Posts Tagged ‘yoga’

Do You Still Do Yoga?

16/11/2018

2013-08-04 17.59.18

When I first started practicing yoga in the early 2000s, when I was in high school, I must have realized this practice had so much to offer me. I couldn’t really articulate it but I knew something was happening each time I practiced. Back then, I only had a VHS copy of “MTV Yoga.” Yes, that MTV, the channel that used to play music videos – and this yoga practice was led by Kristin McGee and hosted by Lori from The Real World (the Back to New York season, in case you’re curious). Yoga wasn’t as readily available as it is now, especially in a small town, so this tape was really my only way of starting a yoga practice – but it was my practice and it was helping me cultivate valuable skills in how to cope with the ups and downs of life, which I desperately needed. My astute parents recognized that this yoga thing was helpful to their anxious and easily-stressed out child so a few nights a week they dismissed me early from farm duties (a privilege for any farm kid) so I was able to have the house to myself and practice along with that beloved VHS tape. That display of love was and still is not lost on me. After being released from chores, I set out to my ritual. I’d clean myself up then change into my comfy sweats and loose-fitting t-shirt, fire up the VCR, pop in the VHS, roll out my purple Gaiam yoga mat (still in use more than 15 years later) and would “get to work.”

Following my practice, after a restful savasana, I’d put away my mat and then often would take myself out for a walk down the side road that runs alongside my parent’s farm. This walk gave me time to enjoy the lingering peace I felt from my yoga practice, not to mention give me a break from the anxiety that had a way of quickly overcoming my mind and body. As I was living my final chapter of high school, I was sitting on the edge of transition and before long would be moving away to Minneapolis for college so these walks were also a time for me to take in my home – my roots as my mom always reminds me. The farm, the soybean and corn fields, the woods that was and always will be a sanctuary for me. This 17-year-old wandering up the gravel road was actually pretty wise for taking this time and for taking it all in – but she didn’t entirely realize it.

I’ve come to recall these memories lately as friends and family ask me, “Do you still do yoga?” I assume they mean the physical practice. The short answer is yes. I still do yoga. Of course, I have a more drawn-out answer. After moving to Manhattan over a year ago, I made an intentional decision to not pursue teaching – not right away. For the previous five years in Minneapolis, I had taught a variety of formats at different venues and the problem was that teaching became my priority; not being a student. I craved simply being a student again and not always have lesson planning at the back of my mind. I needed to take a step back and return to my roots. I needed to channel that 17-year-old walking slowly up the country road.

Quite fortunately, I came to find a beautiful studio called Yoga Shanti within a month of moving to Manhattan. I was immediately drawn in by each teacher’s intelligent sequencing, attention to subtle detail and authentic nature. It also helped that the teachers were simply warm and welcoming, a standard that should be easy to meet but unfortunately in today’s commercialized and saturated yoga world, this is harder to come by than you would think – but I digress. Practicing with these teachers helped me land back into the yoga practice I so love and now realize I had lost in my years of teaching – ironically, I was invited to reconnect with the very ideas that I was trying to teach. Releasing the burden I put on myself while teaching brought me back to the healing that is possible in being a student who is learning how to simply connect mind and body. The idea of mind-body connection is so simple we think it’s abstract. This is one of the first lines I heard from my teacher, Matthew Sanford. I think of that often. Especially when I’m thinking too much.

While I don’t exactly have a quiet country road to walk down here in Manhattan, I have different ways to find yoga in my life today. I have come to realize that my yoga practice takes many different shapes and not necessarily ones you make with your body. I found it once talking to a homeless man named Shawn on the corner of 29th and 5th who slept on the church steps. He hoped to clean up his act enough to be permitted to see his adult daughter and grandchild in Baltimore. He didn’t even ask for money or anything from me. I think he just wanted someone to listen to his story. I’m also the weirdo who while standing shoulder to shoulder with the mess of humanity that is the New York City subway, I can’t help but smile that this too in its own way is yoga. We’re united by the struggle and we’re in it together. Most exciting to me is that taking a step back from teaching yoga and allowing myself to be a student has opened space for me to revisit a lifelong yet often ignored passion – my writing practice. For me, this is just another vehicle to connect with the realization, peace, and healing that I discovered was possible back when I first “did yoga.”

