Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

Discussion of physical aspects of yoga (on and off the mat)

I hate [insert name of pose or class of poses] (and the kleshas)

One of the aims of yoga, according to Patanjali’s classic eight-limbed path of yoga, is to be free from being torn between the pairs of opposites — pleasure and pain.  We cannot be free if we are always grasping at pleasure or acting to avoid pain.  From a tantric perspective, we are not trying to disengage or transcend body and mind and the natural arising of pleasure and pain, but we still want to be engaged without an attachment or aversion that leads us into entanglement and suffering rather than towards openness and light.

One of the kleshas (afflictions) is dvesa, which can be translated as hate, dislike, abhorrence, enmity, avoidance.  Why wouldn’t we want just to avoid something that we dislike?  Sometimes we have no choice, and one of the benefits of yoga is helping us make peace with having to face or be engaged with things that are painful or distasteful.

I often hear students say, “I hate [insert name of pose].”  Last night, I heard it twice.  I am no stranger to the “I have to go to the bathroom poses,” the poses which are so challenging or uncomfortable, that I feel the need to leave the room. One of the most profound ways I have grown with yoga, though, is staying present for the poses that did not initially appeal to me, usually those that pushed my fear, trust, strength, anxiety, worthiness buttons.  One of the obvious superficial benefits of staying present and practicing the “I hate” poses is that they can yield an extra sense of accomplishment when we get them.  We can also learn more about our friends and colleagues by starting to understand why the poses are the ones that naturally draw them and thus expand our perspective on the fullness of life.

For example, arm balances are still most challenging for me, partly because I am more flexible than I am strong, and partly because I am fearful of falling.  I’ve started to appreciate how another person could be drawn to them for the exhilaration, the rush of danger, the excitement, the challenge, the very topsy-turvyness of the poses, although those aren’t sensations to which I am naturally drawn.  But I have learned how much practicing arm balances fuels the energy in my core and heart and when I get them, what it must feel like to fly.

The teacher’s duty (and I have been blessed with wonderful teachers who have given me this gift) is to offer the full range of experiences (within the parameters of the class level, style of yoga, and class description), so that every student gets to practice both favorites and least favorites.  This is not so much to make sure that every student gets a favorite sometimes and so is happy in the class when the favorite shows up, but so that the students are invited to be present, grounded, and open to his or her own light through the full range of delights and challenges.   On a day when I just get my favorites, I feel like I have been to the spa.  The real pleasure from yoga has been from the challenging poses over the long term.   It has been steadily coming to the challenge that has started easing my reactions off the mat to the inevitable challenges, pain, and losses of a full and active life.  In being less reactive to challenges, I also find I crave specific pleasures less, and so enjoy the pleasures that come all the more.

Yoga home practice challenge: pick one pose for which the phrase, “I hate…” usually proceeds it and make it an element of your weekly home practice for a month.  Witness your reactions on and off the mat.  Enjoy what happens next time the pose comes up in a class.  Maybe the phrase “I hate” will stop arising as soon as you hear the teacher name the pose.

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Forgetting to Take a Break (and a reminder of the importance of practice)

I got caught up in something in the middle of the day today.  By the time I could reasonably take a break (I did eat my lunch from home), it was too late to be able to get a real break.  I then worked fairly late.  By the end of the day, I really noticed the difference between a day when I have taken a walk, met a friend, sat at the Botanical Garden or the museum for even 15-20 minutes and this day, when I let myself get so tangled in the demands of work that I did not take a break.

I work better in the afternoon when I have taken a break, just as my work, my body, my digestion, my sleep, and my relationships are healthier when I practice consistently.  I no longer need a reminder how important it is both to take a good break each day and to find time for practice.  I am looking at this day, though, as a teaching lesson, an extra reminder of the importance of finding some delicious time to bring into the rest of the day.

Do you take a break to eat quietly or take a walk in the middle of your day?  Can you notice the difference the days you do and the days you don’t?  What about the weeks you practice and the weeks you do not?  Does this not fire you up with resolve to be steadier in your practice and kinder to yourself?

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Stand Steady in the Light (Workshop at Willow Street this Saturday)

One of the most wonderful ways we can find our own steadiness using asana practice is the joy of standing balancing poses.  Even when our feet are not steady, a gentle turning of our mind to a focused, steady place will bring us a sense of calm and ease.

Please join me this Saturday for:

Standing Steady in the Light: A Standing Balance Workshop, Sat May 8, 2:30-5pm, Willow Street Yoga Center, Takoma Park, $35.  Find a place of deeper steadiness and balance in your own light and worthiness.  Learn how to use the Anusara principles to enhance your ability to stand or your own two feet or on just one foot at a time.  After we playfully explore a progressively expansive array of standing poses, we’ll finish with a few upside-down restorative postures to let our legs and feet feel the bright light created by the practice.  Whether you find standing poses a challenge or revel in the dance, this workshop will illuminate your practice.  Everybody welcome.  To register, please visit www.willowstreetyoga.com.

