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Recently, I noticed that when I hear unwelcome news I say one thing – “Oh no!” Whenever I say it, I feel the resistance to whatever I’m hearing, the clench against what is happening. Since then, I’ve been playing with saying Yes. It might be, “Yes and I’m so sorry.” Or it might be, “Yes and I see I have no control over that.” Or, “Yes, that’s not what I expected and this can work, too!” There is power in Yes. This week, five mini-postlettes about just that.

One of the many reasons my yoga teacher, Amy, is so awesome is that she is cheerfully honest about her practice. She doesn’t hide her own ups and downs on the mat and that helps me find the courage to practice patiently and without expectation. Her relaxed approach to her own monkey mind gets me to lighten up about mine.

After a Baptiste Power Yoga intensive a while back, she returned with her red mat autographed by her friends from the training. The people we share intense experiences with leave lasting marks on our hearts, so I understood the signatures.

But wondered about the frog.

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At the top of her mat along with all the names was the picture of a little smiling frog.

Turns out that Baptiste invites yogis to say YES to whatever’s happening on (and off) the mat. Can’t balance in Tree to save your life? YES. Slipping and sliding on self-made sweat puddles? YES. Finally nailed Crow Pose? YES.

Amy said she was down with this approach until she got into Frog Pose. It’s a doosie, this one: belly down, knees wide, groins and inner thighs intensely stretching. Someone doing Frog looks like a poor amphibian who’s dealt with the business end of a car tire.

Amy said NO to Frog. She hated it and wanted to get out as soon as she got in (before then, even). To remind her that YES was an option, one of her yogi friends drew a little frog on her mat.

Amy likes to joke that she still says NO to Frog, but she doesn’t fool me. She is a yogi who knows the power of staying in even when things get uncomfortable. Especially then. She may not like it but she says YES to Frog…usually.

amy's frog

 

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This was originally posted on April 28, 2013. Since my knees are feeling a little wonky lately, since we have new routines to bring the focus to, and since I was TED-consumed in the past few days*, I thought I’d bring this popular post back.


 

“You can mess with God, but you can’t mess with your knees.”
– Bev Wann, Nia and Mindfulness Educator

For the past week or so, my knees have been feeling tight and sore. I’d love to tell you that my in-depth knowledge of anatomy led me immediately to the source of the discomfort. But I had no idea why my knees weren’t feeling right. I’d also love to tell you that I was calm and at peace with the ache in my knees. While I wasn’t exactly panicky, I was sincerely not chill with it.

Knees are sensitive spots. At just the sight of someone who looks unstable or likely to fall, my empathetic husband’s knees tingle. Think about the way we talk about knees idiomatically:

– Weak in the knees
– Knocking knees
– Up to my knees or knee-deep
– Cut off at the knees
– Fall on the knees or bring to the knees
– On bended knee
– Knee-high to a grasshopper

All of these sayings reveal the vulnerability of knees. Whether it’s love or fear, overwhelm or a heartfelt plea, when we talk about our knees, we are talking about helplessness.

Knee-Anatomy

The largest joint in the body, knees are a complex hinge or condylar joint which are essential for movement. Knowing the anatomy of the joint can help in understanding the importance of alignment. For example, when you stand up or squat down, do your knees fall in toward each other? If so, you are straining your Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL). If your knee juts out in front of your foot when you lunge forward, you are stressing the ligaments around your patella (knee cap) that connect the muscles from the thigh to the shin bone.

There are many good resources for learning about knee health (for example, click here for a good article about knees and yoga), but we can learn particular things from the practice of Nia (click here for an article from the Nia White Belt Manual about Nia and the Knees and here’s another on Knee-Locking Syndrome).

