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In February, meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-Day Meditation Challenge. Everybody is invited to commit to meditating every day for the month and join the mindfulness community. As part of the challenge, I’ll be blogging throughout the month (along with other meditator/bloggers) about the experience. You can find the posts on Sharon’s site and I’ll share mine on Focus Pocus.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day 21
Saturday, February 21, 2015

28 Day Challenge aspen leaf with snow pub dom

Balancing postures.

Standing Head to Knee (Dandayamana-Janushirasana).
Standing Bow (Dandayamana-Dhanurasana).
Balancing Stick (Tuladandasana).
Tree (Tadasana).
Warrior 3 (Virabhadrasana III).

They are all challenging for me.

Whether it’s my lack of strength, or my over-flexibility, or my distractability, I don’t know. Whatever it is, I fall out of these postures as fast and often as the undercoat of a retriever.

When I do, I do my best to take a breath and get right back in. That’s part of the practice. But sometimes, falling out and getting back in becomes a habit.

It takes another kind of strength to catch myself as I’m falling out and find the muscles to keep me on one foot.

In balancing postures, I do my best to catch myself before I fall out. If I do tip over, I start again.

In sitting practice, I do my best to catch myself before I get carried away in a train of thought. If I do get on board and leave the station, I start again.

In my relationships, I do my best to catch myself before speaking out of fear or anger. If I say something unskillful, I apologize as soon as I can and start again.

Catching myself and beginning again. Both are part of the practice.

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the thread black spool“Your day awaits you. Greet it when it arrives.” – Sara Zia, Yoga Instructor

If there was a List Olympics, I would be the captain of Team USA. At any given time, I have at least three lists going and those are only the paper ones. On my computer, have lists of ideas for blog posts, topics for essays, and workshops I want to teach. I have lists of books I want to read, movies I want to see and people I want to call (or email, of course, since I am after all on the computer).

Recently, I discovered a phone app that allows me to not only create multiple shopping lists (for each of the stores where I shop) but Errand Lists and To Do lists, too. And in a half a second, I can send said lists to my husband Frank’s phone. You best believe that when I came across this modern miracle of list making, I was a quivering mass of planning happiness.

Not everybody is a planner like me. You may be a ruminator, a brooder, a chewer-of-things-that-have-happened. Like a kid with an extra-large fireball in her mouth, you may find yourself rolling difficult scenes or conversations around over and over in your mouth even if they burn.

Whether ruminator or planner, it was us that my yoga teacher, Sara, was talking to on Saturday morning last winter. As I lay down for the two-minute savasana (Corpse Pose) between the standing and floor series, I was ready to settle into a couple of luxurious minutes of planning exactly every-single-blessed-thing I was going to do that day in my head. As Sara glided gracefully through the room, she invited us to sense our breath, settle our minds, and stay present in this moment.

“Your day awaits you,” said Sara. “Greet it when it arrives.”

Her words made me laugh at myself. I imagined My Day as an avuncular character ~ a big, leather jacket-wearing, kind but unpredictable guy ~ waiting patiently for me outside the yoga studio. He leaned against the wall, good-naturedly watching me plan everything, letting me think I was in control when he had his own agenda for the day, thankyouverymuch.

This summer, when Frank was injured and lots of wretched things kept happening in a dreadful string, my mind was a whirling swirl of terrible imagined future scenarios. In an effort to calm myself, I took to breakfasting on the back porch and writing in my journal everything that I saw or heard. The exercise was a writer’s version of what Sara had asked us to do in yoga. Sometimes I wrote about the color of the sky or the sound of the birds but sometimes, my mind would derail me.

Here’s part of what I wrote on July 6, 2014:

“The sky is so pale it’s almost white. Today the sheets and laundry and trash and weeding and posting and playlisting pull and call and urge me to finish breakfast and tend to them. Even the list tires me; let alone the chores. The leaves shuffle and flutter and sound like someone hushing a child. ‘Do what you’re doing. Then do the next thing. Let yourself follow the thread of the day rather than knotting it all up in your hand.’”

