Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

Serenity Saturday, Oxfam Fundraiser, and Thanksgiving Week Classes (web version of newsletter)

Dear Friends,

I hope you weathered Ida and are enjoying the glorious days that are following her cleansing rains as we move into the first of the holidays.  Although I may have some thought-provoking questions about the historical basis for our Thanksgiving Day, I love taking the time as a society to get together to remember, to heal, and to share the abundance and give thanks for all that we have.  For me, one of my greatest sources of gratitude is the practice of yoga and our wonderful community.  Please join me for a gratitude-filled week of inner abundance:

Serenity Saturday:  November 21st, 3pm-5pm at Capitol Hill Yoga

Oxfam Yoga Fundraiser:  Thanksgiving morning, 10am-11:30am, at Willow Street Yoga, Takoma Park

Class Schedule:  All open classes will be held as usual Tuesday, November 24th at Wm. Penn House (6:30pm) and Saturday, November 28th (Level 2 at 8:30am, Gentle/Therapeutic at noon) at Willow Street, Takoma Park.

Regrets:  No house group practice, Wednesday, November 25th.

More details on the website at www.rosegardenyoga.com.  To register in advance for Serenity Saturday, please visit www.capitolhillyoga.com.

I look forward to seeing you soon and sharing the joy of the holiday season.

Peace and light,

Elizabeth

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Getting Out of My Own Way (and thigh loop)

A couple of years ago, I took a brilliant class with Desiree Rumbaugh in which she used the theme of “getting out of our own way” to lead us to a place to better integrate our shoulders.  As I was practicing with the Anusara principle of “thigh loop” this week, I was reminded of that class.  We’ve all been in the situation where our habitual mindset, physical posture, life style, or emotions get in the way of our finding more freedom and happiness.

When our thigh bones move into the front plane of the body, the forward movement keeps us from opening our hips more fully and from getting into deeper and stronger poses that require our hips to be open (in fact, out of the way).  When we take our thigh bones back, we physically have more freedom, more range of motion and are better able to access the deepest places of power and openness that allow us to soar on the mat.  I’m working on it on the mat as a great reminder to get out of my own way off the mat.

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A Reason to Get Out of Bed

Today, when I was trying to burrow more deeply under the covers when invoked to wake by the usual sounds, I thought about the way young children or pets are eager to get out of bed and to get you out of bed, even if it is for nothing more than to say good morning or eat breakfast.  The moment they open their eyes, the day looks promising.  At what point does bed (even if we have had enough sleep) come to seem more desirable than getting up?

I am not particularly eager to go to work today — things are rather stressful at this juncture on my project.  I do know, though, that sitting for meditation is always good.  I also know that on the days I practice fully in the morning, my day is more enjoyable no matter what happens.  Knowing that I have the time and space to practice if I wake timely is always a good reason to get out of bed and is what drew me out of the comfort of lying under the covers this morning.

Now that I am done with my practice, I can also enjoy what spectacular weather is on offer today.  An added bonus.

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Calf Loop (and enhancing the integrity of the energy flow)

When I think of the Anusara principle of calf loop, I think of playing with drinking straws as a child.  I’d take the straw out of the glass and bend it back and forth.  The straw would end up with a horizontal crease where it was bent — not quite a break — but the place where it bulged at the bend would prevent the straw from serving the purpose of enabling liquid to be drawn up through it.  When our knees (or our elbows for that matter) are hyper-extended, I think it disrupts the energy flow from the periphery to the core, weakening the pose, and breaking the integrity of the alignment.

As one whose legs started out bowed (though less after over six solid years of working “shins in/thighs out”), my natural tendency is to hyper-extend.  I find that using calf loop, I do not hyper-extend.  Calf loop (also called “shin loop”) has us draw energy from the base of the shin, up the back of the lower leg, and loop it through the top of the shin and then back down the front of the leg.  We wouldn’t ever start a pose thinking about calf loop, but in the flow of a pose, after the major principles are activated, including muscular energy, we can enhance muscular energy and the integrity of the alignment of the knees by focusing on calf loop.  When I practice calf loop, I find that it lifts the calf muscle and draws it more firmly into the top of the shin, and moves the top of the shin forward.  These actions do not bend the knee, but firm the muscles behind the lower leg, including the calf and the popliteus (which is the muscle behind the knee that flexes the knee) to the bone.

What is tricky — especially for those who tend to hyper-extend, is that getting the knee in proper alignment feels like bending the knee.  If we have been out of alignment, changing our stance will feel strange and perhaps “not right” at first.  The sweet subtlety of practice (whether trying to expand our ability to do poses, heal and injury, or live in better alignment overall)  is learning what is true integrity in a pose and what is habit, what will serve and enhance and what does not.

