Friday, August 12, 2011

Your Challenge Pose

I would like to encourage all of you readers out there to decide on a challenge pose for yourself. This pose can be one that you are already working on - perhaps a difficult pose that you can approach but cannot maintain. Maybe even a pose that looks impossible. What pose looks like a challenge to you? Is there a pose that you have always wanted to do? Determine which pose you want to challenge yourself with. Then, take the challenge.

There is a trick to getting there - approach it systematically.

  1. Research the pose. What should your hands be doing? Your shoulders? Your torso? What is extended? What is bent? To what degree? Study the mechanics of the pose.

  2. Find poses that work the same muscles and parts of the body. Build a library of poses that do similar things that are not challenging poses for you. Or build a progression - I have to maintain pose A before I can maintain pose B. Get your body to "know" these poses. Regularly practice them with the intention of using the lessons these poses teach you when attempting your challenge pose.

  3. Practice Satya - truth. Our bodies are very good at "faking" a pose. For example, in Pachimotanasana (seated forward bend), many students roll back on their sitting bones and deeply round their spines to touch their nose to their legs. While you have succeeded in touching your nose to your leg - you have not succeeded in successfully attaining the pose (not very satya). Be truthful with yourself - allow the process to take time. B.K.S. Iyengar speaks of this in his book "Light on Life." He mentions that we should work with baby steps - the world was not built in a day, you cannot save the world in 4 minutes.

  4. Utilize yoga props. Blocks, bolsters, blankets, straps, slant boards, etc. All of these are utilized in a yoga class as a method of finding the true properly-aligned pose. Some of the best props are props that you already have at home. The wall is the best prop! If you are having problems with triangle pose (or to study your body in the pose -which everyone should do on occasion) - place your hips, shoulders, and arms against the wall. Press each of these parts of the body against the wall. Use it to maintain that compactness that the pose requires (like you are being squeezed between two panes of glass - as most teachers say) - it is also wonderful for getting the chest rotated open. Use the wall for inversions - the wall is an amazing inversion teacher.

  5. Listen to your body. You will feel intense stretching of muscles in some poses. That is to be expected. Breath into those stretches - and let go. Do, however, note the difference between an intense stretch and pain. If you do feel pain - back off. But try not to shy away from something new.

  6. The work does not end when you attain the pose. Continue to experiment with it. Perhaps you can set a new goal with the pose - gaining a longer length in the torso, rooting down in the pose, attaining the pose with less effort, or a greater steadiness. Then, research alternate versions of the pose - yoga has a funny way of saying, "have you tried lifting one leg in this pose?" or "now can you add a twist?" Find those alternate versions and play with them - but take it slow. Allow yourself to take those small steps.
So what is your challenge pose? Give it some thought - and allow yourself to approach it systematically. Enjoy the evolution.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dharana: One Pointed Focus

In my class this evening we worked with dharana - concentration. This one-pointed concentration is meant for a meditative state. Like B.K.S. Iyengar, however, I believe that we can maintain a meditative state when working with our asana practice (physical practice - the poses).

In is commentary on the Yoga Sutras, Edwin Bryant states that "concentration (dharana) can be directed toward parts of the anatomy or external objects and result in wonderful powers." These powers can include focus or a calmness - for example, anyone that has done Warrior III realizes that it takes some wonderful powers. Bryant goes on to say that the focus can be on "the circle of the navel, the lotus in the heart, the light in the brain, the tip of the nose, the tip of the tongue, or any external object."

Experiment with these focuses. In balancing poses, I like to use external objects. In Warrior III I find a focal point on the floor and stick to it. In Ashtanga Yoga, they would call this a drishti - a focal point. Allow everything else to soften so that you are focused on that one point, make it the only thing that exists to you - this really takes away the "I can't do it" and allows you to enjoy the sweetness of the pose.

In poses where the chest is revolving open - triangle, extended side angle - I like to focus on the heart. I do not mean looking at it - but having a mental focus there. Such effort goes into revolving the chest open, making that the focus of your mind is very helpful, beautiful, and rewarding - I find that there is a lot of devotion in focusing on the heart.

Is anyone currently using this or have any thoughts on dharana?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Meat Boy Going Veg - A Journey with Ahimsa

Warning! My blog will be cheesy.

The first limb of yoga is composed of the Yamas - or ethical rules. The first and most important of these yamas is Ahimsa - nonviolence. Easy right - I can be nonviolent.

I certainly don't practice violence. It is, however, a struggle for my mind to stay focused on ahimsa. I am sure every one of us has been cut off in traffic and has thought "I am going to have to kill that person" or have looked in the mirror and thought "I wish I could cut a little bit of fat off of my legs." Or maybe after watching a political ad you think "one day I am going to punch that guy in the face." These thoughts, whether we intend to follow through on them or not, are violent thoughts and are not following the practice of ahimsa. I know - so hard. Ahimsa is a sarcastic person's nightmare.

Here is the hardest part. The non-negotiable part of this practice is vegetarianism (EEK!). In order to fully follow a path of ahimsa, a yogi cannot eat meat - this includes eggs. After attending a workshop on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I decided to go vegetarian myself (I know - I can't believe it either. I am going to miss the Chinese food days, you know, where you go to the buffet and only get meat). Edwin Bryant, a commentator on the Sutras (and the workshop facilitator) swayed me. He had a few main points:

  1. Could you kill an animal to eat it? There are many that can - I grew up with a father that did - and does. He could do it, I could not. I can't picture looking an animal in the face just to take its life and then eat it, knowing and seeing how the animal was full of life. How could I take that away from them?
  2. How is a cow any different that your dog or cat? This struck a cord with me. I love my dog Frankie more than I ever thought I could love a pet. I actually had an aversion to dogs for years, but after making such a strong bond with an animal and seeing how capable it is to love and be loved, how do I know that a cow or a chicken is not the same? Apparently cows are quite cuddly. But look - we are all bonded together with the same life energy. How can I take away that energy? How could I knowingly take this energy away?

Ok, so some of you may be saying - wow, a little new agey for me. I would have said the same a few months ago, so I don't judge you - you can make your own choices. I will do my best not to be preachy. Regardless, I am now a vegetarian and feel better because of it. I do actually feel different now. I feel as though I have a better place in the world and a better understanding of what life is and how we are all connected by that life.

That being said, I have lived an American life for 29 years - well, closer to 30. I have had a very close relationship to meat. So what now? Going from steak and potatoes to the world of tofu and seitan is not easy (I still have not incorporated either into my diet - it is difficult for me to eat something called satan, even if it is pronounced "Say-tan." I can see my mom saying, "its the devil's food"). So I am taking a very gentle approach to vegetarianism - starting out with vegetables and beans and nuts. I have been making my own black bean burgers and falafel - neither of which are staying together very well, so I will take any tips. I actually went to a vegetarian pot-luck the other day and learned some new recipes - so exciting. I did feel like my dish was the meat eaters version of vegetarianism. In my mind they were looking down on my dish - hummus, really?

Now here is the rub. I live in a "normal" town that is surrounded by other "normal" towns. My grocery store offers little to no vegetarian options - I didn't even see tofu hot dogs there. But they did have veggie burgers (apparently that is the meat eater's answer). I have been hearing about vegetarian pepperoni but have yet to see it or sample it - having this would make my life much more enjoyable. Do I have to travel to Guam to get vegetarian goods? Is there a vegetarian black market that I don't know about? How does an everyday American find vegetarian alternatives when they do not have access to proper grocery stores or vegetarian restaurants? I live in the land of the steakhouse. I have to travel 40 minutes to get falafel. What is a yogi to do? What is a yogi to do?