Planning is not a bad thing. The subtitle of this blog indicates my sincere belief in setting intentions and directing our energy. It’s when we are attached to the way things turn out and our expectations drive us, that we suffer.

Thinking over what has happened isn’t a bad thing, either, as long as we can (as I wrote about last week) do it with honesty and gentleness. Suffering happens when rolling that fireball of regret and self-flagellation in my mouth keep me from being here now.

Do what you’re doing. Then do the next thing. Let yourself follow the thread of the day.

change bell and penI’m often asked why I love doing the hot yoga series (26 postures & 2 breathing exercises). “It’s the same every time! Doesn’t it get boring?”

Truth is, it’s never the same.

The Bell & The Pen suggests sitting on the front porch and writing about what you see. I only have a back porch that overlooks the garden and chicken coop which I figured wouldn’t work since my view would always be the same ~ no cars, no people. I do it anyway. I sit with tea and journal and write about what I see and hear and smell and taste.

Funny, it’s never the same.

“Change.” ~ the cue between every single yoga posture in the hot yoga series

change half moon pose

The sweat is already running down my arms in the first set of Half Moon pose (Ardha Chandrasana). I’m lifting out of my waist and pulling in my core and firming my legs, lifting up, out and over while keeping my hips and shoulders square to the mirror. My breathing is shallow but steady. I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. It all feels impossible and unsustainable, but I press my feet into the floor and the teacher says, “Change.”

* * *

He is curled up on the bed, his breath ragged, tears running down his face. Through gulps of air he looks at me pleadingly, “What is wrong with me?” I stand by the bed with my hands on his back and his shoulder. I look at him, helpless. My precious man, my love, my partner. I tell him I don’t know. My breathing is shallow. I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. It all feels impossible and unsustainable. I feel my feet on the floor and get him some ice and some medicine and slowly, his face softens and changes.

* * *

change savasanaIn the middle of the practice, we take two minutes in Corpse Pose (Savasana) to let the body rest and prepare for the rest of the series. My mind, which is often open and quiet, today is darting right and left into a variety of futures.

* * *

He’s hobbling into the bathroom like a six foot Yoda, complete with gnarled walking stick. I close my eyes and swallow hard. What was once the straight line of his spine is now curving right, then left.

* * *

change spinal twistThe last pose of the series is a complete spinal twist (Ardha-Matsyendrasana) – the ultimate in human pretzel poses. Once I get my arms and legs oriented, I inhale and sit as tall as I can, then reach around my body with the idea of hooking my fingers into my inner thigh. For about 20 months, this has only been an idea, but today, I inhale, sit tall, reach around, and – whoa! – my little finger hooks neatly around my thigh muscle. Change was happening all the time. There was an untapped reservoir of strength and flexibility that feels available now.

* * *

I’m a little startled when I see him standing in the kitchen without his Yoda walking stick. He shows me how much more he can move his shoulder today. I look at him, with his new haircut (a friend brought her scissors and soon the front porch was covered in silver and brown) and my heart feels like it will burst from my ribs. I loved him before, I really did. Something has changed. There was a deep reservoir of love and care that had been untapped before this. That reservoir is open now and flowing fast. The new currents are changing the contours of our connection.

eyebrow yoga cobra guy“He was thinking that in nearly every person there was some special physical part kept always guarded. With the mute his hands. The kid Mick picked at the front of her blouse to keep the cloth from rubbing the new, tender nipples beginning to come out on her breast. With Alice it was her hair; she used never to let him sleep with her when he rubbed oil in his scalp. And with himself?”

~ Carson McCullers, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

1. Notice

I take my right shoe off before my left.
When I step forward, my little toe comes down before my big toe.
When coasting on my bike, I usually have my right foot in front.
When he’s absorbed in reading, he clicks his fingernail against his tooth.
She almost always wears navy blue.
There is a picture of purple and yellow flowers above the Martha Jefferson MRI machine.

