Thursday, July 30, 2015


Jen Portman, teacher and Synergy Hot Yoga studio owner, began a vinyasa class a couple of weeks ago discussing the topic of discipline. I had just left my house, arguing with my 6 year old about brushing her teeth (she said she just "hates to do it"), to find Jen making the comparison between yoga and brushing your teeth! She said that much like how we grow from not caring, appreciating or liking this task, it becomes something that feels really good. Same with yoga: initially it is difficult to put our bodies through some of the postures, but with consistent practice it comes to feel good and becomes something the body, and in time, the mind crave. This is where the discipline comes in.

Remaining disciplined during the summer break, with not only three children at home, but a new puppy added into the mix! Our schedules are altered...actually non-existent...however, I've managed to maintain my yoga practice. Am I able to get to all of the classes I've come to love or spend as many hours as usual in the yoga room? Not every week, but I've stayed focused and dedicated to coming to my mat every day and feed that mind, body, soul craving. The only reason it's been possible amidst the natural chaos of life at home is through discipline...oftentimes setting an alarm to get to a 6 a.m. practice.

The Bikram series has been essential in strengthening my discipline. The pause between sets and between postures aids in increased awareness in being still, which requires a great deal of discipline. There is attention and intention brought to these pauses. There is a specific cue for the first water break, as well as "discouragement" of wiping sweat on clothing or a hand towel. In a room that is heated to over 105 degrees, this is no easy feat. In terms of the postures, the discipline of practicing this set series creates a quality of muscle memory and can enable students to notice progress or even just differences in the body if they are focused. And again, there is the stillness.

This discipline has enriched my life off the mat in many ways. By far my favorite "off the mat" benefit of deeper discipline is that quality of stillness. Pause before, between, at the end of an action is not often naturally occurring. Yoga teaches me to create those moments of stillness for myself, for my girls, when we need them (and we all do!). It also teaches me to think before I act or react, a priceless gift. Maintaining a disciplined practice during a difficult time of the year gives me a deep sense of pride and accomplishment, but more importantly that beautiful stillness allows me to stay calm in a chaotic environment. On a more basic level, my discipline consistently transfers over to the food choices I make, contributing to a healthy and strong body. It has also enabled me to show my children the value of dedicating yourself to something so nurturing to body, mind and spirit. It's helped me adjust and begin to train our sweet new puppy...a family addition I firmly denied for over ten years despite my children's desperate begging.

Am I disciplined every minute of the day? Hell to the no!...I eat dessert, I don't complete all of my daily "to do" list tasks, and occasionally I skip yoga (not really). But next time the kids complain that I'm going to yoga "AGAIN?"...I'll remind them without my discipline, we would not have a dog! And then I'll ask them to brush their teeth...AGAIN!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I practice a few different styles of yoga, but my main practice and teaching style is Hot 26 or Bikram yoga. One thing I love most about this set series is the gift of observation. Arriving on my mat to practice the same sequence of poses, in the same order and for the same number of sets in generally the same environmental conditions, has taught me to be keenly aware of how my body is feeling at any given moment. It is a gift to notice that it changes with each class, and to transfer that to my life off the mat.

I think any style of yoga has the capacity to raise observation and body awareness, but there really is something unique about a set series that heightens it. On page 8 of "Yoga Sequencing," Mark Stephens notes, "the asanas, and in some styles even the specific actions for transitioning between them, are like a perfect mirror onto the practitioner because the only thing that changes from one practice to the next is the practitioner, thus making the experience of doing the sequence somewhat more a reflection of the person doing it than the sequence itself."

How do my observations of the physical body translate to my emotional state? One example is that I am consistently working towards greater spinal compression, particularly in the thoracic region, the area right behind the heart. It is not uncommon for this to be the most difficult area of the spine to bend, and it is no coincidence that it correlates with greater opening in the chest and the heart center. Some days this comes easier than others, and I have noticed an undeniable connection with how my heart feels. Back bending is difficult and painful when I am trying to nurse or protect an achey heart.  When I have more freedom and happiness in my heart, there is no pain, only joy in my backbends. My shoulders tend to creep up towards the ears and round inward as well. I'm grateful for the ability to notice these things physically and how they relate emotionally. Sometimes that outside physical cue draws just the attention I need to address what's going on inside.

