Mindful awareness

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Finding Peace using the Breath

This is a busy time of year and the frenetic pace doesn’t always feel so peaceful. I’m often overloaded, busy with activities that are added into my already full schedule. It is easy to neglect myself during these busy days, but this is exactly when I need to find time to center and focus. This week I’ve invited yoga students to find peace using their breath.

Moving mindfully with the breath is always soothing and calming. But this week we have been working with prolonged and sustained exhales to accentuate the effect. Longer exhales slow the body and by doing that I always feel more peaceful. Prolonged exhales in sustained forward fold postures like eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose), janu sirsasana (head to knee pose), and upavistha konasana (wide-angle seated forward fold pose) are especially effective to find peace within. Even as the muscles around the hips resist the stretch, long exhales help to dissolve the resistance. Prolonging the breath while stretching the hips and hamstring muscles teaches us that we can be still with the resistance, let go of the struggle, and come deeper into the pose. Being patient in the forward fold rewards us with more flexible muscles and a calmer demeanor. It is a lesson that we can use the breath as a tool when we find ourselves resisting insane schedules and communication challenges off the mat. Long exhales help to manage our regular life struggles.

Long exhales help me to embody one of my favorite quotes, “Peace: it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” (unknown) Whatever is going on around me, whatever challenges that come my way, my breath is always with me to locate that peaceful state.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Celebrating Joy

Winter is here. It is cold. What affects me more is that it is dark and I am more isolated from my community because of it. Winter solstice marks the day of the year with least sunlight. But I chose to celebrate joyfully. It may be the first full day of winter, but looking at the “bright side” days will only get lighter from here! Winter solstice celebrations intend to honor the return of the sun’s light. Traditions dating thousands of years have been incorporated into contemporary spiritual and religious practices to honor the lengthening of daylight. These celebrations have a serendipitous effect of countering winter blues and bringing people together in community.

Besides the year-end parties I’ve attended, I’ve found joy this week in being upside down. What better reason is there to practice adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) than to have fun?! Being upside down offers a perspective that is novel and exciting relative to the feet on the ground, head in the air, day-to-day stance. It increases heart rate and blood pressure in part because of the physiology of the action but also because of this novel excitement. Most people haven’t supported their weight entirely through their hands with their feet in the air since they were 8 years old and those are usually happy memories.

Handstand variations can be accessible to anyone. After preparing the body with a few rounds of surya namaskar (sun salutations – honoring the return of sunlight!) and several breaths in adho mukha svanasana (downward dog pose), the shoulders are open and strengthened to accept body weight. Additional time in plank pose and forearm plank pose can also help strengthen the shoulders. Gomukhasana (cow face pose) and garudasana (eagle pose) arms help open the shoulders. Not only do the hands take the body weight in handstand, but the shoulders need to lift up and out more than they do in our usual daily activities.

Coming into the full expression of the pose in the middle of the room isn’t necessary to experience the joy of being upside down. Support from the wall and keeping one or both feet on the wall are still novel and exciting and fun. And that is what is important - it is the joy of the season that we are celebrating after all!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Creating Warmth

Ok, autumn is behind us and it is cold and dark now - really cold this week. It is difficult to get off the sofa to make my way to my yoga classes when my furry friends are piled on top of me keeping me warm. But once I get to my mat and class I warm up again quickly – from the inside.

I am not a fan of the “hot yoga” craze. The room temperatures are too warm to work my body hard and muscles aren’t required to generate as much energy. I prefer to practice in a comfortable-temperature room and build heat from the inside, finding my edge as I take expressions of asanas (poses) that will challenge me just as I need it on any one day. This week I’ve invited students to practice using large muscle groups of the thighs and abdomen. Using these muscles helps to increase blood supply to these areas as they require more energy to work harder. As large as the muscles of the thighs and abdomen are, there is potential to build lots of heat practicing standing asanas and asanas that rely on abdominal muscles like navasana (boat pose) and jumping through from adho mukha svanasana (down dog pose) to dandasana (staff pose).