2. Notice What You Notice

Sometimes all I see are the flowers. Sometimes, I only see the weeds.

Sometimes I put all my attention on what is working well. Teaching the same focus during the week with different routines for each class. Making meals like tacos and salads and sandwiches that everyone can customize for themselves. Following the 13 Moon Calendar and wearing the color of the day. Feeling the ease in my feet and neck.

Other times my focus is on what’s not working. My cueing is too late. I’m procrastinating around writing. I’m not sleeping well. My right shoulder aches.

I have good reasons for noticing both. And for noticing what I’m noticing.

3. Notice What You Don’t Notice

A dear, wise friend gave me a book, The Pen and The Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes. I love it.  It’s like Nia for writing!  The chapter I read last night suggests:

Each day, try to look closely at something you think you already know well….Observe it for longer than a few seconds. Can you pick up on any forgotten or unexpected details?

I love this idea but I don’t have time for that these days.

Later, stroking the hair I’ve stroked for 16 years I notice that it’s grayer than I realized near his temples, almost completely dark brown at the back. He hasn’t gotten it cut since he’s been hurt, so now it curls around his ears and along his neck.

* * *

As I lift up into Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana), Sara says, “Look up with your eyes, not your eyebrows.” Oh my gosh.  I realize I’m straining so hard with my eyebrows, they’re practically up under my hair. I’d never noticed that before.  And then in every pose, I realize I’m almost always lifting my eyebrows. And when I’m brushing my teeth and trolling through the grocery store and talking and watching soccer…

* * *

“Swing your arms, sweetie!” says Frank as we’re hiking through a pine forest. I am often unaware that I’m walking with only my lower body and I’m not letting my arms swing free. Hmm. I wonder if that’s why my shoulder hurts?

savoring nourishment kundalini paintingI can hear you.

“A month of savoring. Right. Nice for you. We’d all like to slow down to vacation pace, but I have too much to do. I have three kids (a full-time job / an ailing family member / your thing here). I’m a single parent (an entrepreneur, on a mission, your other thing here) and I can’t slow down. If I don’t rush, if I don’t hurry, nothing will get done. Savoring schmavoring.

“And don’t try to con me with your new age happy horse hooey ‘Less is More’ stuff, either. I wasn’t born yesterday. Less is less. More is more. Obviously.”

I can hear you because that’s what’s in my head, too.

* * *

About half way through the 26-posture yoga series that I practice, we do two minutes of savasana (corpse pose). After 50 minutes of active standing postures in a room that is more than 100 degrees, two minutes lying down doesn’t seem like it would do squat. But it does. Those two minutes nourish my muscles and joints, calm my heart and nervous system and let my mind go blank (sometimes). They are two incredibly nourishing minutes (always).

During the second half of the practice, we do 20-second savasanas in between each posture. Just 20 seconds but like little phone chargers, each savasana gives me rest and space and energy for the next pose. (A curse of locusts on the teacher who only gives us 15 seconds, by the way.)

And in the midst of even the most challenging posture, the breath is always there flowing in and out calmly through the nose, nourishing the body in the midst of everything.

It doesn’t take long to recharge and nourish even a depleted body~mind.

* * *

I love lists. I mean, love. At any given moment, I’ve got a slew of them going. (Hold on, let me do a count: five on my desk, two on the kitchen table, two on the kitchen counter, and a spread sheet on my laptop.) I use them to remind me of tasks and ideas and chores. I use them to get control of almost any situation or solve almost any problem. Feeling overwhelmed? Make a list. Not sure what to do next? Make a list. Have a scary health issue happening? Make a list.

I also use lists to give me a rush of satisfaction as I lustily cross out items. If I really need a boost, I don’t just draw a line but vigorously scribble out what I’ve done. Accomplishment feels good to me.

I’m noticing there is a difference, though, between just doing something to cross it off the list and doing something with my full attention and care. My attachment to getting things done can land thin and hollow if I’m just doing something to cross (or scribble) it off the list.  An empty slavery to my lists.

