Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

Why Take a Yoga Workshop

The other day I mentioned to my students the workshop I will be leading at Willow Street’s Takoma Park Studio on standing balance poses on May 8th.  I received some responses that sounded basically like: “standing poses?  But I am so bad at them.”  “A great reason to go.  You aren’t bad at them if you are present to your fullest whatever you are doing; you just find them more challenging than other poses.  It can be great to work in those areas to try and reveal ease in being challenged,” was my basic reply.

In keeping with John Friend’s teaching that we come to the mat either to celebrate the fullness of our spirit or to remember its delight when we have forgotten, I think there are two basic reasons to come to a workshop.  The first is going to one where we know it will concentrate on our favorite poses and practices.  We know we will go a little deeper, discovery something new, and have an opportunity to relish our favorites for a solid period of time.  Delightful!

The second reason is to challenge ourselves intentionally with poses that are difficult for us either physically or emotionally or both.  For me, the mini-arm balances have always been the least accessible.  They push my buttons in all sorts of ways.  I found, though, that when I finally faced my fears and weaknesses and agreed to go to them and discover why for so many of my friends they are naturally joy-inspiring, bliss-exuding postures, my appreciation for the practice as a whole grew immensely.  They still aren’t the “strongest” area of my practice, but because of that in some ways I know them better and can offer more when teaching when than when teaching the poses that I do with less concentrated effort.

I think we need to rest where it is delightful sometimes.  Always going for the challenge can just give a sense that life is too hard and practice is not worth the effort.  But intentionally studying and practicing from both perspectives is what gives us more ease and light in the full spectrum of being.  Going to a full range of workshops, gives you both in a great way.  I try to take workshops whenever I can. (Reminder for those in town:  April’s Serenity Saturday at Capitol Hill Yoga is next Saturday, April 17th from 3-5–it’s a great way to get some yoga during Willow Street’s break week.)

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Sukha (the why of sequencing and the foster cats)

Last week, I used as a theme sukha — ease, comfort, happiness.  I was inspired by Lorin Roche’s discussion of translating in his “version” of the Vijnana Bhairava, which he entitles “The Radiance Sutras.”  In it he notes that “[e]ven more literally, sukha is (according to some etymologies) composed of su, good + kha, space.  A good space.”  At first blush, teaching about sukha might seem to be off-topic from my session theme of sequencing principles.  The whole purpose, though, of seeking to understand, practice, and optimize our sequencing in time and space on and off the mat is to find just that.  It is to be in a “good space,” to feel at ease, whether we are being challenged or delighted.

I found myself contemplating sukha yet further this week (it is a recurring practice and contemplation theme for me — I love Patanjali’s sutra “sthiram sukham asanam”), as I have been observing and helping the foster cats make mine their new home.  When we are uprooted or out of alignment, we are not in a good space.  It is a struggle to feel happy or at ease.  When we find our rhythm again, then ease unfolds.

There is a set of principles that generally works for taking uprooted animals (or people) and helping them feel at home.  Part of making them at home is their new person holding him/herself in a “good space” for the newcomers, which indeed helps them find their own, which is its own yoga.

The blessing of yoga for us, and why we take ourselves to challenging difficult places on the mat, is so that we can, by use of intelligent sequencing of practices, techniques, and mindsets, discover how to feel connected to our own spirit wherever we are in time and space — the essence of ease in this body and mind.  The more we can do this for ourselves, the more we can do it for others.

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The Green Film of Pollen (and how yoga can help)

With the spell of hot, sunny weather, the tree pollen has arrived.  Everything is covered in a haze of green.  It is beautiful in its own way.  Even if one is not particularly allergic, though, the sheer density of the pollen, coupled with the degraded air quality from car emissions and other city pollution without any cleansing rains, can make it hard to breathe easily.  You may have noticed that you are feeling especially sluggish.  I do not have significant seasonal allergies, but when there is this much pollen, we are all breathing in a lot of particulate matter, and I notice I am fatigued for no apparent reason.  That by itself is a challenge.

What can you do to feel better?  Listen to your body.  You may feel a need, after our long, snowy winter, to get out and run and play, but take it a little slowly.  Drink lots of water, juice, and herbal tea to flush out your system.  Use a neti pot to clear the pollen out of your sinuses so that it doesn’t stay there bothering them.

