Saturday, April 30, 2011

Holy Pufferbelly!

When I was in yoga teacher training, I realized that I'm a pufferbelly. Well not really (although many would say I'm full of hot air), but I puff out my belly. All the time. I do it when I'm just standing around, but even weirder, I do it when I'm practicing yoga. Sometimes I do it when I'm trying to sleep. Not only do I not engage my abdominal muscles -- I actually push my belly out. It's more than a year later, and despite practicing and teaching regularly, I still do it. I realize I need to address this Samskara in order to continue to deepen my yoga.

I think this Samskara took hold during my pregnancies. Growing babies shifted my posture pretty dramatically, and somewhere between the birth of my first via cesarean and getting pregnant just three months later with my second, my slashed, weak abdominals got stuck: puffed out.

Pufferbelly is problematic in yogasana. The belly gets in the way in forward bends: Uttanasansa, Paschimottanasana. The belly throws off balance in standing poses like Vrksasana. The weak belly allows the hips to drop and makes it very hard to hold the legs up in Bakasana. (I have been practicing this daily in honor of my friend, The Flying Yogini!) The belly makes lifting the legs with ease virtually impossible for poses like Headstand and Handstand. I am astonished at how pervasive and difficult to reverse this Samskara is.

So what to do: draw in, hollow the belly, navel to spine. And again. With each pose. Be aware.

This whole thing has me thinking about habits: good and bad, when and where they take root, how to nurture the good and release the bad. The wonderful thing for me about my good habit (yoga) is that it revealed to me my bad habit (belly puffing). Rooting and revealing, I am on the path to myself. This is my yoga.

So what about you? What are your Samskaras? How do you address them in your yoga?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Happy Baby

I have been blissfully busy with my family visiting for Easter. There were baskets to make, visits with the mall bunny, and of course, cooking up a storm for 15 on Easter Day. My dad and brother left for home yesterday, but my mom stayed on a few extra days to lend a hand with my little ones while my dear husband is away on business. I have a backlog of topics for blog posts that I hope to write this week when things settle down, but today I thought I'd write just briefly while everyone enjoys a rest and before I hit the mat for a short practice and meditation.

One pose I know I'll do today is Ananda Balasana, or Happy Baby. It reflects how I feel right now, my mom here to mother me while I mother my girls. But often it is a go-to pose for me when things aren't so rosy. Happy Baby pose is one of those poses that I think can be really transformational, especially when times are tough or just busy and stressful. There is something in the physiology of the pose that gives people a sigh or a giggle when they reach the outer edges of their feet with their hands. It is almost as if they didn't think they could do it. (And for those who aren't able to reach comfortably on any given day, a strap wrapped around each foot is an easy solution.) As the spine lengthens and the low back releases towards the floor there is a peace that settles in as though no tenderness had ever graced those muscles. With each exhalation comes more surrrender and more peace. And if the body gently starts to rock, there is truly that feeling of a curious baby finding her feet for the first time and just playing -- a sense of pure openness and joy.

When I teach, I often sequence it towards the end of a practice, preparing the bodies in the room for even deeper surrender in Savasana. Today though, I might open my practice with it, acknowledging how glad I am to be a bit of a baby right now -- but maybe I'll circle back to it at the end of my practice, too!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chant this?

One of my interests in yoga is chanting. I was first turned on to it at Kripalu in a session with Bhavani, in which she taught the basics of mantra meditation with and without a mala. It was great -- it was a full room, people were really open, and even some of the simplest mantras she taught took off.

I am thrilled to be attending Kirtan with Dave Stringer this week -- but truthfully, I feel like I don't know enough about this tradition...

In yoga teacher training, I was lucky to have guides from two different traditions -- one, of a more traditional, Sivananda lineage and one Anusara-inspired. It made for an interesting conversation, even with languaging differences and even some philosophical differences. We learned chants from both traditions, and I knew immediately it was something I wanted to work into my teaching. To me, a yoga practice feels a little thin without chanting. I need those vibrations to open and close my practice at least. The room always shifts beautifully when chants are invoked -- every person, every thing in the room, seems changed.

So I have been surprised in teaching, for a year now, how often people are hesitant to chant. Sometimes I am the only one singing -- not something I shy away from given my background in music. I am curious about other teachers' experiences with this -- do you offer chant in your classes? How is it received? Do you always do the same chant to encourage familiarity or do you mix it up for variety?

I'm also hoping to deepen my knowledge of this tradition. To that end, I hope you'll suggest your favorite chant resources. Oh -- and Sanskrit resources, too -- Books? CDs? Artists? Practices?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Give props

My husband and I often share a particular giggle when he "sings" songs that are waaaaaaaaaaaaay out of his range. Think Rush. Journey. Gwen Stefani. I look at him, roll my eyes and (usually laughing and covering my ears) say, "HONEY! Not all songs are for all people!" And then he tries even harder -- and louder. Now of course, he could accommodate himself and sing the song down an octave, but that would be no fun, right?

This happens all the time in yoga. Poses seem out of our reach -- literally. We can't reach the floor, our other arm, head-to-knee. But there is a solution for that in yoga: props. So often I see fellow students or my own students not take a prop they really need. I get it that you're there to push your edge, but often, using a prop actually moves you deeper into the pose. And not only that, but more importantly, using a prop can protect your body from the bad alignment (and karma) that will come from jamming your body into a pose -- this isn't comfortable and steady like it is supposed to be. There are so many examples of using props that could make your practice really soar. I know I'm preaching to the choir, but here are just a few:

A blanket, folded, under the heels during malasana, supports feet and ankles (thus protecting the knees), making the deep knee bend accessible while the heels are still in contact with the ground.