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Great Swan

I found a used copy of Lex Hixon’s Great Swan–Meetings with Ramakrishna, last week that I am reading with delight.  Lex Hixon has rendered the teachings from the seminal and extraordinary voice of Ramakrishna very accessible.  It also provides in a light-handed and intelligent way, an excellent perspective on the history and dance of the mingling of East and West. Ramakrishna, as Swami Vivekenanda‘s guru, is an incredibly important part of the path of yoga to the West.

As an American drawn to the teachings of yoga, I feel it important for me to know the context of how these teachings reached me, and how they interconnect with the embodiment of religious and social practice in both the society whence they came and the cultures they have reached and shifted.  Those who have imbibed the teachings with pure bhakti (devotion) might think it is not necessary to study so much.  For me, whose nature and practice includes skepticism and questioning, the more perspective I gain by thinking, exploring, and studying, the more I am able to open in different ways.

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Happy May Day (and radical affirmation)

It feels wonderfully auspicious to me that my Spring classes at Willow Street are starting on May Day.  It is Beltane–the true end of winter and the beginning of the effulgence of the time of growth and light.  It is May Day–the mark of a shift in power from the oppressors to the once oppressed, now freed (I’m not going to get into whether that really worked as planned).  It is a time of tradition at my alma mater; the sophomores wake the seniors with strawberries and champagne, enjoying celebration and revelry (dancing around May poles and the like) as they get ready to take their final exams.  Today is Kentucky Derby; I remember a party where the fact I had mint in my garden for the juleps started a fabulous passion.

The potential for delight, for freedom, for fullness is always with us.  For me, yoga helps me find it and recognize it.  The longer I practice, the more richness it offers.  This Spring session I will be focusing on radical affirmation of the potential in ourselves so that we can recognize and reveal it.  Much more on that to come; for now, I must head to the metro to go teach.

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The Nyaya of the Cat and the Bunny

A nyaya is literally a recursion, something which leads back to an essential principle.  In my recent studies of meditation, we have been taught various nyayas that help to explicate the experience of meditation and the whys and benefits of steady practice.

At the place where we have been staying for our meditation and study retreats with Paul Muller-Ortega, there is a wonderful cat named Oberon.  I first met him last summer when I was walking the labyrinth just before dawn.  I’d heard a meow off in the distance.  Lonely for cat company since my Becky had so recently left her body, I called to the cat.  He came running to me and walked the labyrinth with me.  Each time I have visited, I have had some special moments with Oberon, who lives fully up to his name — Oberon being the King of the Faeries.

Oberon loves the meditation hall and often tries to get in.  He also brings offerings.  Last winter, he brought us a mostly dead bird.  As well intended as it might have been on Oberon’s part, it was not particularly welcomed in the meditation hall.  On the final night of our retreat this time, we were reveling in the good fortune of having fellow students (and my sometimes teachers and the creators of many CDs in my music collection) Heather and Benjy Wertheimer lead us in kirtan.  At one point, I left my place to go to the facilities.  A fellow student, stopped me, “Elizabeth, the cat has a really big mouse.”  I went to look.  Oberon did not have a mouse; he had a young bunny.  “It’s a bunny I said.”  The other students who were outside were horrified.

Without thinking, I went to him, “Oberon, drop it!” I said, as if it were appropriate to speak to the King of the Faeries as if he were an obedient dog.  He listened though and dropped the bunny, which remained frozen.  I held Oberon by the scruff of the neck.  “Go bunny; bunny run,” I said, but the bunny did not move.  I then tapped the bunny on his back at the tail.  The bunny remained frozen, though it did not appear yet to be injured.  I let go of Oberon and went to get a towel or something to pick up the bunny.  Then Oberon tapped the bunny just where I had touched it.  Off ran the bunny through the shoes neatly piled outside the meditation hall.  I caught Oberon and picked him up.  The bunny again froze, looking back at us.  At this point I was completely oblivious to anything other than the cat and the bunny.  “Bunny run; go now.”  Oberon squirmed, but did not scratch me, letting me continue to hold him.  Finally, the bunny ran off into the scrub and disappeared.  I put down Oberon.  He sniffed the trail, but then came back to me for a petting when I called.  “Thank you for the offering Oberon; I know it was well intentioned, but we are not so keen on bringing dead baby animals into the meditation hall.”  He sniffed, lifted his regal head, and sat down to wash.

Leaving aside what my actions may have done to the fabric of the world order and the pondering I could do about the interrelationship between destiny and free will, I felt that I had been given a wonderful lesson about life and practice. Practice can bring us great freedom if we stay steady on the path.  Like the bunny, though, we can stay frozen in fear and old patterns, even when we are given a glimpse of the freedom of self we can get from practice.  As dire as things may be (or perhaps even when they are at their worst), we return to the familiar, regardless of whether we are unhappy with it, regardless of how old patterns are limiting our ability to grow.  Sometimes it is dissatisfaction with and pain from the old patterns themselves (revealed more clearly by practice already begun) that push us to go further, just as it took Oberon getting the bunny to run again for me to realize he was sufficiently healthy to be able to run off.  And just as I stayed with Oberon and the bunny until the bunny finally took his chance at freedom, the practice and the truths and freedom practice can reveal will always be there.  No matter how many times we forget or return to the stuck and the familiar, the opportunity for growth and freedom continues to await.