But yoga practice is as much about community as it is about the physical practice. The students and I benefit at least as much by being in the room together as we do by finding our edge in different poses. The unity that yoga embodies comes from commitment to awareness and breath. That unity builds community and from community comes warmth and compassion. And warmth and compassion is what really matters. It all comes from within!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Surrender to find Peace and Stillness

Life is full of beauty and joy. But it also is filled with challenge and struggle. This week I have invited my yoga students to find a still peace by surrendering their struggle. I’ve asked them to evoke an issue against which they have been struggling. It can be as great as grieving a loss of a job or loved one. It can be a crazy end of year schedule. It can be a personal characteristic such as striving for perfection or a need to be accepted. We all struggle and we all can benefit by surrendering.

Whatever the personal struggle, a decision to surrender can support a more peaceful state that puts us more at ease. This is a conscious effort to let go of the struggle. Yoga asana (poses) practice can help find this peaceful state and hip openers are just about the best category of poses to teach surrender. So that’s what we did. Ninety minutes of forward folds and hip openers from prasarita padottanasana (standing wide angle pose) and janu sirsasana (head to knee forward fold) to eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) and gomukhasana (cow face pose).

Gomukhasana is a particular struggle for most people. Sitting with one knee stacked on top of the other requires that the pelvis, hips, and groins open and relax. We prepared for this pose with the other hip openers, but settling into gomukhasana is usually a struggle even at the end of the practice. Many students feel the muscles around their hips and groins tighten, resisting the stretch. The resistance represents a struggle that prevents a sense of ease in the posture. By following a long, rhythmic breath, my students were able to find an easier stillness in the hips and groins and even a deeper expression of the pose as their hips released the resistance and relaxed. They learned on the mat that being present with the breath can melt the resistance, release the struggle, and create peace and stillness with each exhale.

Now their challenge is to bring this technique with them off the mat as they go back to their lives of love, loss, stress, and struggle. The tools they need are available to them – breathe deeply and rhythmically, surrendering the struggle. They just need to remain present with the struggle long enough to release it and find the peace and stillness.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Generosity through Eating Well

This is the season for expressing generosity – many of us host gatherings and prepare gift lists more in the next month than the rest of the year. I am inviting my students this week to consider ways they can express generosity to themselves as well. Their yoga practice is one gift they are giving themselves. Eating wholesome foods can be another expression of self generosity.

But choosing to eat well is not always easy. Much of the information we receive when we make food decisions is confusing. Making sense of so many food choices can become more overwhelming when we learn conflicting information from news sources. One moment we are told to limit fat, another moment we are told to limit carbohydrates. We learn we need to take in more omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fatty fish then we are told to limit fatty fish because of the mercury levels. Considering every micronutrient in each food becomes overwhelming for anyone. Spinach has calcium and iron but should I use kale to get a little more? How do I know family members have enough vitamin E in the diet?

Rather than becoming overwhelmed by so many details, consider a simple rule of thumb: eating a variety of whole food in their natural forms will provide the nutrition you need (exceptions may exist because of health conditions – follow directions from your health practitioner). Manufacturers of processed foods often replace nutrition with simple carbohydrates and sodium. Non-fat options of many processed foods replace taste reduced by removing fat by adding sugars and sodium. Eating processed foods, even products labeled healthy, will often replace a nutrient with simple carbohydrates and sodium. For instance, low-sodium products may have relatively lower salt compared to their companion products, but still more than wholesome food. Consider canned soups and processed meats as they compare – lower sodium or not – to homemade soups and lean meats.

Choosing to eat well as an expression of self generosity perpetuates itself as a gift of a healthier and happier you to the important people in your life. Selecting wholesome, unprocessed foods makes your food choices a little easier.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Empowered by our Choices

Evidence has shown that having too many choices is not always a good thing. I think this is most noticeable in food choices we find in grocery stores. Eating a wholesome diet is easier when one shops at a farmer’s market where most offerings are real foods, but more of a challenge at a supermarket where so many of the products on the shelves are highly processed fake food.