So, do I still do yoga? Yes. In more ways than you can even know – and probably in even more ways that I have yet to realize.

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Wisdom in Pencil Shavings

03/08/2018
colored pencil shavings

The main character in this story


On this hot NYC summer day, I’m recalling a time earlier this year when winter was dragging its feet and holding spring hostage. People started to wonder if they had unknowingly fallen asleep, missed summer and woke up in winter again. As you might imagine, after months of cold, wet and dreariness, a person’s spirits need a good lift – especially when the snow starts falling from the sky when the calendar clearly says it’s time for spring… The good news is that this type of heaviness can be countered by pure nourishment, which I personally find in arts and crafts. Sketching, making a collage, even coloring – these all transport me back to childhood when we did things purely for exploration and play.

On one of these long winter nights, I rolled out my yoga mat to set up my arts and craft station. (Yes, I use my mat for practicing poses and crafting – it’s all yoga to me.) I pulled out my pencil sharpeners and emptied them out on the hardwood floor. As I looked down at this dusty little pile, it occurred to me that these messy, colorful shavings looked pretty cool sitting there. At that moment I decided I could probably transform this perceived pile of junk into something fun so I gathered some rubber glue and a piece of durable black construction paper then began to slather rubber glue across the page while sprinkling the spirals of shavings all over. One harvest wasn’t enough to complete the project so I would need to carve all of my pencils to an articulate, sharp point. As I continued to sharpen and glue layers of colored pencil dust to the page, I had a couple of thoughts about creativity and nourishment:

  • This thing that I made isn’t really a good piece of art at all – not in a consumer sense, anyway. But, what’s affirming about the process is simply the joy and lightness of creativity. The result doesn’t always need to become a money maker nor does anyone even need to see it. Something can be made strictly for nourishment – a valuable outcome, too. This nourishment is important to seek, identify and keep close, especially when life begins to feel heavy, grey and dull. We can’t change the fact that we’re experiencing this third winter nor can we mute the grind and noise of the city. We can only take care of ourselves with the tools we have at hand. This feels like true, authentic self-care – which we are all worthy of.
  • The other thing I contemplated was the literal messiness of this project: the glue, scraps of paper and in this case, pencil shavings. Initially, I approached the project with a careful and clean manner, gingerly patting down the shavings to the glue. Then I realized the actual messiness is a big part of the fun and reason for collecting pencil shavings in the first place. So, with gleeful abandon and hands covered in glue and colorful dust, I felt the joy, peace, magic, and nourishment that creating – for the pure sake of creating – reveals in and for me.

All of that. From a humble pile of colored pencil shavings. We all have projects that give us this pure sense of nourishment – our own version of some glue and colored pencil shavings. What’s yours?

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My crafting station/yoga mat and art project

 

Improvasana

18/07/2018

yes and improv

Once upon a time I was inspired to step out of my comfort zone and try something completely different. So I said YES to Improv! Not only was I looking for a different extra-curricular activity than what I would normally sign up for, I also hoped to cultivate more confidence with speaking in front of others and thinking on the spot. As the weeks went on I began to realize that what we were learning in improv isn’t far off from what I’ve learned in yoga and meditation practices…

– In Improv, they encourage you to pause before you respond to a prompt. So if someone says, ‘What’s in the box?’ rather than panic and react (which can lead to funny outcomes), they advise to take a breath and respond. This sounds suspiciously like something I’ve learnt in my meditation practice. We learn to sit with whatever comes up, including difficult feelings or emotions. We learn to lean into these feelings, get comfortable and maybe even become friends with them. This skill that we learn in improv and in yoga can help us respond more thoughtfully to the ebbs and flows of life.

– Sometimes in improv you just can’t think what to say next… so you just say something. Anything. Then later on you say to yourself ‘Oh man! Why didn’t I say *this*. That would have been so good. But no, I’m terrible at improv.’ (Or was this just my thought process?). This cycle of negativity and self-criticism isn’t great for us. Besides, wasn’t the whole point of taking improv to have fun, do something different and learn a few things? Let go of the negative self-talk and be kind to yourself. Hmm… I feel like this has come up in yoga classes for me. “Handstand? Man, I won’t ever be able to do that. I suck at life because I can’t pop up into a handstand.” Wait? Why am I practicing yoga again? Oh, that’s right. Because it’s fun and I learn things. Sounds like improv.”

