Today I watched a very dear friend squeeze all of her belongings into every last corner of her new (used) car and drive off to her "new" (continuing) life in a new house in a new state, with new friends waiting to be made. It wasn't easy in the slightest (but I'm still posting a cute little Ganesha for her!). Usually I am the one to do the leaving, and with all the promise of new beginnings, it is much easier than being the leavee. I have to continue on here where everything is the same... but different. No more calling her up at the last minute to go grab dinner at the local bar, no more riding the subway together when we happen to be coming home at the same time, no more seeing good and bad dance shows together, no more cat-sitting for her, no more lots of things. This kind of change, where one element of my stability is removed, scares me because its ripple effect seems out of my control, which is, for me, hugely ungrounding. (As long as I'm the creator of change, I'm happy.)
But then I remember that this change doesn't have to shake me up so. I am so unbelievably proud of my friend and so happy for her, that as I focus on that, the hole in my life is filled with love. And the adjustments I'm gonna end up making, those are opportunities to see things as they are, to stay with the present moment, because who knows what will come of any given moment if I let it ride out unimpeded by attachments to how things once were? There is nothing to be gained from lamenting change, and much to be experienced in riding the waves.
Yoga teaches us to remain unattached to the results (both achieved and hoped for) of our practice, because in the experience of the practice, in the commitment to what is - and not to what you want to have be - there is a true sense of peace. The same is true of your daily living. It's a practice, a process, and it demands presence. So much so, that there is no room left for wallowing --in any emotion. Which is not to say that you can't experience emotions across the spectrum. I still cried as I waved goodbye to my friend, but as I start my first day without her as the closest neighbor I've ever had, my eyes are drying up and I'm treating this day just like she's treating hers: as an adventure in living honestly and with all the presence I can muster!
Have yourself a week filled with presence, and one day I'll share some tips on learning how to practice non-attachment.
Until then (and always), hari om, om tat sat. Esther
Sutra 1.12: abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah. "Identification with the fluctuations of mind is stopped by practice and non-attachment."
Today, one of my students seemed surprised to learn that I, like she, am working through knee and back pain.
Yes, even yoga teachers walk around with aches and pains. We are pretty darn human 😉
Why is it that being human causes us physical pain? Why are we sooo susceptible to habits that hurt us? And I'm not even talking about the obvious stuff like drugs, alcohol, and mindless eating. I'm talking about how by sitting too low in my chair, my wrists are strained as I type this and even though I'm in pain, I still haven't gotten up to get something to make myself sit higher.....
Ok, I got a cushion, and yes, being propped up higher in relationship to the keyboard is better for my wrists. I really hated getting up, though. Why is that? I knew the solution was five feet away (half the battle) and yet I wanted to plow through the pain and then have it magically disappear without my having to do anything. Really it's a little bit more complicated than that (ain't it always?): adding the cushion to my seat means my feet don't comfortably reach the floor, so then I prop my feet up on my chair legs, which creates tension in my hip flexors and strain in my feet. Arrrrgh! All we're talking about here is me sitting at my desk writing this blog, and it's full of whining and butting and nothing being perfect.
No wonder I have back pain, knee pain, and wrist pain.
So, what can I do to address these oh-so-large problems of mine?
Yes and no. Here's what I need to do all that stuff above:
This isn't the first time I've touted the benefits of the Alexander Technique (AT), an approach that is suspiciously difficult to describe generically, but here's a nutshell for my purposes: AT teaches you to let your body move with the greatest efficiency possible (or not move, in the case of maintaining a position).
AT is not a quick fix, it is not, for most, easy to learn, and it is a lifelong practice. I've been studying it for over three years and I feel like I've only just started to "get" it. Maybe. But the grand thing is that in that "maybe," there have been enormous changes in my body and how I walk, sit, and move in general. Many of my chronic pains are now manageable -- meaning not that I can handle the pain, but that I can manage how I use my body to prevent or reduce pain, or, at the very least, ease muscle + joint pain away with movement and rest once it creeps back in. AT isn't solely responsible for this --yoga tools are a big part of it, too. But more often than not, what I learn from AT informs my practice of yoga, rather than the other way around (unless it is to notice overlapping intentions and effects).
