Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Yoga Mama Muses on Malas and the Moon

Sunday morning my teenage daughter asked me a question: "What is one thing in your life you wish you could change?" My reply..."Just ONE????" While the humor in that response may have been lost on her, it made the drive to soccer not only long but also pensive.

Yoga has taught me the importance of living in the present moment. As a result, I spend less and less time living in the past or in the future. I find this to be the most kind and calm way to live, especially with the busyness of work and family. I recognize what I can control, what I can or can't change, and act accordingly. While this philosophy makes sense for me on a day-to-day basis, sometimes a little reflection is necessary in order to grow. 

That night I decided I would take her to the beach to watch the lunar eclipse. I spared her the the "cosmic analysis" of what this event could cause or create. I did talk to her about the two broken malas I brought. I explained how when a mala breaks, it is releasing energy, ending a "karmic cycle" and is no longer needed by the wearer. That by making these broken beads an "offering" of some sort, you close a chapter and are ready to choose a new mala. I spared her the deeply personal details behind these pieces, or at least one of them.

My sister gave me a stunning mala for Christmas last year, a symbol of peace and comfort, following a long stretch without either. It was the only thing on my mental "Christmas list," but I hadn't told anyone that. I wore it every day, brought it to practice and to teach. It looked great with basically everything in my wardrobe. I used it to pray, to reinforce my intention and my mantra, and peace and comfort it brought me. This mala broke a few months ago, the same week my sister was scheduled to spend the weekend at our house watching our children. It was a lot for me to ask this of her, and a generous step towards healing when she accepted. I loved this mala, as much for it's beauty as for the many things it represented. I was sad when it broke, but the timing was right. The bridge from my sister's heart to mine started to be rebuilt last Christmas and was nearing a stage of completion. I no longer needed that mala.

I received a new mala last week and brought that one too, laying it on my blanket next to the broken ones, and told my daughter that doing so would enable it to absorb the moon's energy. I spared her the reasons I selected this particular mala, the significance of the stones and what I hoped to gain by wearing it. I didn't share the details of my new intention. 

When I answered my daughter's question (for real), I let her know we can only learn from our past and hope to gather strength from that which has challenged us. I'm grateful to her for initiating my self-reflection just in time to maximally benefit from it as we watched that beautiful eclipse over the ocean. No doubt about it, my current favorite and most comfortable way to live is placing one foot in front of the other and not dwelling on a past I can't change or worrying about a future that still holds miles ahead. But only once forced to look back, did I realize how far I've come.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Transition...a Journey within the Journey

Transition has been occupying a lot of thought these last few weeks, as I trade my bikinis and flip-flops for leggings and boots. In our house this transition has been met with less than enthusiastic attitudes, myself included. We enjoyed beautiful weather at the Jersey Shore this summer, and especially following a long and cold winter, we are sad to see the season change. But change happens whether we want it to or not. There are ways we can approach these changes, these life transitions, however, to create and encourage a little more ease and comfort. As with many other things, I look to my yoga practice to guide me.

A recent article in the September 2015 issue of Yoga Journal magazine referred to author Mark Stephens ("Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes"...one of my yoga library favorites) and his teaching that "one of the most common times to get injured in yoga practice is during a transition" p. 76.  So for example, say you layer in a vinyasa flow between a sequence of postures, I would most commonly think I would wind up in a downward facing dog and depending on levels of focus, energy and presence, I may just rush through the other postures or steps prior to arriving there, and in turn, I'm missing the mind/body benefits of those postures (i.e., opening of the heart center in upward facing dog, core and upper body strengthening in chaturanga). Additionally, rushing through in a less than mindful fashion could lead to poor form and even injury.

During Ashtanga class this weekend I noticed (just before my instructor did!) that my shoulders weren't in line with my elbows, but much closer to the mat, as I lowered down through chaturanga during my vinyasa. I'm not sure how long I've had this habit, but thankfully it was early enough in the class that I spent the rest of my practice making the correction. After class my fellow teacher and friend commented that she thinks this is what may have caused my recent shoulder injury.