Observing constant change in yoga may also relieve you of expectation and judgement. Of course we all expect that we will improve or become more proficient in our asanas the more we practice...and this is most often true...but rather than expect that by class #10 you should be able to kick out in Dandayamana Janu Sirasana (for example), you can just take it class by class, observe what's going on in the body, in the mind, and allow your postures to develop naturally. Once we accept that our bodies feel, move, respond differently each day, we can let go of goal orientation and pressure to perform in our practice.

While it's important not to become consumed with goal orientation and expectation in a yoga practice, another benefit of a set series is the ability to gauge progress. On p. 55 of Ganga White's "Yoga Beyond Belief," he identifies set series practices as "outer-directed" practices. "Fixed sequences allow us to flow through our practice with concentration and awareness, without having to figure out what to do next. We can also more easily gauge our progress--many feel improvement is made more rapidly by regularly following well-designed, fixed sequences." This shouldn't suggest, however, that we should approach a fixed sequence anticipating the next posture; but rather it is still important that we remain in the moment of the posture, finding the balance between ease and effort even if we have done it 100 times before.

My yoga practice, and my life outside of it, are not necessarily linear paths. Hyper-awareness of the changes in the body from day to day really solidifies that fact. It would be predictable and very boring if it was the same all the time, right? What I've learned to predict about yoga is that it is never predictable. As that's transferred off the mat for me, there are times that unpredictability can bring about a certain level of anxiety...but observation of the unexpected enables me to stay firmly grounded and confident that I have the necessary tools to manage any set of circumstances. Don't just expect, but embrace the unexpected. Pay attention to your body and the signals it sends. When that jaw starts to clench, those shoulders creep'll know what to do. Breathe.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


"The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are." -Jim Morrison

I began class this weekend inviting my students to consider the connection between freedom in our lives and freedom in our bodies and how yoga can help to enhance the former and achieve the latter. Connect the liberties and freedom we have in our lives to that which exists in the body as we use breath to free tension for example. B.K.S. Iyengar states that "Yoga is extension--extension giving freedom for the body to relax by itself." Layers of tension, however thin, can build and form stress if we don't work to relieve them. When we train the mind to identify tension in the body, we are strengthening the power of the mind to let go. Consistent yoga practice keeps me in tune with how my body feels, if and where I hold tension and how relieving it on that physical level with breath and movement can guide the release of tension off the mat.

It would seem remiss to discuss freedom without mentioning freedom of speech and expression given my right to publish this blog. That is a gift I enjoy as a US citizen, something that's been available to me any time I've wanted to take advantage. I wanted to write for a long time, was encouraged by many to pursue it, but I had to free myself of fear before I could pursue it. The yoga term udana refers to "expressive breath". "The ancient yoga texts state that, physically, udana energy governs your body's growth, your physical make-up and your ability to stand and move, while emotionally it reveals itself through your enthusiasm and will power and also sustains your voice, giving you the ability to express yourself in a unique way," as stated in Swami Saradananda's "The Power of Breath, p. 129. The fact that I could make such strong breath-mind-body connections through my yoga practice strongly contributes to my ability to drop the fear and judgement and let my voice be heard. Saradananda continues on page 130, "Yoga teaches that once energy has been released at a cellular level, your expressive breath is free to help you manifest your 'self' in whatever way your choose-physical or mental, emotional or spiritual-since udana represents your ability to grow and change in every sphere."

Choice is our biggest freedom. Freedom to choose wellness by caring for your body through movement and nutrition...freedom to choose to root your actions in kindness...freedom to choose to live peacefully...freedom to choose to focus on positive things in life. On page 50 of "The Power of Breath," Saradananda states, "The ancient yoga texts teach us that the more you hold onto or engage with negativity, the more that negativity will control you." It's further explained by comparing it to the exhale breath...if you are not able to exhale fully, you deprive your physical body of the oxygen it requires on your next inhale, as well as "cheats your emotions out of a fully vitalizing dose of prana." Choose to let go and your freedom will become that much more expansive.

The same principles and values upon which our country's freedom was established are required to achieve the freedom within yourself: trust, loyalty, strength, courage, physical and mental fortitude. My yoga practice has forced me to examine all parts of the physical body and how I can more freely express it. It's taught me to free myself of expectation while on my mat...and gifted me with the ability to at least recognize the limits of expectation off the mat, even if it is not always easy to put that into practice. Embracing that my practice is indeed "practice" and never perfect is an exercise in freedom. It allows me to accept imperfections as not only part of myself but also as part of life in general. When you can be who you are, take ownership in the good and the bad, only then can you truly live freely.