Both in the studio and in life, I’ve discovered the following four keys to knee health and comfort:

Knee-Ahhh! Tip #1: Always step silently and cleanly

This is the A-number one, most important focus when it comes to happy knees. First, step softly (with cat-like tread!) and silently. Stomping and walking heavily strains the feet, ankles, knees and hips and dulls awareness (see Knee-Ahh Tip #4). And step cleanly, without dragging, shuffling, or twisting your feet on the floor. Imagine the floor is slightly sticky so you have to lift and place your feet – every single time. This is particularly important when turning. The Body’s Way is to step rather than spin on the feet which protects not just the knee but the joints above and below. Which leads to…

Knee-Ahhh! Tip #2: For happy knees, look to hips and ankles

Whenever you experience discomfort in the body, look above and below the place of pain. One of the best ways to keep knees healthy is to keep the hips and ankles strong and mobile. Most people are unable to execute a walking turn in Nia because their hips do not have the range of motion to allow the turn. And commonly, people shuffle or drag their feet because of stiff or weak ankles. Practicing any of the first eight movements of the 52 Moves of Nia will condition the ankle joints while Moves 19 through 29 are all particularly good for the hip joints.

Knee-Ahhh! Tip #3: Breathe & Relax

Given that they are particularly sensitive and vulnerable, one tendency is to hold tension in the knees. This week, I’ve noticed that while sitting at my desk, watching baseball (Go Twins and Red Sox!), and even when I’m in Savasana, I’m often holding some level of tension in my knees! One of the best things I can do in movement and in stillness is relax and breathe into my knees.

Knee-Ahhh! Tip #4: Listening & Awareness

The more I practice Nia Principle 5, Awareness, the more I learn about what is supporting and what is taxing my knees… or any part of me. This week, I noticed that I am very precise with my foot placement when I’m in Nia class, but when I’m working in my kitchen, I tend to twist on my feet especially on the rug in front of my stove. Use awareness and deep listening to find even the small changes that can make happier knees.

What makes your knees happy? Share your body wisdom and Knee-Ahhh! experiences below! May this week leave you knee-deep in knee health!


* Interested in checking out some of the TEDx Charlottesville talks that happened on Friday? You can see the whole day by going here http://livestream.com/tedx/events/4498792 . All the talks are aMAZing and are inspirational, thought-provoking, surprising and moving. If you’d like to see the speakers I’ve been working with for the past few months, you can find Elliott Woods at 6:19 and Leslie Blackhall at 6:48.

choosing sides revolved head to knee pose
My first yoga class with Mia Hamza focused on the side body. Afterwards, my body’s increased ease, range of motion and depth of breath amazed me.

Inspired, I read Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews to understand more about what is physically happening in different postures and movements.

In particular, I appreciate Kaminoff’s definition of breathing (explained simply and briefly here) as “shape change in the abdominal and thoracic cavities.”

So, it makes sense that length and strength in back, core, and rib muscles allow for ease, range and breath. May you get on your good side, too.

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“The side body is over-worked and under-paid.” ~ Mia Hamza

In February, I unrolled my mat in Mia Hamza’s yoga class for the first time. She focused, in that class, on opening the side body and (as hyperbolic and gluteus-kissing as this sounds) it transformed my practice.

The Nia practitioner in me loved having a focus: a thread that connected the poses and sensations. I loved that the poses and muscle groups were relatively new to me. But mostly, mostly, I loved how good I felt after that class.

Once I started opening my side body, I couldn’t get enough. That one class sent me on a cascade of exploration: into poses, breath, anatomy, and then choreography to create a Nia routine called Elegant Stumbling that focuses on the side body.

I’m relatively fit and limber but until that first class with Mia I had NO IDEA the tension I was carrying in my sides. Her class opened ease in my torso and core, deepened my breath and got me curious about what was going on in there. Whatever it was, I wanted to be doing it more.

As Mia points out, the side muscles, including the latissimus dorsi (broad back muscles), the obliques (side abdominal muscles) and the intercostals (muscles between the ribs) are working and stabilizing the body constantly.

choosing sides obliques and lats
As I researched, I discovered a muscle I didn’t even know — the quadratus lumborum (QL), a deep abdominal muscle in the low back — that is deeply connected to side bending.
choosing sides QL
Like the obliques and the psoas (deep hip flexor muscle that assists with hip flexion and rotation — and is notoriously tight), the QL connects the pelvis to the spine. These muscles integrate the upper and lower body – actually keeping the legs and torso together — so they are working all. the. time.