Breathing. As mentioned before, when it’s your turn to talk in improv, take a breath. In yoga if you’re in a challenging posture, take a breath. In meditation, when the mind starts to wander, re-align your focus and take a breath. Actually, if you’re doing anything, take a breath.

– As one of my peers so wisely observed in the final class, improv is really more than just thinking of the right thing to say. It’s important to actually bring your mind AND body into the experience. When we become more mindful of our body and how we’re holding it in space, we tend to feel more connected to ourselves, those around us and heck, even the world. When the link between our mind and body is awakened in such a way, we’ll bring more of ourselves into the improv scene/yoga class/meditation session. And maybe, just maybe this will teach us to include more of ourselves into the world. Whether that’s to be brave and try something new or to stand up for something you believe in. Or perhaps it helps you cultivate compassion for yourself and others. As a yoga student and teacher, I have long reflected on what it means to have an active connection between mind and body and will continue to ask the question.

So, it would seem that improv is actually meditation and yoga in disguise. Who would have thought? (By the way, I took the Improv series at Brave New Workshop. They’re awesome. Check them out if you’re in the Twin Cities.)

 

Moon Salutations: Quiet contemplation

26/02/2013

I remember such frigid Wisconsin winter nights when I was growing up. Crisp air that bit at the nose, ice blanketing the driveway and fresh snow hills built up alongside of  the shed. Night arrived early during the winter and by the time our family finished with farm chores for the day, blackness awaited us. While this sounds utterly depressing – and let’s be honest, it was at times – there was also magic in that blackness. Blessed with no light pollution, we could witness millions of twinkling stars in the sky. Stopped in my tracks, I stood on that frozen path between the house and the barn in stillness (maybe slightly frozen) with my head dropped back – completely mesmerized. I still think about those nights in the dead of winter and how for even just a minute, staring at the stars and moon was an invitation to quiet contemplation. To this day no matter where I am in the world, I still find myself captivated by a sky full of bright stars, always leaving me to contemplate my tiny pocket of the vast universe.

For this reason, I felt an immediate connection to Moon Salutations (Chandra Namaskara) when I first came across this slower, inner focused set of yoga poses.  Moon salutations counter the dynamic energy of Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara), a staple of many hatha yoga classes today. Lunar energy encourages cooling and inward reflection, while solar energy promotes heated and outward focused energy. Classes emphasising moon or lunar energy may be called yin or restorative yoga on your class schedule, which are generally conducted at a slower pace while focusing on longer holds in each pose. If you’re practising yoga in places like Australia or America, chances are most classes offered at your studio emphasize solar energy – which of course is not a bad thing but in the spirit of balance, try incorporating some lunar energy into your practice. Practising Moon Salutations in the evening can be a particularly soothing end to the day especially if you can align your practice with dusk, when day becomes night.

To provide a starting point in exploring Moon Salutations, I recommend this sequence by Shiva Rea that was featured in Australian Yoga Journal. Enjoy the quiet space and contemplation.

Life lessons in the Art of Assisting

19/02/2013

When we open our minds and leave our comfort zone, we can be led down an unexpected and wonderful path. Such was the case last year when I enrolled in a four day course at my yoga studio called ‘Art of Assisting’ which is designed as a yoga teacher training course but also open to regular practitioners. I normally wouldn’t find myself in such a course because  surely there was some reason I didn’t belong there. I’m not a qualified yoga teacher nor can I do handstand – simply not advanced enough. But I turned up with excitement (and slight nervousness) only to meet others who were just like me and were there to deepen their own practice. A few teachers were in the midst but I realized after the first few hours we were there to support each other and learn together.

