesting relationship between the little pieces and the broad picture of a practice has been sort of flitting around in my mind since the workshop. I've been waiting for it to land and hopefully coalesce into something coherent.

Although we did talk about the anatomy of the bandhas...or as close as you can get to describing the physical access points to something energetic, what stuck with me was the discussion in a much broader sense of rooting and lifting energy throughout the practice.

It started with the discussion of the 3 natural arches in the foot. In just the action of placing the foot on the floor, there is a mulha aspect, found in pressing into the base of the big toe, base of the pinkie toe and the heel. There is also an uddiyana aspect found in lifting up through the arches. After a bit of playing with generally moving the weight around on the feet, picking up the toes, etc., I was a bit startled to feel the changes in energy moving up my body from just these actions in the feet!

We continued in the microcosm vein, looking at the mulha and uddiyana aspects of the hand and the parallels to the actions of the feet when we place them on the floor. There are again mulha and uddiyana aspects to just the action of placing weight into the hands when we place them on the floor.

David is adamant that if the hands are on the floor in a pose, then they are there for a reason. I've lost track of the number of times I've heard David say "Put weight into the hands!" as we fold forward in sun salutations or "Pretend the hand is another foot." as we fold forward in ardha badha padmottansana.

This whole discussion of mulha and uddiyana in miniature got me thinking about all the little pieces that make up the whole practice picture...and wondering about how many little pieces have fallen out of my frame of awareness as poses have gotten familiar and comfortable. The feet and hands are often our foundation in poses. I'm curious to see what happens to the qualities of the practice as a whole as I play with bringing greater attention to the rooting and lifting energies from the base upward.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On the Breath and Nerves...

There was an interesting thread connecting breath and the nervous system, that kept coming up in David's anatomy workshop last weekend.

I've been playing with the pace and fullness of my breath in practice lately and have blogged a bit on changes I've noticed. Changing the pace and quality of breath, changes the quality and energy of my practice. I've noticed it in the moment (during practice) and I've noticed changes in energy post-practice, later in the day.

...but so far, that's all I had done...just change the breath arbitrarily to see what would happen and then make a note of it. I hadn't been setting out to change the breath with any particular intention in mind.

Over the weekend, the importance of controlling the breath in order to control the nervous system kept coming up. This was definitely a "light bulb moment" for me. My default setting is nervous. I grew up with family often encouraging me to make decisions out of fear, to make "safe" choices. I've known for a long time that I don't want to live that way. Some of the best people/experiences that I've known have come out of the sort of choices where you take a deep breath and jump! I've crash-landed a few times too, but I've never regretted taking the risk even when I've landed hard.

What's sort of settled in from thoughts generated over the last weekend is that creating the spaciousness to make choices with the greatest awareness I can manage all comes back to controlling the nervous system....and the way in to the nervous system is the breath.

David talked about the importance of using the breath to manage and reduce stimulation of the nervous system.
My favorite David Keil one-liner of the weekend was in reference to breath: "Take control of the breath, otherwise it's controlling you."

Ah, yes...that is, in fact, exactly what happens when I let the nervous system take the wheel. The breath gets shallow and fast and drives me right into a panic. Suddenly, all I can hear is the refrain of "What if...".

It's amazingly freeing and calming to know that I have a tool to manage the nervous system. I can tame it daily with the breath.

More from David on the anatomy of breath here:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Weekend of Yoga Anatomy with David Keil

Whew!...Almost a week back from David's anatomy workshop this past weekend and finally writing a post. A busy week this week of fun (late night out to see a band I love!) and not so fun stuff (dentist appt., car repairs) seems to have swallowed up the days.

I leave every workshop with David remembering why he is my teacher. David teaches with humor, patience and common sense....all three of which are crucial to enjoying a weekend of human anatomy. :)

As a Mysore teacher I generally see the same students in class each evening. As a practitioner, I practice with the same body daily. In both cases, it's easy to fall into patterns, habits and stop seeing clearly. David is a great guide to help me question what I think I know and to help me step out with confidence when, what I find that know, isn't what I expected. What I really got out of the weekend was an opportunity to take a step back and look at the big picture. I've returned again to practice and teach with fresh eyes.

