Mindful awareness

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moving Beyond Duality

Goldilocks knew that things could be too hot or too cold but that something in the middle is just right! What was just right gave her a sense of contentment and comfort. Smart woman, that Goldilocks! Life is stressful in the extremes. People are quick to classify an experience, person, or thing as either good or bad. Either we like it or we dislike it. But really there is so much possibility in between the extremes. Yoga has taught me to find the gray zone of experiences and to acknowledge that things change. This awareness has given me more equanimity as I proceed through the day.

For instance, I reflect on things that I didn’t used to like. I didn’t like adho mukha svanasana (down dog pose) for the first several years that I practiced yoga and now I appreciate the feeling of expansion it gives me through my legs, trunk, and arms. Bakasana (crow pose) had been really difficult 20 years ago but now I find it and its variations easy. It is incredulous to me that I used to think I hated asparagus (thanks to the 1960’s canned variety served at our home) but now it is among my very favorite vegetables. None of these things changed, per se. Each of these things was always something in the middle – not hard, easy, likable or dislikable. What has changed is my perspective and my realization that everything is really on a continuum and always just right at some point in time.

I contemplate about what is a hard pose or an easy pose exactly? Isn’t it all relative to another pose? After working with ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) most students are relieved to return to parsvakonasana (side angle pose) although they had just struggled with that one before the balance pose! We often work with bakasana then parivrtta bakasana (revolved crow pose) and when we return to bakasana without the twist it seems just right - easier than it had before to everyone in the room.

I keep the studio temperature at 73-75 degrees for class. Is that hot or is that cold? Some students are a little chilled (as am I) when we begin class in a centering pose. But although the external temperature doesn’t change, most people are sweating after 30 minutes of standing poses. So was 74 degrees hot or cold? Can it be a temperature along a continuum that is just right to accommodate the practice?

I’ve invited students to find that just right state – not really tense and struggling but not really limp and disengaged – during our asana practice and to find that just right state of mind off the mat. Something along a continuum – not too extreme – seems just right and much easier to endure. Hopefully they will experience the same contentment and comfort that Goldilocks found when she found something not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Try it for Yourself

Apparently, Buddha had said “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." I find equanimity when I remember to apply that philosophy to much of what I do. I try to avoid rumor mills by returning to this quote and know that there are multiple sides to every story and I need to rely on my own experiences with the people involved to come to my own conclusions. I try to empower myself by trying to do something difficult, regardless of who told me that I won’t be able to. I won’t know unless I try.
Buddha was right; everything is one’s own individual experience. Then it occurred to me that as a yoga teacher I say something and the roomful of people do as I say (if only my three cats would do the same, but that’s another story…). So this week we have worked more on students not just taking my word for it. We have worked on them trying different expressions of poses for them to make their own reality of the alignment principles I keep repeating in each class, every week. For instance, I always tell students to use blocks to find parsvakonasana (side angle pose) and ardha chandrasana (half moon pose). Most of the students believe me that using the block will help them maintain the length in the spine that makes the poses open their hips and hearts. Most of them believe me that by using a block rather than resting their elbows on their knees in parsvakonasana will help them retain knee alignment and reduce risk for injuring ligaments on the inside of the knee. But this week they tried it for themselves. After experiencing these poses with the blocks they tried to touch the ground without the blocks. Some of the students can maintain the pose without props but the students that can’t noticed the difference in their breath and body when they collapsed without a block.

Urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog) is another pose we broke down more. I always tell the class to keep their gaze straight forward and most of them do. But some students come from other classes and lift their gazes up to the ceiling. So this week we tried both. The students learned for themselves that when they look up they don’t lengthen their spines as they thought they would. In fact, they collapse in their shoulders and upper chests and fall out of the pose. We also compared two versions of urdhva hastasana (hands up in the air pose) this week. I tell students to keep their palms separated, shoulders turned out so that their pinkies are nearer to each other. But some students come from other classes and put their palms together overhead. So we worked with both expressions and again students recognized that their shoulder blades come off their backs and they scrunch up their necks when they bring their hands together. So they didn’t have to just take my word for it. The students tried it for themselves and noticed the length in the spine and depth of the breath they get when they retain good alignment principles.

The yoga mat gives us so many opportunities to make life our own individual experience. The breath will tell us if we are doing the right thing. Sometimes holding the backs of the legs and bending the knees in navasana (boat pose) is the only way to keep a steady breath and truly spread the collar bones as the pose is meant to be practiced. But we won’t know for ourselves until we turn inward, check in with the breath, and find our own truth. Sometimes we do need to drop into balasana (child’s pose) to settle in before continuing through a vinyasa. We can’t wait for someone else to suggest we use a strap or a block, we need to always be present to our needs at the time and do what’s right. That is the only way we are sure to be true to ourselves, give up struggle, and reduce risk of injury.

The equanimity we feel when our breath smoothly moves from inhale to exhale in a rhythmic cycle tells us that we are doing the right thing. We will find the breath become shallow and staccato-like when we try taking a challenging pose without a prop as much as when we consider engaging in gossip or lies. Again, yoga practice on the mat can guide our lives off the mat.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


We are presented with choices every moment, some of which are better for our bodies than others. Although we can sometimes be overwhelmed by the number of options available to us, we always are in control of the choices we make when we eat something and when we select activities to fill our free time.