After relaxing into the course, I quickly found myself interested in more than how I could learn to adjust my own poses. Helping students through assists allows them to chart unexplored territory, physically and mentally, which can be incredibly rewarding for all parties involved. Once the course finished, I decided to continue onto the optional next step of assisting in public classes at the studio, which has been a journey of lessons – applicable to life off the mat too – and isn’t that what yoga is all about really?

Have faith in yourself: When I practised assists on my peers and mentor, the main feedback was always along the lines of “I liked what you did and it felt great. But you just need to be more confident.” Oh how this one piece of feedback has always followed me – at school, jobs and now in the yoga studio! I once read that yoga is a practice of faith and observation – to have faith that you know what to do and how to do it while observing your thoughts without judgement. I tend to keep this in mind while I assist, and do anything for that matter.

Nothing is permanent: During one of my practice assisting sessions, I was not in a good head space and I knew it as I walked into the studio. While I assisted to the best of my ability, I felt attacked and tearful when the girl I assisted confirmed that “I didn’t do very well.” OK – that’s not actually what she said or even meant (I can only assume anyway) but my sensitive mind interpreted it in such a way. My reaction to her feedback rattled me for a good day or two after. I was frustrated with the tears and just simply would not let it go. Those spells of bad luck or stressful days can sometimes feel like they will never end. But the simple thought that none of it is permanent can be a relief. That one average assisting session was temporary and a lesson to learn from. We will always have those days when we are not on top of our game. Which brings me to the next point…

Have compassion: After beating myself up for days after that practice assist I reminded myself of compassion. How we can find compassion for others so easily but then when it comes to ourselves, we have the least amount of patience. Being compassionate to yourself is not selfish. It just makes sense. Think about how you treat others in your daily life. Would you give someone at work such a hard time, for days, if they made a mistake? Probably not. So why would you do that to yourself? We are only human living complex, busy lives – why make it more challenging than it needs to be?

The yoga journey is constant, filled with depths and heights. On and off the mat. What are some of the lessons you have experienced in yoga practice, as student or teacher, and taken into the world?

40 Day Revolution or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Downward Dog

16/03/2012

Today is the day. The final day of the 40 Day Revolution and I come away from the experience with a greater understanding of myself as well as an even more profound love for yoga!

Since the beginning, I have asked myself what I hoped to gain from the Revolution and the initial answers were to find more balance in my life and take the next step in committing to a more steady and consistent practice. I think I achieved both of these objectives but there actually has been one major theme that stayed with me for most of the 40 days though I couldn’t quite explain it until I had an a-ha moment during class this week. It was an unusually small class so the instructor jumped on the opportunity to ‘play’ a bit more (easier to do when there are less people in the room) and helped us discover more space in a few poses including Downward Facing Dog, a staple in any Vinyasa class.

Downward Facing Dog

Downward Facing Dog

For awhile, I didn’t quite ‘get’ this pose. Like I said, it is a staple and a go-to for finding a bit of respite during practice but I have always struggled a little bit. My hands never felt like a solid base, or my legs felt too tight – just found it more stressful than restorative. Then something happened. Over the last 40 days I found myself easing into my down dog with less worry and reached the point of… enjoying it! During this class, the instructor asked us to pair up with one of our fellow yogis for a partner assist exercise, then I really got it! Gently but firmly, our partners were asked to raise our hips toward the sky while in our down dog, allowing more space than what we could achieve on our own. Then they were asked to push against our shoulders, again bringing us deeper into the asana than what we might be do on our own accord. Not only was it a great stretch but also served as an example to show that there is always more space to move into. And this lesson can be applied to our mental space too. A-ha!

The 40 Day Revolution has showed me how to be more aware of my space and also the importance of creating more space in our lives. A pose seems really difficult? Just breathe and somehow, like magic, you can find just a little extra space to move and stretch into. Your mind is overrun with worry and stress at work? As hard as it can be (at least for me it can be!) then that is the perfect opportunity to step back, breathe and put your rampant thoughts into order, thus creating more space and awareness of where your head space is at in that moment. Watching how you feel in a moment can make a profound difference in how you proceed with your next task, day or whatever is coming up.

