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.