That's what I told my student today. It's in the lifelong, daily maintenance practices from AT knowledge and yoga tools that I keep my pain-inducing habits at bay and no longer walk around frustrated by my back pain. I know what to do now, whether or not I get up off my lazy bum to do it. Awareness is the first step. Knowledge is the second. Action must always accompany it or nothing will change. (But please allow for change to also happen slowly over time as needed! Demanding too much of oneself is a fast track to overwhelm.)
I would love for you to take action now by 1). noticing how you're sitting or standing as you read this (can you feel anything holding or tightening that doesn't need to be?), and 2). letting me know what questions you have about the Alexander Technique and yoga in the comments below.
And if you want those questions answered through your own experiences, you should check out the workshop that my AT teacher (Amira Glaser) and I have put together on applying the Alexander Technique to your yoga practice. It's gonna be one pretty fabulous September afternoon (Saturday the 8th) of learning, experiencing, and discussing said learning + experiencing. You'll walk away with a whole new take on asana!
Until then, hari om tat sat, my friends!
We're hearing a good deal about meditation these days as science begins to confirm its benefits as measurable. I love metrics, but that's not why I look forward to my daily meditation practice. Contrary to my early assumptions about what one does during meditation -try with great effort not to think- the practice is one that we do as a process, an experience, and the possibility of "failure" simply does not accompany it. As someone who's intimidated by trying new things for initial fear of getting them "wrong," I ended up being smitten with meditation as soon as someone pointed out to me that it offers no chance of that.
Meditation helps me to leave my perfectionist attitudes aside and sit without apology, without care or caution, without any hope of getting it right or wrong. No wonder I feel calm with it!
But what does meditation actually do for you, ya know, physiologically? Oh, I'm so glad you asked. See there's this cool effect called the relaxation response that Harvard scientist Herbert Benson identified (and coined) in the 1970s. The relaxation response is the physiological state in which the sympathetic nervous system - you know, the one responsible for "fight or flight" and that is on "slow drip" in most of us in the modern world - is turned off, while the parasympathetic nervous system - yep, that's the "rest and digest" one - is kicked in to high gear. This means that in your body an amazing process of healing and restoration is under way.
And this wildly awesome relaxation response is surprisingly simple to elicit! Here's what you do (in a nutshell): focus on a neutral or positive sound, image, or action (such as a mantra, prayer, or specific word or phrase; a yantra, internal light, or visual image of significance; or repetitive activity such as walking, running, or swimming). The focus does not need to be unbroken to stimulate the response, meaning that if you remain detached from thoughts that come up during your attempt to focus and gently return your focus to the chosen object of concentration, your relaxation response will continue undisturbed. How cool is that?!
And that basic process of repetitive focus without attaching? That's meditation.
More recent studies have shown that the effects of meditation (and the relaxation response) have a cumulative and lasting effect, meaning that the more you do it, the better, but even just dabbling in it will also do you good. Pretty wicked, huh? (heh, i love dated slang).
This also means that your efforts reap benefits immediately, whether you have been meditating for 5 years or only 5 minutes. This technique doesn't discriminate against newbies! I love that!
Yes, my friends, meditation loves you back from day one.
Here's a simple mediation you can try at home.
My advice? Try it out now!
5 minutes, that's it. (If you've got the time, feel free to sit with it for as long as is comfortable!)
Silence your digital noise makers, put up the busy sign, make space around you, and read through the above instructions a few times. Then give the technique a try with the script set aside. If you miss something, no big deal. Let go of getting it right.
Step two? Grab a friend so you can be fearless together.