When I am feeling stuck, when I am finding myself returning to patterns that do not serve, I will think about my own personal nyaya of the cat and the bunny.  I hope it will serve to keep me moving forward, less stuck, less attached to the familiar that no longer serves.

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May News (Web Version of E-Newsletter)

Dear  Friends,

What a glorious Spring we’re having! I’ve just returned from an expanding, nurturing, and deepening time of study in Sedona with meditation teacher Paul Muller-Ortega.  Later in May, I will join fellow certified Anusara yoga teachers in North Carolina to be with John Friend.  Making sure to continue to study and gather with fellow yogis provides ever increasing appreciation of the benefits of practice and enhanced delight for the community.

May Day (May 1) is the first day for my Spring Session classes at Willow Street:  Level 2 @ 8:30 am and Gentle/Therapeutics @ noon.  Both are in the Takoma Park studio.  While session registration is optimal, you are always welcome to drop in, whether you want to rock out in level 2 or get some healing and nurturing energy in Gentle/Therapeutics.

The William Penn House class continues to have the special $12 offering for public interest workers (broadly inclusive), students, seniors, and those in-between gigs ($15 for those who can afford it).  Come join this collegial group 6:30 pm every Tuesday evening.  A portion of the proceeds goes to benefit the work of William Penn House.

Looking to strengthen your practice:  join me for Standing Steady in the Light: A Standing Balance Workshop, Sat May 8, 2:30-5pm, Willow Street Yoga Center, Takoma Park, $35.  Find a place of deeper steadiness and balance in your own light and worthiness.  Learn how to use the Anusara principles to enhance your ability to stand or your own two feet or on just one foot at a time.  After we playfully explore a progressively expansive array of standing poses, we’ll finish with a few upside-down restorative postures to let our legs and feet feel the bright light created by the practice.  Whether you find standing poses a challenge or revel in the dance, this workshop will illuminate your practice.  Everybody welcome.  To register, please visit www.willowstreetyoga.com.

As always, please take the time to enjoy and comment on the blog and if you haven’t already done so, friend me on Facebook for the latest news, photos, and quotes.

Looking forward to seeing you soon.
Peace and light,

Elizabeth

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Coming Home from Retreat (and Savasana)

How do you plan your return home from a retreat or vacation?  Do you come home at the very last minute, so that the travel is exhausting and the first day back at work is a struggle?  Or do you plan to have a day — or at least several hours — to unpack, make sure you have fresh food to eat, and have brought the feeling of vacation back into your home life before getting back to work?

When I was studying on retreat in Arizona, Paul Muller-Ortega took particular pains to emphasize the importance of doing savasana for at least a few minutes after sitting for meditation for a “slow re-entry.”  Without the resting time in between practicing/adventuring/celebrating/retreating and working, it is like eating a loaf of bread right out of the oven, rather than giving it at least 10-15 minutes to rest.  Right out of the oven, the is too hot and the texture is not right, and we cannot taste how good it is.  Give it a chance to rest, and it is exquisitely hot and fresh and perfect.

We need to rest, to reintegrate, to settle or we can feel like there is no point in going on vacation.  How many people do you know (perhaps you have said this yourself) who say there is no point in going on vacation because it just makes work harder on return?  When I take a shorter vacation/rest/retreat to account for reintegration time, and then fully reintegrate, the rejuvenating properties of getting away definitely last longer.

I returned very late Sunday night.  Yesterday I practiced at home, did my laundry, cleaned the yoga room, petted the cats, had a massage, did a little reading, cooked delicious food (homemade granola, kitcheree, greens from the garden), and went to sleep early.  Now I am off to work, seeking to bring what I learned into my day.

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Azalea Walk at the National Arboretum (and Sadhana)

As it is every year, the Azalea Walk at the National Arboretum fills me with joy and wonder.  “Was it really this splendid last year?” one of my companions asked.  “I go every year,” she said, “but I forget how gorgeous it is!” She comes back each year to remember the beauty and the awe.  So, too, it can be with our practice.  We stop going to class or practicing our meditation or asana for a while because we get too busy.  Then we come back, and we ask ourselves how we could have forgotten the joy and beauty a steady practice brings us, and we are inspired to commit again.

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Serenity Saturday tomorrow (4/17)

Today it is going to reach a high of 84F and the pollen count is off the charts.  Tomorrow there will be a high in the low 60s.  Whatever the temperature, whichever your natural preference or aversion, find rest, solace, and delight in two blissful hours of restoratives at tomorrow’s Serenity Saturday at Capitol Hill Yoga from 3pm-5pm.  Register on-line or just show up and pay at the door.

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