I can choose to let my lists stress me out about everything that needs to get done or allow them to nourish me with perspective and possibility. When I am savoring, I can look at a list, take a breath and set my priorities. What matters to me the most? What feels important or time-sensitive? What will nurture and nourish me and my people? What can only I do? What can be done later or can I delegate to someone else? Which leads me to…

* * *

… the nourishment of asking for help.

If I look at what needs doing and find myself saying, “It all needs to be done now and I need to do it all.” I know that is a time to stop, take a breath, and get over damn myself. When life feels scary or painful or like a whole lot of everything, and someone asks if they can help, I’m practicing saying “Yes, yes you can.” We need each other and any idea that we can do it all on our own is an illusion. The greatest nourishment is love.

* * *

Life is full-to-bursting with things that need doing and people who need attention and deadlines that need meeting. There will always, ALWAYS be more to do than time to do it in. Rushing to get it done leaves me as malnourished and empty. Savoring doesn’t take more time, just more attention. Savoring nourishes.

socks on socks off girl putting on socksEvery morning, I plop down on the floor next to my bed and shimmy my feet into socks. I can hear him in my head. Carlos, my teacher, in his heavily Mexico-City-accented English, “Get on the floor to put on your socks and shoes.”

The movement of children, Carlos argued, was a view into health. Watch a five- or six-year-old for even a couple minutes and you’ll see them move fast and slow, big and small, around and down and up off the floor without missing a beat. Unless directed by a grown-up, they aren’t likely to sit demurely on a bench or chair to put on their shoes. One way to improve fitness, Carlos suggests, is to do the shoes and socks thing like a kid.

In yoga, Standing Forehead to Knee pose confounds me. The idea is to balance on a fully-engaged leg, extend the opposite leg straight out in front and place the forehead delicately in the center of the knee. That’s the idea, anyway. It’s possible. I’ve seen people do it. But I’ve been practicing 17 months and I’ve yet to even get the strong standing leg part.

socks on socks off standinghead-to-knee

I’m all Zen and unattached about my utter inability to do the guldarn thing, of course. Oh yeah, all kinds of Zen.

Lately, when I’ve been taking my socks off, I do a little practice for my nemesis pose: I lift one leg up to 90 degrees, engage my core muscles, lean over and peel my sock off my foot. Then I do it on the other side. It’s kind of fun and I feel like I’m getting a tiny bit of yoga practice in before my shower.

Functional fitness is an approach that structures movement in the gym or studio to increase the ease and reduce the risk of injury in everyday movement. Functional fitness training focuses on increasing balance, range of motion, strength and flexibility to improve the body’s ability to walk, stand, reach and carry. Moving the body high, middle and low, for example, (Nia Principle 7 calls it the three planes of movement) conditions the cardiovascular system and the body to move more easily up and down off the floor. Since my ability to get myself up off the floor determines my independence, that’s a damn fine thing to condition my body to do.

As I get on the floor to put my socks on and do a little standing head to knee to take my socks off, I realize that functional fitness works both ways. What we do in our everyday movements can enhance and improve our practice.

In The Karate Kid (1984 version, of course), Mr. Miyagi’s famous “Wax on, wax off” exercise trained Daniel to execute crisp, precise blocks. (If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it here. It’s such a great scene.) Daniel had been spending all day doing chores using movements that conditioned his body to do karate. Presumably, his karate practice also allowed him to do every day work with more ease.

The body loves to move and the brain loves to make meaning. Functional fitness can be a matter of framing the meaning of our movement choices. When I’m looking over my shoulder to back the car out of the drive, I can say to myself, “I’m practicing spinal twist.” In Nia class, when I’m sinking and rising from my core and legs, I can say, “I’m conditioning my body to play with my nieces and nephew.”

What do you want to do with your body? Whatever it is, find ways of practicing it that can help you do more of what you love. And for fun you can say to yourself, “Socks on, socks off.”

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