And then let me know how it went! Or if you have another approach to meditation, do share! How do you bring it into your life? I can't wait to hear! See you in the comments 🙂
I'm a little obsessive in nature. If something captures my interest (and it doesn't hurt if it's something that can be followed via a course of study), I will pour nearly all of my energy and attention into it. I've never had hobbies, just life-consuming obsessions that I try to parlay into full-time studentry and/or jobs. Hence my love of the Alexander Technique.
How I understand the Alexander Technique is as a tool for creating balance in the body, but not one that you exercise for an hour every day and then leave be. Well, maybe in the beginning you do, you certainly can, but really it's meant to be in practice all the time, so that you can undo "unnatural" or harmful patterns of how you use your own body to move or carry yourself (sitting, standing, etc) throughout the day, making way for your body to move at its most efficient, with an awareness of the whole system. I don't want to get in to it too deeply, but just offer it as an example of a manner of learning and living that is in practice, in play, at all times, that seems to come through "just" the physical body.
I think this is particularly challenging for many people, especially those not entirely obsessed with their own moving body, because it seems like one manner of doing and not an array of approaches that is applicable to the many areas of one's life. Being a body person (major geek), I love spending all day paying attention to what my body is doing, and I do believe the physical body (which has as part of it the energetic and mental bodies, too!) and one's use of it is applicable to ANY area of life. That said, I get that it can help to parse out physical, energetic, and mental as separate if connected bodies. Which means you might want different ways to work with each of them. And this is where I really begin to appreciate the study and practice of yoga.
Yoga is oneness.
Now, I'll bet you're asking yourself, what does that even mean?
I'm still defining it as a ya-know-it-when-you-feel-it kinda thing, because I don't have the proper words for it. But the yogis way back when were a bit more systematic than I am. They got obsessed and then they went and built a system of tools that ANYONE can put to use to find that oneness (even if we don't all describe it or experience it in the same way).
Lucky for us, the collection of tools addresses practicing yoga with all of our bodies (all of our one body), offering physical postures (asana, most of these being perhaps quite a bit more recently developed, but equally relevant), breathing practices (pranayama), meditation techniques, and rules/guides/suggestions (the yamas/niyamas, among others found in yoga philosophy) for living peacefully and gracefully with others and within any environment. Et voila, you can practice your yoga via physical, energetic, mental, and social bodies!
By covering all angles (is that all of them? you tell me), more of us will find it more accessible to make this yoga practice infuse every moment of your living. (This is not to make every moment about work, but rather a balance of effort, ease, and joy.)
Of course, yoga just as a lifelong practice, it is also a lifelong study, meaning it does and should take some time to learn these tools (and there is no such thing as perfecting them, only practice). No one should dive in to the whole kit and caboodle at once -- start where you are most comfortable. For some that means asana, for others contemplation and inward reflection, for others new codes by which to carry out daily actions.
But remember that if you're stuck in one body, you might try getting un-stuck through a different one. If you can't solve a problem in your head, get on your mat. If your body can't take another sun salutation, think it through rather than doing it. If your emotions are running wild, breathe slowly and pause without thinking (for just a brief moment or sit in meditation for longer).
Whatever you're doing, however you approach it, remember to breathe and practice moving towards balance, in everything.
Speaking of which, I've been sitting at this computer a while and need to get moving again!
Till next time, om shanti, om tat sat.
When I first started studying yoga at ISHTA, the pictures in the studio of teachers doing "fancy" poses just looked like pretty pictures to me. How these could actually be representations of real people doing postures a human body could ever be capable of, didn't even cross my mind. Kinda like when most of us don't even look in awe at ballerinas, we just enjoy their dancing like a beautiful painting (at least, that's kinda how I approach ballet).