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Web Version of November Newsletter

Dear ,

I think this is one of the most spectacular years for fall foliage that I can remember.  The world seems to be pulsating with an ecstasy of color.  I am beside myself with joy just walking around (especially when I have my camera with me).  I hope you are getting the opportunity to be outside; the work commute is definitely a great time to be able to look around (especially if some of it is walking).

Expand the inherent joy in witnessing and experiencing the transformation between summer and fall, partaking in the abundant harvest, and accepting the sweetness of a more introspective climate by practicing forward bends with twists, restoratives, and inversions.

To deepen the revelry and to find respite when needed, come join me and pretty wonderful group of people on Tuesdays at William Penn House or Saturdays at Willow Street Yoga (level 2 at 8:30 and Gentle/Therapeutics at 12 noon) on a drop-in basis.

This month’s Serenity Saturday at Capitol Hill Yoga, which is on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, will be a special treat.  Whether you are preparing to travel or to host guests or to have a quiet weekend to yourself, a long, sweet, easeful restorative practice is just right.  Feel free to bring early, out of town guests and family. To register, please go to the workshops page at www.capitolhillyoga.com.

If you’ll be in town for Thanksgiving, I hope to see you, along with friends, family, and guests of all age and yoga ability, at my 7th Annual Thanksgiving Day Fundraiser to benefit Oxfam.  It’s from 10-11:30 on Thanksgiving Day in the beautiful and spacious Willow Street, Takoma Park Studio.  As has been my practice, I will be matching all donations over the suggested donation of $20.

For more information about the classes and workshops and to catch up on the blog, please visit the website at www.rosegardenyoga.com.

Peace and light,

Elizabeth

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Ready for EST (and another aspect of refinement)

About a week ago, maybe even a little earlier in the month, daylight savings time started feeling artificial.  My body started insisting on sleeping nearly an hour later, and I found that I wasn’t really using the hour of light at the end of the day.  It was time to go inside and cook or read or otherwise move inward.  When we change the clocks this weekend, I will already have shifted, and the clock will feel as natural as living by a clock can feel.  Part of the refinement of a deeper yoga practice is learning to pay attention to such subtleties, to learn what is most optimal and when, both time of day and time of year.  This applies to asana practice (i.e., when to emphasize forward bending v. backbending),what we eat and how much, and what kind of activities we choose.

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What is Beauty? (and “Ankle Loop”)

When I was meditating this morning, the last lines of Keats’ ‘Ode on A Grecian Urn’ welled up in my thoughts: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  How odd, I thought, for this to appear, as if out of nowhere.  I have been contemplating this week on what it means to be refined, but not in the way of an aesthete.  Rather, as I have been concentrating on the Anusara alignment principle of “ankle loop,” I have been thinking about how deepening our practice with repeated exploration and study we are able to refine our understanding and the flow of energy within us so that we can be more connected to ourselves and each other.

As I understand the essential structure of the Anusara principles, the “loops” are really tertiary principles.  The primary principles are those of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which are the principles of how we practice.  The secondary principles are the fundamental physical and energetic principles — “opening to grace, muscular energy, inner/expanding spiral, outer/contracting spiral, organic energy.”  The loops serve to refine the secondary principles.  Ankle loop, for example, which starts at the base of the shin bone, travels down the back of the heel and then back up through the arch, energizes the foot, lifts the arch, supports our stance and helps us focus muscular energy.  When we are feeling challenged finding as much muscular energy in our feet and legs as would be optimal for a full expression of the pose, we can use ankle loop to refine our understanding and practice of muscular energy in the legs.  Keeping in mind the primary principles of practice, though, the refinements should also always lead us towards the heart and not just get us into details.  Getting more sophisticated and refined, likewise should not lead us to disdain for that which is unrefined.

Funny, then, that the aesthete’s call to beauty should arise in my meditation while I have been consciously thinking about refinement.  What does it mean to appreciate and study refinements, but still honor and delight in a novice’s full expression of “attitude, alignment, and action” as much as an impeccably aligned and skillful pose that does not reveal a yearning for spirit?  Beauty may be truth, and truth beauty, but what is “beauty?”