Consider the obviously healthy breakfast option: oatmeal. This whole grain has been associated with a healthy diet for its ability to lower cholesterol and leave the diner feeling satiated after just 150 high-energy calories. But when I pick up rolled oats from the cereal aisle at the supermarket, the non-processed real thing is on the lowest shelf. Items on the shelves at eye level (known by marketing experts to be most accessible and more likely to be selected) are labeled oatmeal but they are processed, instant, and flavored products. These options have the fiber, low saturated fat and low cholesterol that make oatmeal a healthy breakfast option, but added sugars (16 g) and salt (319 mg) make it less healthy compared to unadulterated oatmeal (1g sugars, 0mg sodium). The instant option also adds approximately 28 calories (depending on the flavor).

Instant packets seem like a good breakfast choice – oatmeal is healthy after all. They are popular choices because they are convenient. However, preparing the “quick 1-minute” oats mixed with water still takes only 90 seconds in the microwave. No need to stir and cook on the stove then wash the pot. Adding fresh or dried fruit and seasonings of choice adds more flavor and nutrition than the simple carbohydrates and sodium that the packages add.

One concern I’ve heard several people voice is that eating whole foods cost more than processed foods. Sometimes that can be so. However, this assumption does not always hold true. When I priced a popular national oatmeal brand in my supermarket I learned that the container of rolled oats cost 19 cents per ounce. The brand’s box of packets of instant oatmeal cost 44 cents per ounce.

Wholesome food – natural, convenient, healthy, and even less expensive – can be a real option. Choosing wholesome food empowers me to care for my body, taking control of my health.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I find comfort in remembering that all of us are connected to each other. It just feels good to think that each of us in the world has concerns, hopes, and dreams. Each of us wants to be loved and understood. We are all – the billions of us on this planet – are so much more alike than we are different.
But I can lose sight of this when I feel resistance, frustration, and anger. Where else does this happen more than at the airport. Yes, airport travel, when all my hard work on trying to be more open, loving, and mindful flies the coop. The TSA workers push my buttons, try my patience, and offer me the greatest opportunity to practice. I’m not often successful in being cool, calm, and collected there, though.
I know my practice is “working” however, because during my last TSA nightmare I was aware of losing my cool. I was able to take a deep breath and consider the TSA worker as just another person trying to navigate this world. I became witness to my building frustration and anger and replaced those feelings with a sense of interconnectedness with this person. I imagined that she was loved by someone and loved someone in return. She was likely struggling with some concern in her own life. Like me, she woke and showered and ate breakfast this morning. She looks forward to coming home to relax at the end of the day. She just needed to do this work to pay her bills and find some comfort in life.
As difficult as it was to find connectedness with this person, my enemy at the moment, I came to benefit from my new perspective. I felt the tension melt from my shoulders and jaw. I felt less restricted in my breathing. My own knots and difficulties were leaving me as I felt a more positive knot of oneness and connectedness. I softened internally and it was probably visible externally. She may have now perceived me less as an adversary and more at one with her as well.
I’m headed to the airport again next week. Hopefully I will recall last week’s experience and keep myself from being isolated from the people that seem separate from me. It will be another opportunity for me to recognize that the basis for my own anger and frustration is feeling separate and I can replace the negative feelings by feeling one with everything.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cleanliness from the Inside

A friend recently posted on facebook that she had completed her weekly grocery shopping in 30 minutes. Several people responded with incredulous comments implying it was impossible. They began to guess how long it will take for her to return and how many more visits she will need to purchase missed items. I was curious about what I was reading. It never takes me as much as 30 minutes to complete a weekly grocery store trip for two. Then I realized that is probably because I only use four aisles and the produce section (and occasionally paper products). We eat only wholesome foods, nothing processed or packaged. Perhaps not going down every aisle for pretend foods saves me time at the store.