Years and lots of education (svadhyaya) later, I find that for the first time as I mindlessly gaze at these images while waiting for the classroom to open, I can see with physical knowledge how those bodies came to be comfortable in those postures and can understand how one day my body will be capable of them too. As if, all of a sudden, the muscles understand what their jobs would be to support the bones in a split forearm stand (pincha mayurasana variation). Of course, it isn't "all of a sudden," it's that part of the process of daily practice, daily investigation, and daily curiousity that just feels like "ah ha!" but has been building all along.
And when I realize that, I see that there's nothing in those fancy poses that isn't in the so-called simple poses. They all take practice, they're all only as possible to do as our skeletal structure will allow, they're all only as pretty or perfect as the balance we strike in our ease and effort (sutra 2.46 "sthira sukham asanam"). They all give us room to explore our bodies and ourselves.
It is no easy feat to learn how to do all that practicing, exploring, and changing, but the best advice I can give is 1) to start 1b) to dive in to the aspect of yoga (or anything) that excites you most, not necessarily that aspect that you think of as being "true" yoga 2) to proudly approach your new efforts with a willingness to feel awkward, silly, shy, fearful, skeptical, confused, unsure, thrilled, alive, excited, playful, open, and whatever else you might happen to feel 3) to ask boldly for help, because that there is an intimidating list of emotions to let yourself experience all at once!
PS. Don't I look happy in natarajasana, dancer's pose? I would have posted tadasana, mountain pose, since it is a classic pose for demonstrating balance in the body, but I didn't look as happy in that one. Tadasana is hard.
I love stories. I love well-crafted stories. I love well-told stories. But really, who doesn't? The story is a basic, ubiquitous form for organizing information for communication. It helps us comprehend, process, and learn. Stories are a fundamental part of our collective (social) existence.
My yoga story is deeply rooted in the physical body (it may even be that it just is the/my physical body). I don't even really know how to translate it into words. It's not my idea of a cake walk to bother with the translation, either. But then I'd never be able to share this experience with anyone new. I wouldn't be a teacher. I wouldn't be a student. I suppose then I would just be, which some say is the goal, but that wouldn't get me very far -it would be socially isolating, if cosmically connected. Oooh! I have a little story about that.
I am a dancer. I've been attracted to dancing since I was very little. The movement of it, not the discipline, is what caught my eye (to six-year-old me, ballet class was BORING), and my dancing journey lacked structure and goals. (This was generally fine with me, I was still dancing; it just felt different from what all the other dancers seemed to be doing.) Perhaps because I do not like being told how to be, I've never been so very fond of filling a role in a choreographer's work (unless that role was me), and started as a young teenager to make up my own dances. And more importantly, I started dancing for myself, by myself.
I've known few moments in life when I was as connected and whole as when I was dancing, alone in the studio, without agenda. And that experience, well, I've never felt compelled to share with others because it hasn't wanted to be shared. That is, it isn't important to me that anyone know for themselves what the experience is like for me. Now, I've also spent much of my teen and adult life in the community of dance, making work, performing, attending shows, joining the dialogue and keeping it a part of my identity, education, and contribution to society. This has always been a challenge of sorts --it requires discipline, commitment, perseverance, passion-- but my experiences of something I never had words for remind me that it's important and worth it.
The yogis, they created words for that experience (at its most essential) and a system of tools to bring anyone into it. Which is why so many of us can find a resonance with ourselves in the practice of yoga. (And the more I look around, the more I see similar avenues abound in human experience. Which is to say that, happily, yoga isn't the purview of just yogis.) It also means that the philosophies of yoga are just stories that bring the singular experience of self into dialogue with daily living.
This is important for me to remember, because I haven't yet found much of a connection with the classic yoga texts I've read (yoga sutras, hatha yoga pradipika), I think because of the prevalence of hierarchical language and talk of spirituality. I haven't yet figured out what spirituality is supposed to mean, the word certainly doesn't mean anything to me, and it doesn't describe my experience of yoga. Perhaps the translation from the Sanskrit, the language developed to describe yoga and its philosophies, is at fault. But sometimes I suspect it might have to do with the translation of experience into words of any language (there is always something lost in translation, which is why no one needs to know what Bill Murray whispers in Scarlett Johansson's ear).