More in the next few days on a few topics that came up during the workshop which I'm still mulling over....but a few anatomy bits from the weekend that stuck with me:

On forward bends: (*waves to Helen*)
-David had 2 things to say that I made a note of:

1) If the hamstring is already torn, David recommends folding forward with straight legs, but not bending as far...not bent knees!

2) To avoid hamstring tears and sit bone pain, he encourages students when folding forward with bent knees to keep trying to actively straighten the legs (without over doing it of course)

There's a great anatomical description with details and an answer to Why? to both of these here:

On chaturanga:
-After an interesting discussion on the "right" or "wrong" placement of everything from shoulders to toes in chaturanga, David made 2 points that stuck:

1) What chaturanga looks like will evolve with the rest of your practice...just like any other pose. The "right" chaturanga is the one that is appropriate for a particular person's body at that point in time in their practice.

2) this--this is a direct quote "The right chaturanga is the one that doesn't injure you."
More anatomy discussion of chaturanga here:

More thoughts from the weekend to come soon!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It must be Thursday.

My favorite quote from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is from Aurthur Dent and is said sometime after he discovers his house is about to be flattened, his planet is going to be destroyed and the friend he thought was a struggling actor is actually from another planet.

Aurthur says: "It must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays."

Yes, today is that kind of Thursday...not bad, just weird. After some morning scheduling weirdness, I've found myself not doing any of the things I thought I would be doing at work today and doing lots of things I thought I wouldn't be doing.

It's a chance to make a decision: resist the universe or surf the waves as they come. I'm not doing either especially gracefully today. The perfect storm of new moon energy, ladies holiday and Thursday, found me at the Panera buying cookies at lunch time...

So Yay for things that sort themselves out despite my best efforts to get in the way and Yay for cookies!

Tomorrow, off to David Keil's anatomy workshop with a friend...I'm so looking forward to it! Workshop posts to come next week.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Sharing a Post from One of My Teachers on Practicing Through Pregnancy

I've had three Mysore teachers over the life of my practice. Each introduced me to the next at a time when they took some time off from teaching.

Esther Liberman was my second Mysore teacher and she introduced me to David Keil who has been my teacher ever since. I'll be forever grateful for the evenings she spent teaching sometimes just one or two students. She's a fun, warm person and a great teacher!

She headed off on a new adventure not too long ago and became a Mom for the first time! She's written a beautiful post, now posted on Elephant Journal, on the experience of practicing through the months of pregnancy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Answer is: Keep Practicing

...more thoughts on the Yoga Sutras...

Yoga Sutra 2.26-2.28
"The ceaseless flow of discriminative knowledge in thought, word and deed destroys ignorance, the source of pain. Through this unbroken flow of discriminative awareness, one gains perfect knowledge which has seven spheres. By dedicated practice of the various aspects of yoga impurities are destroyed: the crown of wisdom radiates in glory."

-translation by BKS Iyengar

A couple bloggers (Claudia here, David Garrigues here) reported back on Sharath's recent Sunday conference in Mysore. The report was: all questions can be met with the answer "Do more practice."

This is also what catches my attention in the Yoga Sutras. Over and over again the sutras seem to say the same thing in different ways. Have problems? pain? fear? Do more practice.

My experience in practice has so far backed up the theory in the Yoga Sutras. Not only have I found answers that I didn't realize I was seeking, I've also found that I can live more comfortably than I imagined with all the questions.

Practices of late have been quiet and steady. More tinkering with the breath is teaching me more about how I can change the qualities of my practice. I have lately been moving away from the faster, lighter breath that has been my past pattern. It seems to result in some anxious undirected energy at the end of practice and leaves my nervous system a little irritated and raw. I've been moving toward a slower, fuller breath. For the moment this leaves me feeling steadier as I move off the mat and start all the activities of the day.

Monday morning's practice took place in a puddle of moonlight. There was still enough moon to be shining through the studio windows and it moved from one end of the studio to the other during the early part of practice. As I finished up the sky was turning pink and orange. What's not to love?! :)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Question for the Cybershala...