Blocks, used under the hands in uttanasana (especially the first ones of the day), give something to press the hands into. Start with bent knees, slowly straightening them, lifting the hips. (This gives so much more stretch than bouncing your fingertips two inches from the floor in hopes of touching it!)

A strap, used to draw the leg back in supta padangusthasana (or heck, even pigeon or bow) will ultimately make a deeper expression of the pose possible.

Even in wonderful, peaceful sukasana, many people need the support of blankets. With a clean fold, sitting right on the edge can encourage the hips to open and knees to drop while supporting the low back, allowing the torso to sit taller. Check out Cora Wen's awesome blanket-folding tutorials on YouTube.

As teachers, if we really want to make yoga accessible to everyone, then we'll offer students appropriate props. It makes practice safer and more fun. I often use props when I teach -- some that I really need and some that I don't -- to show that using a prop isn't cheating or weird or anything less than real yoga. Sometimes I'll have everyone work with a particular prop. As students and practitioners, we are to honor our body in what it needs and use the block, blanket or strap when necessary. It doesn't mean that you'll have to use that prop forever -- or maybe you will. It's a practice, not a destination.

It is about being open, I guess -- open to what is needed and what possibility might unfold -- and being true to yourself, wherever you are in your yogic journey. It would be nice if we could all sing along with those Rush tunes. I can actually, but I'm flexible that way. Binding in parsvokonasana, not so much -- yet.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Third time's a charm

It took me three tries today. I rolled out my mat at 6 this morning after finding myself awake and not feeling like going back to sleep. But I was tired and my joints were sticky, so I put the mat away and enjoyed reading a few YIOM blogs instead. I rolled it out again as soon as the girls went down for their nap. I felt good in Sukasana and enjoyed a meditation, but I could get my mind focused on how to move next. I was thinking about my desk and about ten projects I "should" be working on...

But I kept thinking about what Lorin wrote at The Vegan Asana, and I listened to myself with the mom face.

It took me about an hour, but I went back to my mat. I decided to start with Trikonasana, my favorite pose because -- well, because it's my favorite. I disregarded all the information and ideas I have about a proper sequence, and I just moved from one pose to the next. I found myself moving in a pattern from standing poses through lunge to heart openers and back. It was weird, but it was what felt good. I hit a bunch of juicy poses besides Trikonasana -- Sphinx, Parsvokonasana, Downward-facing Dog, Plank, Chaturanga, Bhujangasana, Vasisthasana. Of course I made it to Stork, too, and even toyed with Natarajasana briefly. But I realized my ankle wasn't feeling so great -- maybe the humidity or shift from yesterday's warmth to today's cooler weather -- or maybe just because. So I did a long Prasarita Padottanasana and made my way back to my folded blankets for more quiet.

I'm more focused now (look, I wrote this post!), and I think it will be easier to focus in on my projects. So listening with a mom face worked for me -- I won't forget it the next time I'm avoiding my mat! Thanks, Lorin!

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I struggle with balance -- in yoga, in life, in everything. So needless to say, the standing balancing poses are generally not amongst my favorites. Add in the ankles -- one with a big fat tendon tear and the other just terribly weak, and you have a recipe for -- well, falling over.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I took a wonderful Anusara-inspired class with my teacher Debbie Kurilla at Shakti. The class was all about balance (oy), and her apex pose was stork. I immediately shuffled myself to the wall, to practice the pose in a way that wouldn't draw attention to my wobbles. And I've been obsessed with the pose ever since. For me, it is so different from Vrksasana or Natarajasana, because there isn't a weird angle to add to the difficulty of the balance. Rooting the four corners of my standing foot into the ground, thigh bones back, shins forward, activating my abdominal muscles, lifting the bending leg with care and awareness, activating and flexing the lifted foot, lifting the arms into urdva hastasana, engaging the shoulder blades firmly on the back while releasing the trapezius muscles -- I'm sure I'm leaving out a slew of crucial cues -- but you get the idea --

For once, I'm having fun with a balance, and I'm just going with it. I practice it in the shower, while I'm at the sink doing dishes, waiting in line at Target. I'm wearing a big 'ol brace on my ankle, so I think it is safe, but who knows... did I mention that I'm actually having fun with this pose? Fascinating. It makes me wonder how I can find fun in the other areas where I feel I lack balance --

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In the dark

Confession: having wonderful, inspiring conversations with fellow yoginis sometimes makes me blue. Sometimes I feel resentful, envious, ashamed -- or just dark. And I know all that just isn't yogic.

My daily yoga practice varies dramatically, and as a result, so do my abilities. My body isn't what I'd like it to be, my abdominal muscles still a weak mess from the blowout of having two babies in two years. My poses aren't pretty. I can't balance on either foot reliably -- and certainly never on my right. I wobble. A lot.

So I find myself in a dark place with my practice. I feel like a bit of a fraud, to tell you the truth. But I keep showing up on the mat. Fumbling. Trying to hear the teacher I am to others so I can be led. I bail out of poses too early and then go back in. I engage whatever I can. I release what I can't. I ground. I lift. I bend backwards to open my heart. I bend forwards to look inward. I make space. And breathe. I move my body so my mind will still. And you know what? It works:

Suddenly, it doesn't matter if I'm in the dark. I'm looking towards light.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Yoga and baseball

Those of you who know me know that I love baseball -- and my team is the Chicago Cubs. Don't groan. I know.

Yoga can be very helpful in rooting for a team like the Cubs. Think about it -- practicing contentment, practicing non-attachment, even practicing ahimsa -- all help me be an even better fan. All these practices can make a wait of over 100 years for a championship bearable -- even enjoyable. Just as this year's season gets underway, I am breathing and trying not to get too excited. I will enjoy every pitch I get to watch -- especially the ones thrown at Wrigley. Even if my baseball season ends in September, our team of yogis will have been brilliant just in their attempt.