My inclination is to leave the texts be, not bother with defining spirituality, find my philosophy elsewhere. Then I remember that those texts, imperfect as they might be, participate in encouraging the widespread practice of yoga, which I think is awesome, spiritual or not. And I remember that the teaching (and learning how to practice) of yoga is found in the process of attempting the translation from experience to something we can use and share in our everyday living, like language. It's not easy. It requires discipline, commitment, perseverance, passion. And it's worth it.
More of that attempt next week. Until then, have a good one!
Core. Center. Kanda. Dantien. Pelvic Bowl.
When we move, we are best served by moving from our power source. It has many names, but its location seems to be widely agreed upon, with so many systems landing in the same place through years of observation and exploration of the human body in motion. Our power center (as I like to call it, though I hardly think I came up with this term) is located at our center of gravity, in the pelvic bowl region, at about 55% of one's height (from ground up; statistic found in Hackney, 121).
In various Eastern systems of movement + wholeness (Chinese medicine, martial arts, Thai massage, yoga etc), the importance of this center is not in the physical body, the muscles and bones, but rather in the subtle body, as it is the location of the lower body energy center, known as dantien in many martial arts (I was introduced to it through Thai massage) and kanda in yoga. (Kanda can be translated as bulbous root and is said to be the source of the nadis, the energy lines that run throughout the body. It is specified in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as being about 9 inches high, 3 inches wide. Fun!)
In my dance studies, influenced by Bartenieff Fundamentals, I was taught to move from the core, connecting all movement through this lower center. It is the site of crossover between lower and upper body via the very powerful psoas muscle (and others, of course).
Pilates, about which I admittedly don't know that much (other than what I've observed from doing the exercises with a teacher), seems to operate on the principle that one should keep this lower abdominal area, and all connections from the body to it, strong, in order to move fluidly (i.e., with strength and suppleness).
I have even found in my studies of the Alexander Technique, which teaches us to lead movement in our spines with the head, an author who subscribes to the idea of the pelvis or ˜centre' in generating movement power, acknowledging the difference between leading movement and moving from: This area is the wellspring of life and the centre to our vital energy. To liberate and apply its full power, however, we must first free our necks. ¦ In other words, the pelvis is centraland the head-neck is primary (Gelb, 155). (More on the Alexander Technique in its relationship to movement to come in future posts.)
This past week, I having been working on awakening some awareness of this lovely power center (both in my and my students' practices), and it is rather easy to see why Irmgard Bartenieff referred to this area as The Dead Seven Inches (Hackney, 120) (in looking at Americans at any rate). Our cultural habits of posture and activity (or lack thereof) focus heavily on the limbs and leave the center spilling out or shrinking in. And once you've lost touch with your power center from years and years of habit, it is difficult to find it again. It takes practice to start moving differently, to move with awareness and from a place of connection throughout the body. But we all need to do that. Our movement will be more fluid and strong, our bodies more balanced, our minds at greater peace, all by letting the body operate as its structure dictates most efficient, and this includes letting the reach of your arm be supported by connection through your lower center all the way to your foot. In fact, try it!
The next time you reach for something, let your fingers lead your arm and at the same time imagine a line of energy (or, if it is easier, of muscles + connective tissue) that crosses your torso to your lower abdomen, and then spirals down your leg for a connection with the ground (or whatever you're sitting/standing on). You may or may not feel anything, you might end up feeling awkward or that you're thinking more than moving, or you might awaken a little bit of your self awareness.
Start where you are, the practice is only as valuable as it is present. (Your future self is no one. You are only yourself in this moment.) But please do start! Start noticing, start observing, start finding connections to your physical body that inform your energetic body, your mental body, your whole self.
And let me know what you uncover.
Om shanti, om tat sat.
Some sources that contributed to this post (confirming, inspiring, educating my words)!