While we commonly (both in daily movement and in exercise) bend forward, arch back and twist, it’s rare that we do any lateral flexion (side bending). It’s not surprising, then, that this under-noticed area may be a little shy when it becomes the focus. Resistance or a feeling of “stickiness” is common when activating the side body, so it’s wise to go gently into these areas and breathe a lot. It can be easy to over-do or to hold the breath, so playing with awareness and breathing fully into all sides of the rib cage allows your body to open in its own natural time.

As things tend to do in our super-connected bodies, there are other areas to be aware of when focusing on side body opening. Tight inner thigh and hamstring muscles can impede movement in the hips which in turn can reduce the range of motion in or strain the side muscles. As we play with side body opening, then, we’ll also focus on releasing inner thighs and hamstrings.

It’s been a rich journey from that first class with Mia to the launch of Elegant Stumbling. I’ve learned how my core musculature affects the depth of my breath and my range of side motion. But the brightest side is that I’ve discovered movements that leave my body feeling easy and spacious. Get on your own good side and experiment for yourself.

PS You can find a couple of excellent Yoga Journal Articles on the side subject here and here.

kind without caving dalai lamaIn yoga this morning I’m finding my feet in the flow of poses, feeling the ripple of my spine, bobbling, tipping, falling over, then finding my feet and spine again. When I get myself into a pose, I am determined to hold it, keep it, not lose it. That’s when Liz, our instructor, glides past my mat and says, “Be soft and strong at the same time.”

I lose my drishti and eyeball her. I so want it to be one or the other. I want my poses to be all soft and bendy or I want them to be crisp and sharp. I don’t even know how to do both. My brain and body look at Liz and knit their collective eyebrows, “At the same time?

Even though it feels unfamiliar and even counter-intuitive, I practice being both soft and strong on my mat. Over and over, I plant my feet and lengthen my spine and get strong and grounded without caving my chest or collapsing my core. And then I soften: soften my jaw, soften my eyes, soften my heart. There is a sensation when I can find the balance – a sweet spot of both/and.

It’s no shock that I deal with this bamfoozelment off the mat, too. With people, to be perfectly candid. I am forever figuring out how to be soft and strong at the same time.

I want to be kind. I value kindness. Kindness feels good. I never regret kindness.

So I practice kindness as I make my way through my day. I practice sending kindness to that zipperhead who just careened past me on the highway. I let my tight hands soften on the wheel. I melt my scowly eyebrows. I practice kindness with the person who cannot put their phone down ~ not at the table, not in yoga, not while driving. I breathe softly and wish her well. I practice kindness with the friend who is so stuck in his self-sabotaging pattern ~ a friend with whom I’ve had this exact same conversation 6000 times.

And yet. I want to be strong. I value strength. I don’t want people to walk all over me or take advantage. I want to call it like I see it. I want to have a backbone.

So I practice standing up for myself. I practice saying what is so and doing my best to tell the truth even when it’s difficult or embarrassing or not what the other person wants to hear. I practice asking for what matters to me…without being controlling … or saying what doesn’t need to be said … or overstepping my bounds or….

Argh.

How do I do this? How can I be soft and strong at the same time? How can I be clear without being defended? How can I be kind without caving? It feels like when my first ballet teacher told me to draw my front ribs together. Um, what? I don’t think I even have muscles that do that. Be soft and strong? Be kind without caving? I don’t even know how to begin.

To unwind this contradiction, I’m bringing in the big guns: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He said,

Cherishing others does not mean ignoring our own needs and caring only for others….While one form of self-interest is selfish, stingy, and irritable, another is wise self-interest that understands that benefiting ourselves and helping others need not be contradictory.

As is often the case with HH14, I find myself wanting him to explain more instead of turning away from the microphone right when he’s going to tell me how to do it.

If I sit with his words, though, just as if I sit with the sensation in a yoga pose, I can feel the difference between “selfish, stingy, and irritable” and “clear and strong.” I feel my attachment to controlling my friend or other drivers and phone users — and that attachment is not strength. I feel my resistance to the way people are and the nature of things — and that resistance is not soft. What I’m looking for is a middle way just like when I can feel my feet planted and my spine lifted while my neck and shoulders relax.

Like everything, it is a practice. “Soft and strong” and “kind without caving” have distinct sensations. The practice is becoming more familiar, more intimate with how that middle way feels and when I lose it — which I do, over and over — to keep coming back.

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