That exchange made me think of sauca. Showering and sweeping the practice space before practicing are actions of external cleanliness that often reflect yogis’ interpretation of sauca (cleanliness), one of the niyamas (observances) that comprises yoga practice. However, sauca also refers to internal cleanliness. Practicing yoga poses and breathing techniques is essential for internal cleansing and clarity of mind. Eating wholesome foods also helps keep the body healthy and clean from the inside.

As I interpret sauca, it is essential to eat wholesome foods. I have never performed a “detox” routine or “cleanse” diet because I choose to limit impurities I ingest rather than purge them from my system after putting them into it. It seems easiest and most efficient to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains that are used to fuel my body and result in wastes that my digestive system is designed to remove.

So my diet is clean in observance of yoga principles and efficient. With all the time I save with short trips to the grocery store what else do I do? Pull out my mat for another yoga practice, of course!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Steady Attention and Maintain Comfort

Yoga is about process, not outcome. But if there were to be goals in asana practice, they would be to steady one’s attention (sthira) and to remain comfortable (sukha) in the pose.  These qualities are what make yoga practice challenging and rewarding. Some poses are easier for some people than others. But every yogi can identify particularly challenging poses. Some of my students find savasana (deep relaxation pose) most challenging because quiet and total stillness is difficult and uncomfortable for them. Other students find eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose variation) most difficult and uncomfortable because sitting so many hours in the day tightens the muscles around their hips and pelvis.

Often students seek classes that quickly move them from one pose to another. This might be right for their bodies some days. But it also helps them to avoid the hard work of settling into a pose and finding stillness there. I can’t help but wonder if these students are unconsciously avoiding the hard asana work of steady attention and maintained comfort while holding poses. It is in holding poses that yogis will be rewarded. Any action that is difficult brings greater rewards.

My role as their instructor is to create an encouraging and safe environment. Sometimes it means encouraging students to soften. In eka pada rajakapotasana I encourage students to breathe long, steady breaths to still their minds and soften the muscles around their groin and hips. Sometimes it means encouraging students to use props. Using props is a good thing in that they help students to attain sthira and sukha, providing students with greatest benefit from their practice. A blanket or block under the front hip in eka pada rajakapotasana may help the student to hold the position more comfortably, in turn helping her to sustain her attention rather than fidgeting to try to avoid the deep hip rotation that it requires.

There are no shortcuts in yoga practice. Reaping the true benefits of asana practice, steady attention and maintained comfort, requires settling into the poses. The discomfort can be assuaged by extending the breath and using props. But avoiding the hard work is never the answer.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Observing without Reacting

Observing without reacting: This is my most difficult lesson on and off the mat. Where does my mind go when I fall out of bakasana (crow pose)? Excuses like “these pants are slippery.” Where does my mind go when I don’t go as deeply into hanumanasana (monkey pose) as I know I can? Excuses like “the room is too cold” or “the teacher didn’t include enough prep poses in the sequence before going into this advanced pose.”

My habitual mind does similar things when complications arise off the mat. I tend to react immediately when another car cuts me off on the highway. I fret and worry about what has happened to our relationship when a friend neglects to wave from across the street. Reacting often seems to be my immediate response. I’d prefer to just observe.

My yoga practice has helped me to at least recognize when I’ve reacted to a situation. I am more often now to reflect on a missed opportunity to “just observe”. To take my practice to the next level I sometimes decide to work on this very lesson. This is when I work with challenging standing sequences. Moving from trikonasana (triangle) to ardha chandrasana (half moon) to virabhadrasana III (warrior III) to parivrtta ardha chandrasana (revolved half moon) to parivrtta trikonasana (revolved side angle) isn’t easy. It requires me to move mindfully and deliberately.  Working with this sequence also means that I am likely to fall out at some point. Practicing with this difficult sequence affords me plenty of opportunity to practice observing without reacting. I practice using my breath to stay in the present moment. I practice moving meditation by observing, “I’m unbalanced” and finding balance again. Without reacting.