Some people choose to diet but I suggest they decide instead for the non-diet method of maintaining and losing weight. This means making choices all day long but it is a lifestyle choice that offers many options to feel satiated rather than denied food. People that maintain a healthy weight simply select the healthier foods each day. The choice is to reach for a candy bar or melon slices and berries when energy is low mid-day. People that use a healthy lifestyle approach to eating don’t alternatively gain and lose weight the way dieters do. They don’t migrate to the newest fad diet, reading about rules for the diet of the month. Instead they eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Choices are numerous for snacking when the snacks are nutritious!

People that maintain a healthy weight over their lifetime choose a leafy salad as a side rather than fries when they dine out. Fried food is the food choice most associated with weight gain. Potato chips, sugary drinks including sodas and juices, red and processed meats, desserts, and refined grains are other food selections that are likely to lead to weight gain. Healthier options, particularly fruits and vegetables, can replace these less healthy options and reduce the chance of unwanted weight gain. A green leafy salad is an alternative side to French fries that offers more vitamins and less risk for weight gain. Vegetables dipped in hummus and plain stove-popped popcorn are alternatives to potato chips for a healthy crispier snack. Yogurt and nuts are healthy sources of protein and fats and consuming these foods is related to less lifetime weight gain.  If people do choose to eat red meat, they will want to choose to eat it less often and select lean meats, completely eliminating processed meats.

Counting calories and omitting selected foods based on fad diets has been found to be less effective in maintaining a healthy weight throughout life than eating healthier foods. Other healthy lifestyles correlated to maintaining a healthy weight are sleeping 6-8 hours a night, reducing television viewing, choosing wine if one is going to drink alcohol (although other alcohol is correlated to weight gain), and exercise (the more one exercises, the less weight one gains).

People have limited free time, but often choose to spend it in front of televisions. Healthier choices are to take a walk or a bicycle ride after dinner. Schedules are packed with obligations leaving little time to exercise. However, anyone can choose to use the stairs rather than an elevator when they enter a building. People often spend more time waiting for a parking spot to open up near the store entrance than the time it takes to make the healthier choice of parking further away and walking to the entrance.

It isn’t easy to maintain a healthy weight over one’s lifetime. But it is possible by making daily choices. Everyone is more in control of their choices than they realize. In fact, it is easier to control and maintain a healthy-choice lifestyle than to maintain fad diets. It is more liberating to know it is healthy to eat any of the colorful fruits and vegetables in the produce section than to think I need to limit myself to items on a fad diet list. And better, I get to choose.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Many Sides of Backbending

This week my students and I have practiced backbends. Lots and lots of backbends. We included warm up versions of bhujangasana (cobra pose) and salabasana (locust pose), practiced many repetitions of urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog pose), and went deeper into dhanurasana (bow pose). We practiced the backbends one would expect in this group including ustrasana (camel pose), setu bandhasana (bridge pose), and urdhva danurasana (wheel pose).

Why work on so many backbends? In yoga philosophy, the asana (poses) practice is only part of yoga. If there is an objective to the physical practice it is basically to make the world a better place one person at a time. We practice to awaken our consciousness to the unity of all beings. Part of this awareness includes compassion and gratitude. According to yoga philosophy, the anahata chakra (heart center) lies beneath the sternum (breastbone). By practicing backbends, the yogi awakens and becomes aware of this center, allowing compassion and gratitude to flow.

Yoga practice does have physical benefits as well as the philosophical benefits. In addition to all the backbends we worked on poses to strengthen the abdominal muscles like plank, forearm plank, and chaturanga dandasana (low plank pose). We practiced poses intended to stretch the chest and shoulders like gomukhasana (cow face) arms and garudasana (eagle) arms. I included these stretches in the classes to support the backbends with the objective of countering the rounded postures of daily life.

Most of us sit at desks and computers or drive much of the day. Hours of these sitting activities contribute to a rounded upper back with tight muscles around the chest and front of the shoulders. The other side, the upper back muscles, becomes long and weak. Practicing backbends helps to correct hours of sitting by stretching the front of the body and strengthening the back of the body.

Our backbend practice this week can help to prevent repetitive strain injuries by stretching what is tight and strengthening what is weak. But we spend many hours in poor postures and it will take more than a weekly yoga class to reverse the tight chest and shoulders and weak upper back. It helps to take stretch breaks each hour with gomukhasana (cow face) or garudasana (eagle) arms.  We need to be aware of posture all day long in addition to participating a yoga asana practice or gym resistance training and stretching regimen. We can help to correct rounded postures by being mindful throughout the day of drawing the scapula (shoulder blades) onto the back and opening the clavicles (collar bones). Along these lines we can consider almost any pose or posture as a backbend. Even in navasana (boat pose) the correct alignment is to draw the shoulder blades onto the back and to lift the sternum up toward the ceiling. Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose) also is done with a slight backbend with the sternum reaching through the upper arms. Most yoga asanas support good posture by shining the sternum forward rather than collapsing the trunk thus rounding the spine. 

Any of these poses can help to stretch and strengthen as well as to feel compassion and gratitude. Practicing so many backbends this week has certainly awakened my now slightly sore upper back muscles. It also has made me think more about how grateful I am for the students that come to my classes to share their practice with me and to all the people that read my blog posts. Thank you to all of you!