Do cleansing practices.  Kapalabhati can be especially effective.  Make sure to use ujayi breathing while doing your poses.  I find that the action of channeling the breath with ujayi makes it much easier to breathe through the nose.  Incorporate some extra twists into your practice for their cleansing action.  Instead of giving up your practice because of allergy symptoms and fatigue and choosing to just lie around, make the effort to set up some restorative poses.  I find supported twists for the cleansing effect and supported backbends, which expand the area of the heart and lungs, making it easier to breathe, feel especially good.

It may be hard, but instead of looking at the green film and your dirty tissues, notice the beauty burgeoning around you.  The flowering and leafing trees, the greening grass, the proliferation of flowering bulbs and bushes are extraordinary.  Where we put our attention is what we feel and experience the most.

ps Using cloth handkerchiefs and napkins instead of paper and just throwing them in with your other laundry, will make breathing easier in the long run if enough of us do it.  Fewer trees killed.  Less pollution.  Better air.

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A Slow Metro Ride, A Missed Yoga Class, and Meditations on the Costs of War

Yesterday I wrote to my DC elected officials and to the budget office to let them know how important it is to me that local municipalities fully fund public transportation, as the budget year comes to a close.  Metro officials are threatening to close down many bus lines entirely, which will mean that far too many people will be unable to get to work, especially for low-paying jobs.  Hundreds of workers are scheduled to  be laid off, which means (as an icy cold budgetary matter — the budget after all being a moral document) that they will need services and no longer will be paying taxes.  Disrepair, injuries, and accidents will become even more prevalent, and service will be slowed at already overtaxed and overcrowded times.  Our air quality will go from yellow/orange to orange/red from the increase in gridlocked traffic.  I discussed the issue and the urgency of making our voices heard with several co-workers today.

I left the office at 5:40 pm this evening to go to take Suzie Hurley’s 6:15pm class at Willow Street, Takoma, Park.  I was standing on a metro train at 5:46pm.  The ride is supposed to take 13 minutes from Judiciary Square metro.  We reached Takoma Park at 6:27pm.  I went over to the studio when I arrived.  If the door was open, I would have looked in and caught Suzie’s eye and quietly seen whether I could slip in.  The door was closed, and I could hear that the class had already started doing standing poses.  Under circumstances where being late is clearly not my fault (and I try to avoid those by being willing to be early if it turns out the travel has been optimally sequenced), I will join the class just after centering and before the asanas begin.  As much as I would have liked to have taken a yoga class after the slow metro ride, I felt that I shouldn’t risk disturbing the other students by coming so late.  I instead will be doing a long, deep, slow, inward-moving practice when I am finished writing, corresponding, getting ready for practice and sleep, and doing some preparations for tomorrow’s work day.

In my growing acceptance that I would be arriving too late to Takoma to take class, I thought about the email I had received earlier in the day about the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s “Our Nation’s Checkbook” campaign.  The email reminded me that a third of my tax dollars are being spent on war.  “What about investing in green jobs, preventing more home foreclosures, and funding diplomacy to prevent wars?” I was asked.  “What about public transportation,” I thought, as I sat on the stationary train between stations.  “How many trains could be operated efficiently and safely for each fighter aircraft?”

How do I want to live?  What are my priorities?  When does short-sightedness or immediate personal satisfaction impact my long-term health and happiness and peaceful co-existence on a crowded planet?  For what purposes do I practice?  How would I like to invite others to live?

The ride home, of course, had nary a problem.  A train arrived in under five minutes.  The ride back to Union Station was exactly 11 minutes.  Everyone had a seat, and the car was nearly full,  so it was at perfect capacity.  It was still light, and lots of people were out because of the balmy night and the beauteous blossoms, and I felt safe strolling home instead of taking the bus.  What a beautiful night!

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April News (web version of e-newsletter)

Dear Friends,

The end of March is all sunshine and flowers after a turbulent month.  I’m hoping for some April showers along with the sunshine, so that my garden greens will flourish.  The pulsation between rainy and sunny, cool and warm, is a great reminder of the essential vibration of being!

There will be lots of great yoga opportunities to pulse with the shiva-shakti vibration in the next several weeks:

As always, William Penn House Tuesday classes are on a drop in basis with special pricing to make yoga affordable for public interest workers, students, seniors, and those in between employment.  Invite your friends.  Special for April, bring a friend new to the class and when your friend comes back for a second class, you or your friend get a class for free.