It isn’t easy. It takes practice. I've practiced with this all week. And I'm grateful to my students for working on the lesson with me!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Checking in to Let Go

I just felt the tension – in the room and in my body. I was sitting in a business meeting that became more contentious than expected. Differing opinions were leading to terse words. The discussion was going nowhere because few people were listening. Hidden agendas became slightly less hidden, still subtle, but becoming more obvious. Overall the feeling was icky to me.

I found myself clinging to attachment to the outcome of the discussion. I became focused on finding the words and strategy to affect the outcome. Finally, mindfulness practice kicked back in. I turned inward to observe. I felt the tension through a clenched jaw. My shoulders were tight and elevated. I observed longer and noticed my breath was shallow as the tension and clinging seemed to tighten around my torso.

Observing the clinging through physical aspects of my body led to the second part of mindfulness practice: letting go. “Soften,” I thought to myself as I exhaled away tension in my jaw.  “Let go,” I told myself as I released tension in my shoulders and let go of my attachment to the outcome of the discussion. I lengthened the duration of my exhales. “Let go.”

I worked internally on letting go of my attachment to the meeting outcome as I breathed mindfully, lengthening my exhales. The meeting continued. I listened as an observer, without judgment. I felt better for releasing the tension and letting go of the struggle. I felt better for recognizing that there are things I cannot control. Mindfulness practice helped me to recognize that in the end the outcome will unfold as it needs to. I contributed to the discussion and can let go of emotion, tension, and clinging to the outcome.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Centered Stillness

I start all my yoga classes and home practices with at least 5 minutes of settling in to center the mind. Last night several students seemed apprehensive, fidgety, and not completely sold on the idea of using their precious time this way. I got the idea that they thought the time “wasted”. Or perhaps they are unfamiliar, therefore uncomfortable, with the stillness. We are all used to doing and are less likely to spend much of our time being. However, yoga practice is intended to be mindful, to slow us down, to find stillness in movement. That is what makes it yoga rather than stretching and calisthenics.

Focusing on deep breaths helps to transition from whatever happened prior to practice to time on the mat. Centering helps to still the mind and body, releasing any emotion - from anger and frustration to fatigue and elation - so that we can be completely present for our practice. Being centered prepares us to move mindfully. It can prevent us from being careless; something that often results in physical injury.

Centering is a yoga practice that I take with me into my life off the mat. It helps me to focus and be present for the activity I am about to start. A few breaths are all I need to transition from one emotion and place to the next. What would happen if you took time to center yourself before beginning a meal? How might your gym routine benefit if you transitioned from a stressful day at the office before starting weight training? How might a confrontational meeting with your spouse or teenager differ if you took time to center and find stillness breathing deeply for several minutes before the discussion?

Maybe with practice you can come to value time used to center and prepare your mind and body as you transition to the next activity. Maybe you can become more comfortable with stillness.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Final taste of summer

I am enjoying the change to autumn weather. The cool mornings and evenings are a welcome contrast to the hot days. As the season changes, though, I already mourn my favorite part of summer: fresh berries. I was able to get one last batch of raspberries this week at the farmer's market. I brought them home and began to greedily eat a handful of berries (my habitual attack), enjoying the bursts of sweetness in my mouth.

Then it occurred to me that this will be the last batch of fresh berries until next June's strawberries. I realized I wanted to make sure to take time to savor each one. So I sat down with no other distraction so I could mindfully enjoy each berry. One at at time. I closed my eyes and used each of my sensory systems to concentrate on the redness (yes, at that point they tasted red). I felt the juicy, soft texture of each berry. I inhaled the fresh aroma of each berry. One. At. A. Time.