My primary area of teaching is Bikram, or hot 26, where the physical transitions of the practice are a bit more subtle. However, thinking about these transitions led me to a different perspective, and appreciation of transition off the mat. The two major transition postures are savasana and the sit-up, both of which occur in the floor series during the latter portion of class. The sit-up could definitely cause or exacerbate injury or discomfort if performed incorrectly and mindlessly. Savasana, "corpse pose", as transition has less risk of injuring the physical body (as the body is still), but creates an added challenge for the mind to be still and present. The signature pause between sets and postures throughout the series, in my opinion, is it's own transition and shouldn't be ignored.

We've all heard the cliche that "life is about the journey not the destination". I like to think transitions are journeys within the journey, added gifts in life. While transitional yoga postures are a path from point A to point B, that doesn't mean we should ignore the path as a purposeful entity in and of itself, right? As we transition from summer to fall, rather than become overwhelmed with all that needs to be done to get from A to B, enjoy the present moment. Don't be too quick and mindless to empty those drawers full of cut-offs and tank tops to just as quickly fill them with sweaters and socks. Feel the comforting warmth of the sun during the day, maybe even jump in the ocean to cool off. At night feel the energizing crispness in the air, sleeping with windows...and hearts...wide open.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Check It at the Door

A few weeks ago in a class led by Vanessa Van Noy, our class was encouraged to view tension as an additional thing that you may bring to your mat, something that when the body moves and creates energy down to a molecular level, that energy is given to everything that you bring into the room. If you are holding on to something physically, tension in the jaw or shoulders for example, that may actually increase during your practice if you are not consciously aware of relieving it. Similarly if you are holding on to something mentally or emotionally, that has the chance to be exacerbated during your practice. So do your best to let go and enable yourself to have a clean slate each time you arrive on your mat. Check it all at the door.

It always feels like a "no brainer" to let go of negative emotional and mental stuff when I come to my mat. Not that it's always...or ever...a quick, easy, painless or successful exercise, but the awareness and intention are there. I have learned to take physical cues to direct me to deeper emotional tensions, but Vanessa's class intro made me realize how little I think about what I bring into the room physically and how that affects my practice. It's almost as if I've taken it for granted that I am physically able, strong for the most part, and capable of performing each asana.

One of the ways I use my physical practice and asana work is to ease physical tensions in the body through stretching, elongating muscles, strengthening my back and core. Some of these physical tensions are hard to ignore, for example nurturing an injury or feeling fatigued, but the body is able to provide cues on such a subtle level that if you aren't in tune, you will miss them and with it miss the opportunity to get the most out of your practice.

In nearly every class I teach, I invite my students to "scan the body" early in the practice. Whether it's soles of the feet to the crown of the head, or tips of outstretched fingers to tips of pointed toes, I encourage conscious awareness to each body part, often thinking as deeply down to that cellular level. Once stiffness, aches or pains are identified, I teach to use the breath to ease. If that fails, I teach to back out of the pose or just establish a different, kinder edge for that pose, always mindful that our bodies and our practices will likely feel different each time.

Given my age and the physical edges I push myself towards on a daily basis, I accept that I will feel achey and sore most of the time. My main goal in my yoga practice is to bring calmness and peace into my chaotic life, and that usually requires a daily effort. I think excessive efforts to alleviate emotional tension led to a growth in physical tension, which then led to minor injury. I continued my daily practice, "somewhat" dialing it down (but not really), until one day recently I couldn't take a deep breath without very sharp pain under my right shoulder blade. It brought me to the yogic concept of "ahimsa", which means "non-violence". I've managed to put that concept into practice in my life off the mat, showing myself love, kindness, forgiveness, and it has done wonders to heal my heart and soul. How might I draw strength from that practice to heal my physical body? It will require rest and ease, two things that I am not so good at, time and trust. I trust my teachers like Vanessa and Stacey Kasselman who have brought my awareness to the fact that tension uses energy. I trust in what I tell my students that we are our own best teachers and need to listen to what our hearts, minds and bodies tell us and act accordingly with self-love and kindness. I know I will have to utilize alternative methods to manage stress if my physical practice is on hold, and to be honest that is not only frustrating but borderline frightening. But asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. Maybe I can view this as a gift to lead me to discover the benefits of the other seven limbs. And as I return to my mat when I feel able, I will do so gently and with kindness towards myself and my body. If I can follow this path, the only thing that runs a risk of injury is my ego. That is the most important thing I have to check at the door.