At times squeezing two meditations into a day plus a 90 minute practice at the studio could be challenging – and there were certainly days when it just wasn’t possible. But the revolution wasn’t about perfection or ticking all of the boxes. For me, it was a journey towards more self-awareness, paying attention to my space and inviting personal growth. I’m so grateful I finally went for the challenge. It has been an excellent experience that has moved me into another level of my yoga practice, beyond the physical postures into something much deeper. And of course, I learned to stop worrying and love the downward facing dog!

If you’re in Sydney, I suggest checking out BodyMindLife. They have beautiful studios in Surry Hills and Rozelle. And perhaps you will feel inspired to join their next 40 Day Revolution!

Let the revolution begin!

07/02/2012

So the revolution begins. A couple of months ago I had written about the incredible transformation that happens when you learn to take yoga off the mat and do it regularly. I also declared I would finally sign up for the 40 Day Revolution, a program and personal challenge to commit to yoga (five days at the studio, one day at home and one day of rest) and meditation twice a day.  I was pretty gung ho but as the first day, 6th February, drew closer and closer I started to question my capacity to undertake such a committment. However, I reminded myself that there is no punishment if something happens along the way and I can’t get to yoga one day or miss a meditation. The reward is in the journey.

Last night was the first night which kicked off with a meeting and I loved listening to my co-revolutionaries share each of their motivations for signing up, ranging from desire for physical benefits and learning to cultivate more focus and balance in life, in particular the ladies who work in advertising and another who runs her own business. A man from the Netherlands, who has only arrived in Sydney five months ago, explained his desire to connect with the yoga community in his new home. And a very honest reason from another guy: “Now that I have paid $300 for this I hope that will motivate me to go more.” We all have our reasons. No judgements here.

Now I feel inspired by the possibilities. Rather than feeling daunted, I am taking advantage of this time to really reflect through yoga and meditation, supplemented by daily journal writing. This allows me to think about and define my intentions during the revolution and observe how I’m feeling mentally and physically. This journey has great potential but only if I don’t allow my own excuses to persuade me that I can’t complete it. For now though, two days in and enjoying the experience so far.

Learn more about the program and the studio BodyMindLife here.

Yoga saves

04/12/2011

When yoga practice becomes more of a way of life rather than an exercise routine done once or twice a week, an interesting transformation begins.Though I have been doing yoga on and off with spurts of consistency for the last 10 years, this year I have made a pact with myself to strive for commitment to yoga and meditation practice. As the days pass, I find myself enjoying life simply by being in the present, approaching the day with more humour and above all, loving. I know that must really sound like ramblings of a hippie but it’s simple really. Love, laugh and be present. In many ways yoga has saved me. Not only am I realizing how to find happiness within but I am also equipped with a stronger confidence and self-awareness.

Frankly, I’m still a beginner. My journey began when I was 17 years old and followed the MTV Yoga video (on VHS!) hosted by Kristin McGee several nights a week. After graduating high school and started university in Minnesota, I was restricted by space and time, so these years my practice suffered as I only practiced once a month at most. There was a turning point when I thought back to how I felt when I did do yoga and wondered why I didn’t do it more. From then I steadily increased my sessions but still never hit the ‘sweet spot,’ so to speak. Now after living in Australia for four years, ten years since I first discovered yoga through MTV, I have unearthed the mental and physical well-being I am capable of achieving.

I am looking forward to 2012 and really allowing yoga to be part of my daily life. For a few years I have been making excuses for not doing the 40 day revolution, at BodyMindLife, a yoga studio in Sydney. The 40 day revolution is a journey and personal challenge, inviting a life changing transformation. The challenges requires five days of studio practice, one day of at-home Vinayasa practice, one day of active rest, and morning and evening meditation over forty days. All of this always sounded appealing to me but also very daunting so have found excuses as to why I couldn’t possibly sign up for such an event. I’ve realized now that it isn’t necessarily about ‘winning’ the challenge but rather about trying and encouraging personal growth.

Everybody who does yoga has a story as to why they first stepped to the mat, whether it was to lose weight, learn to become more focused or to find a bit of tranquillity in a busy life. Yoga is a wonderful way to achieve all of these and being open to it, you can gain some results that you would have never imagined. I for one am loving the journey and learning how to live with more presence, focus and energy.