These may have been the best batch of raspberries of the whole season. Simply because I mindfully put all my effort into tasting each one.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Observing multiple perspectives

Perspectives - every one of life's issues/ challenges/ problems/ miscommunications/ ... is multifacited with many different perspectives. Moving and contemplating mindfully helps us to reserve judgment and recognize some alternate perspectives we may not have considered when we move through life with our regular habits and biases. Perhaps we do not need to run but to stay. The glass might not be half empty but half full. The rumor we heard at the office may not have much truth when seen from another perspective. A problem that seems impossible to solve may be easier if we take off our blinders and look "outside the box" from another perspective.

In yoga practice, twists help to notice and acknowledge multiple perspectives. Revolved parsvokonasana (side angle), revolved bakasana (crow), revolved trikonasana (triangle), and a multitude of revolved poses and twists in sitting or laying down all help us to observe things from another viewpoint. Who knows, after an asana practice that includes lots of twists, a stroke of insight - an aha moment or an eureka moment - might follow us off the mat. That solution to the seemingly impossible to solve problem might just make itself available. All it took was considering an alternative perspective.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Learning to trust our breath to lead the way

My yoga students worked with a challenging balance vinyasa in class this week. We moved from ardha chandrasana (half moon) to parivrtta ardha chandrasana (revolved half moon) and back for a total of four of each pose on each side. There was much laughter as several people fell out of the pose and returned to the challenge. Finally, several students learned the lesson I hoped to convey: trust your breath to lead the way.

These students found that when they focused their attention and moved one component at a time, using the breath to lead the way, they were able to enjoy a dancing flow, they got "into the zone" and were less likely to wobble. Move with your breath: Inhale, arm up gaze up; exhale, arm down gaze down; inhale arm up, gaze up; exhale, arm down gaze down...

I invited the students to set an intention for the rest of the week: trust your breath to lead the way. They will take their practice with them off the matt and into their life if they use their breath to let go of struggle and move mindfully, as a dancing flow, whatever challenge life offers. At first glance, the yoga vinyasa or life challenge might appear impossible or overwhelming. But to break it into components, trusting breath to lead the way, it all becomes possible and even fun.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Moving and attention

Moving without attending to what we are doing can result in anything from vehicular homicide to a stubbed toe to a broken phone. We all have done three things at once without really paying attention to any of them - carrying too much upstairs to save a trip, I thought I was being efficient in making the most out of a trip up the stairs. Rather than efficiency, however, I end up dropping the smart phone in my hand and smashing its monitor. Not only have I not saved time, but now I'll need to have the phone repaired or replaced and I actually lose time in inconvenience while I don't have my phone. Another example - I wonder how much time I've really saved by sorting and reading the mail while something is on the stove only to burn whatever I wasn't watching closely and need to start the cooking over again. And certainly, no time is saved walking while we are doing three other things only to fall and injure a leg and end up in the emergency room waiting for x-rays.

The opportunity to practice mindfulness presents itself many times a day. Today as I juggled too many things in two arms I recognized that I was headed for disaster. I set things down, took a few deep breaths, picked up half of the items, and committed myself to two loads up and down the steps. Not only did I avert disaster, but I achieved what I needed to do with a more relaxed outlook. The task took only a couple of extra minutes but I felt more leisurely than the rushed feel of being overloaded.  

Now, to remember next time I feel overwhelmed to: Stop - Breathe - Attend to one thing at a time.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Appreciating my body for all it does

Physical aches and pains, even major injuries or illnesses, escape no one. Still, our bodies, whatever their condition, serve us. I commit to treating this body well. This body that moves me from place to place, helps me to sense beauty through scent and sight, this body that interprets sunshine on my skin as a warm and comfortable feeling. I am grateful for all this that my body does for me and in return I will treat it well. I will get up and exercise on a day that I feel like lounging around. I will eat wholesome, pure food when I feel like grabbing an easy, unhealthy meal. I will nurture and protect my body as a way to thank it for serving me so well 24/7/365.