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Nail Soup (and reminders)

One of my favorite fairy tales is the one about the traveler who teaches the old woman how to make “nail soup.”  It is a cold, wintry night in the forest, and a traveler comes upon a hut.  He knocks on the door and asks for shelter.  The old woman who lives in the hut says he can sleep in the shed, but she cannot give him any food.  The traveler thanks her for providing shelter.  He says he does not need food, but if she lets him in by the fire, he will show her how to make soup from a nail.  The woman, who is rather miserly, is excited by the idea of being able to make soup from a nail, so she lets him in and puts a big soup pot filled with snow to melt over the fire.  The traveler puts the nail in the soup and says, “what a wonderful broth we will have from this nail.  If we only had a potato or two, it would be even better.”  The woman roots around in her hoard and puts a potato in the pot.  “Now it will be even more wonderful,” said the traveler.  “If we only had an onion to add, it would be the most savory soup you have ever tasted.”  The woman goes to her winter stores and finds an onion.  The traveler sniffs the soup, “mmm, how wonderful it smells, if we had a carrot or a parsnip, it would be gracious enough for any guest.”  The woman, trembling with the excitement of creating soup from a nail, adds both a carrot and a parsnip.  At this point, the broth is starting to take on thickness and color, and the hut is redolent of bubbling hot vegetable soup.  “Oh for some salt and a little meat,” cried the man, “and this soup would truly be fit for a king.”  “From only a nail, soup fit for a king!” exclaimed the old woman, “that I must have.”  She added a precious pinch of salt and some meat dried to last through the winter.  The soup, of course, was delicious, the traveler well-fed, and the woman happy to share (even if she was tricked).

Sometimes we need a reminder of our abundance, both inner and outer, to be invited to bring out all we have so that we can better serve.  Just as the traveler with the nail reminded the isolated old woman of how to share her abundance, sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what we have rather than what we are missing.  I find that when I am feeling more empty than full, coming to my mat and my meditation cushion and practicing gratitude quickly helps me remember.

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When to Bring in the Tropical Plants (and stress v. distress)

From late September through the first week when there either are two or more nights forecast to below 38F or one night below 35F, I assiduously watch the 15-day weather forecast to determine when to bring in my tropical plants (orchids, bromiliads, a night-blooming jasmine plant (now 8 years old), a bay tree in a 24 inch pot (now 12 years old)).  I also bring in the lemon grass and lemon balm I have in containers so that they can be the perennials they would be in a warm climate; here, left outside, they are annuals.

When I first had a few orchids — over 10 years ago now — as soon as there was a hint of cold weather (below 45F) I rushed the plants inside, believing that if they were tropical, they needed to be inside.  In one of the early years, the first night below 40F was in late September.  The plants really suffered from a full seven months inside.  I have since learned (by studying and personal observation) two things about my tropical plants.  The first is that they are a lot happier outside than inside (when inside is not a properly humid, sunny greenhouse).  The second is that they like cold weather as long as it is not near or below freezing.  They especially like cold rains like we had the other weekend.  The stress of a few weeks of nights in the 40sF, in fact, seem to help the orchids bloom.  Now, by waiting until the last possible minute, and bringing them out as soon as it seems like the danger of last frost (for my backyard, which is very early) has passed, the orchids are outside at least seven months of the year.

Thinking about how the orchids flourish with the stress of some chill, but not too much, reminds me of what my teacher John Friend talks about in yoga practice of the difference between stress and distress.  Some stress actually strengthens us.  This is why one of the best ways to avoid or at least slow the process of osteoporous (according to the general medical literature to I’ve read) advocates weight-bearing exercise.  Putting weight, i.e., stress, on our bones and muscles strengthens them.  Too much, too fast, however, will injure our muscles and bones.

So, especially for those of us with injuries (prior or current) or physical challenges such as arthritis, it is optimal to exercise, to seek our edge, to put ourselves under stress, mindfully and intentionally.  We need to be aware, though, of the subtlety of the edge between stress and distress so that we are strengthened not injured, just as exposing the orchids to some fall weather invites them to bloom, but actual freezing or near-freezing temperatures will harm or kill them.

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What is “really” yoga?

Gopi Krishna, in this book The Awakening of Kundalini, writes:  “Yoga exercises can also be directed toward worldly objectives.  There are exercises that are conducive to the health and efficiency of the mind, others that lead to psychic gifts, and still others that strengthen the will and improve the ability to deal with problems.  However, no single achievement of this kind — or even several of them taken together — is Yoga.”  He continues to state that “Yoga is a transhuman state of mind attained by means of the cumulative effect of all practices combined, carried on for years, and supplemented by grace.”  Other texts say enlightenment comes to some just by “grace” with no need for the yoga practices.  Others need various amounts and types of practices.

Me, I have no idea what is a “transhuman state of mind” but I want for myself and those around me being healthier and stronger, with an improved ability to deal with problems.  (Imagine, for example, those gifts applied in the context of providing universal health care, while simultaneously educated and shifting our society to a healthier way of living).  I don’t think anyone can judge or determine whether one’s self or someone else is truly enlightened or can lead others to enlightenment (whatever that means).  But I am certain from my own experience that yoga helps me to be more grounded, more centered, more intentional, stronger, and healthier.  Thus served by steady practice, I am more content and find it easier to be kind.  I’ll take that for now.

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