There are two more Saturdays of the winter session at Willow Street.  Registration has already started for Willow Street’s Spring Session.  My Spring session classes start on Saturday May 1st — Level 2 @ 8:30; Gentle/Therapeutics @ noon.  We love it if you register for the whole session, but drop ins are always made welcome.  While you’re visiting the Willow Street web site, check out the article I’ve written for the Spring Newsletter’s “Teacher Feature.”

This Sunday, April 4th, from 3-4:30, come celebrate the uprising of flowering energy at a special $10 community class at Capitol Hill Yoga.  100% of the proceeds benefit City Blossoms.

April’s Serenity Saturday — on April 17th — is certain to be a great way to foster growth of mind, body, and spirit, whether we are getting April showers or summery sunshine.  Visit Capitol Hill Yoga to register.

Mark your calendars for May:  on Saturday May 8th, when I’ll be leading an all-levels workshop on standing balances — Stand Steady in Your Light — as Willow Street’s Takoma Park’s studio.

Finally, a great thanks to all who come to classes regularly and support the monthly giving.  Yoga for Gardeners attendees had a great time and enabled contributions of over $200 for the Youth Garden at the National Arboretum.  The March and April classes will also support the Youth Garden.

Wishing a great blossoming to all.  I look forward to seeing you soon.

Peace and light,

Elizabeth

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Gratitude and Self-Acceptance

On Friday night, Betsy Downing was at Willow Street’s Silver Spring studios leading a weekend workshop.  The focus of the weekend was learning how yoga practice can assist us in “interesting times.”  In this regard, Betsy invited us to recommit to two practices that we know support us when we fully practice them.  I did not feel the need for more meditation or asana or pranayama.  I do those steadily.

I have been struggling, though, with where I am lately — I think something was triggered with all the confined time during the great snows.  This morning I decided that for me, this invitation would best serve if I allowed it to help refocus my practice.  In getting a little off-kilter, I forgot to practice fully gratitude and self-acceptance.  Remembering to practice those fully will nourish me well in these challenged times.

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What a Difference a Month Makes

Here’s an aerial view of the back garden on the equinox after I spent several hours cleaning, deadheading, repotting, mulching, etc.  As you can see, the moss is ecstatic from having had the weight of the snow on it for several weeks.  Coming up in quantities almost enough to pick are lettuce, spinach, cilantro, parsley, chives, onions, lemon balm (always have too much of that — if you’re local let me know if you want some).  The first rosebud emerged sometime between Friday and Sunday.  It is hard to believe that just a month ago, I was blogging about indoor gardening — how to find delight even when snowed under (scroll to the bottom of the linked post to compare pictures of the same view).

As you can see from comparing the two photos, things were still growing under the snow or getting ready to do so.  That is what practice is like for me.  Sometimes I feel completely snowed under by an injury or rush jobs at work or personal circumstances beyond my control.  I keep practicing, but I don’t have the time or energy for long practices or full weekend workshops, when it is easy to get to a place of delight.  Other times, things are less pressured, and I feel brimming over with health.  Then practice feels wildly effulgent.  For my garden to offer its full potential (as is true with my practice), I need to spend lots of time and effort in it for the next several weeks.  I know that if I do so, I will be blessed with fullness.

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Samtosha (and the “Founding Fathers”)

I am subbing Fusion Flow tonight up at Willow Street. Natalie, for whom – am subbing, has been teaching the yamas and niyamas this session. She asked me to cover “samtosha” tonight.

In contemplating this principle of practice again (it is high on my contemplation list), I thought of the what was drafted by the “Founding Fathers.” We are not guaranteed the right to happiness, but the right and freedom to pursue it.

That leaves open the question of what is happiness and whether and how to pursue it. It contains, I think, a hidden agreement that to keep the right open to all that happiness cannot be realized by the acquisition of external power and things that will prevent others from having the same freedom.

When I get caught up in our current societal vision of what we are supposed to have or be, a reminder that “samtosha” — contentment — doesn’t just happen, but is a practice, always regrounds me. I choose to come back to a space of gratitude, and my my whole self eases. I return to a place that serves me and enhances my own freedom to find happiness, while bringing me to a place that is aligned with that freedom growing for what and whom I touch.

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