Two weeks from today, I'll be listening to my teacher talk about one of the things he is most fascinated by: human anatomy!

I'll be at David Keil's anatomy workshop soaking up as much as I possibly can in a weekend. It's been about 3 years since I last took one of David's anatomy workshops and a lot has changed. I have new questions about my practice and about students' practices that I'm working with. I'm looking forward to bringing some of those questions to David.

So, that brings me to a question for the cyber shala:
What are your yoga-anatomy related questions that you'd like David to address?

While I have some questions of my own to ask, I'm also happy to pass on any questions to David while I'm there.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ashtanga Yoga: Changing Reality

"I know what you're thinking about," said Tweedledum: "but it isn't so, nohow." "Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, "if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't , it ain't. That's logic."

-Lewis Carroll from 'Alice Through the Looking Glass'

Fair warning, this post rambles! The thoughts just never seemed to arrange themselves into coherent related paragraphs.

Much thanks to Nobel for joining in the cybershala and tackling some difficult subjects that get us thinking and talking. He writes a great blog which you can read here.

The background:
Recent posts by Nobel (here and here) where he tackles the sticky subject of yoga, weight loss and whether a letter to the editor of Yoga Journal makes valid points...Brave Nobel! :-)

The letter to the editor and Nobel's post have had me thinking about all the changes that have happened over the years that I've maintained a regular Ashtanga practice.

Nobel makes a good point in his post:
"Choosing to blow somebody off for calling me fat isn't going to change certain very basic things about how reality works. Whatever words we choose to use to describe body shapes, the basic scientific truths remain: Biology doesn't care whether I am "fat", "curvy", "round-bodied", "chunky", "big-boned", "[insert your favorite euphemism]". The more pounds I pack on, the harder my body has to work, and the harder my body has to work, the more likely premature wear-and-tear of the internal and external biological systems will occur. We can choose to accept this basic scientific reality, and work with it as best as we can; or we can choose to deny this reality at our own peril."

All that is true, factual, logical....but thinking back over all the changes I've made since beginning a regular Ashtanga practice, I notice the logical and the sensible have had very little to do with making change.

I started practice with lots of residual body image issues hanging on since the teenage years as well as plenty of "not especially healthy" food habits. Ironically, my habits only changed when I stopped trying to change them "because I thought I should"....logic was never enough.

I'd wanted to be thinner and stronger since childhood and no conscious effort to make the changes ever worked, but slowly, as I practiced regularly over years, the habits that weren't serving me, fell away. I lost my taste for my daily diet Pepsi habit (ick, right!) and lost my taste for fried food (even the smell makes me nauseous now). Regular practice provided the mirror. It became easy to know which habits would nourish and which would not because I was living it experientially from the inside out.

This is a common story with Ashtangis. Do the practice, the habits change...The habits changed when I stopped struggling and made space.

Chogam Trungpa says:
"We begin to realize that there is a sane, awake quality within us. In fact this quality manifests itself only in the absence of struggle."

We all start practice with "stuff"...and I suspect we all start with some denial about whatever our "stuff" may be. Weight is an easy kind of "stuff" to pick on because we can see it, but it is just one kind of stuff.

Nobel says: "Choosing to blow somebody off for calling me fat isn't going to change certain very basic things about how reality works."

As a scientist (that's my day job), I agree, but as a yogi, I've been stunned by the number of times what I thought was reality immediately turned on it's head. Things get interesting the moment I think I understand my own reality; they get downright messy when I start to think I understand someone else's reality.

More from Chogam Trungpa:
"You do not have to push yourself too energetically into the path but just wait, just allow some space, do not be too busy trying to understand "reality"."

Nobel is sceptical about the potential to be healthy at every size....and so am I. Current scientific research suggests otherwise. On the other hand, I think the letter to the editor makes a valid point that some words can get in the way of making change, even when they're logical and sensible. Words that sting can get in the way of making space because it is so easy to accept them as a label....and at that point I'm stuck in the ego, defining myself: "I am..."

If my teacher had said to me when I started learning handstands, "You're weak.", would I have kept trying even with that label ringing in my ears? I don't know.