Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Getting Creative – Using Your Walls

I have always been a do-it-yourselfer. I approach my asana practice the same way. I began my asana practice years ago studying yoga guides, watching yoga videos, and finding just about any other resource available. When I took my first class, I was blown away at how much I had to learn. We all need someone to tell us to soften our eyes, lift our chins, or assist us in finding proper alignment. It took some time to get over my feelings of inadequacy when I was adjusted, but once I got beyond that, I wondered how I could get those adjustments at home.

The best home yoga prop, by far, is the wall. It is good for the obvious things, like learning inversions and sitting upright, but it also provides a guide for alignment.

One of my favorite poses to do at the wall is Garudasana (Eagle Pose). I often catch myself leaning forward in this pose, so I utilize the wall to help achieve the goal of keeping my torso vertical.

  1. I press my hips, spine, shoulders, and the back of my head against the wall.
  2. I walk my feet about 1.5 feet away from the wall - far enough away so that I can bend my knees to a 90 degree angle.
  3. I bend my legs to 90 degrees and wrap the right thigh over the left thigh – then attempt to wrap the right shin behind the left shin (sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t).
  4. I do a scan of my upper body – did my hips, spine, shoulders, or head come off of the wall? Then I reassert the contact with the wall at each of these points.
  5. I wrap my right upper arm under my left upper arm and wrap my right forearm behind my left forearm – contacting my right fingers to left palm.
  6. I take note of how the arm wrapping has affected my shoulders. I try to be careful not to let the wrapping of my arms pull the shoulders off of the wall.
  7. I reassert the contact of the shoulders to the wall and ensure that my arms are docked in their sockets.
  8. I hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.

After trying each side, I practice the pose away from the wall and note the effects.

Squeezing it In – Workday Tips

Having a full time job, a partner, and a pet can make it difficult to squeeze in my daily asana practice. If I had it my way, I would practice two hours of asana a day and follow it up with an hour of pranayama and/or meditation. Unfortunately, my life does not allow that – I don’t think many people have that luxury. So how do we maintain a home practice? We have to squeeze it in – make it happen.

I am not much of a morning person. I still somehow manage to get up every morning at 5:30, take the dog out and get ready for work. After work, I come home, take the dog out, cook dinner, and clean up. The rest of my day I spend getting ready to start all over again.

I can easily sneak in classes on weekend mornings or practice at home. During the week, however, I have to be crafty. B.K.S. Iyengar has mentioned in his writing that he believes asana practice should include a good amount of sweating. So before I jump in the shower in the morning, I will do 3 minutes of chaturanga dandasana (low plank) to vasisthasana (side plank) – poses that are difficult enough to break a sweat, without needing to be warm. A few sun salutations are also a great way to start the day, by simply fitting in 5 minutes of salutations; you can begin your day in an exciting way.

In the afternoon at work, just like everyone else, I start to feel very low energy. Instead of going for coffee or sugar, I retreat to a hidden corner of the building to do a few handstands against the wall. Not only is this pose supported, but it provides a quick burst of energy that can keep me going through the afternoon. If you feel that handstands are too difficult for you, try holding downward facing dog for a few minutes. Don’t have a dark corner? Close your door, go outside, or ignore everyone else and try it publicly. You may even start a trend at work or find out that others at your job practice as well.

Adventures in Vegetarianism – How it all Began

After years of taking yoga classes and maintaining a home asana practice, I finally began learning yoga philosophy. I guess I am a late bloomer. I attended a Yoga Sutra workshop and was blown away. So much of what was said aligned with my life and practice. I especially identified with the yamas (universal ethical principles). I have always tried to live a positive life – I don’t like speaking ill of people, I do not believe in violence, but I do believe in moderation and living a simple life. So everything made sense to me and I felt vindicated – that I had been on the right path all along.

Then the teacher dropped the bomb. Vegetarianism for a yogi is nonnegotiable! (NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!) Years of hamburgers and turkey sandwiches flashed before my eyes. Could my commitment to yoga be fractured by my love for the occasional steak and cheese? How could this be true? Believe me, if anyone had a loving heart for cows, pigs, and poultry it was me. I love chickens. What is life without meat?

I learned that eating meat does not align with the yama ahimsa (non violence). By eating meat, I had been transferring the tamas from death into my system. Yikes. My mind was blown. What do I do?

So I left the workshop and gave it some serious thought. I even did some research. There is evidence that eating some fish and meat prologues life and is helpful for some diseases and disorders. I also heard a rumor that vegetarianism was bad for your teeth – I was not ready to give up good teeth. I had been taking classes for years and had what I considered to be a great practice. People like me practice yoga every day and eat meat. So why was I so bothered by this? I could continue eating meat and be fine.

Unfortunately, I was not fine. What the teacher said really stuck with me. I had to at least give it a shot. So that is what I did. I tried being a weekday vegetarian – and it wasn’t so bad. The first few weeks of meat detox were strange. My body felt weird – like it was missing something. Then, it started. I felt cleaner, happier, and more open.

I am now a full-on vegetarian (well sort of). I still eat eggs, which some people consider vegetarian and others don’t. For now, it works for me. I am happy with my decision, and am proud to report that I still have white teeth.

Yoga Weird – Mula Bandha

The deeper you delve into yoga as a pedestrian yogi, you will run into some strange stuff. There are many topics that are difficult to understand at first. For example, why do teachers need to use the term anal mouth? And what the hell is a perennium? I learned more than I thought I ever would about these two terms the first time I attended a class that discussed Mula Bandha in detail.

For those of you who don’t know – Mula Bandha is the pulling up of the pelvic floor (Perennium). The lower abdomen muscles also lift up. By activating Mula Bandha (or “root lock” in some yoga circles) balance becomes easier and poses can be held longer. To engage Mula Bandha, however, one must also contract the anal mouth (eek!) and the genitals. I know – weird.

So here is how the Mula Bandha class went. We all gathered close to the teacher to watch her engage Mula Bandha on her back with her legs spread. We then all had to get on our backs and do it together. I am not ashamed to admit that this was the first time I was part of a group anal mouth contracting session. We were also told as a group to pull up our perrenium and close our vaginas (which was extremely awkward, because I’m a dude). But I tried as hard as I could not to laugh, and focused on closing my imaginary vagina.

After about 45 minutes of awkwardness, I started to realize that activating Mula Bandha was extremely helpful. It helped to lift taller in standing poses, and jump between poses much easier. Sure, it is awkward – but necessary to learn about if you are serious about your practice. Ask your teacher about it – but be prepared for awkward giggles.

Creating Your Own Community – Just Say Hello

Yoga should bring people together. The word “yoga” means to yoke or join. So why is it that so many of us enter a class without coming together? I have a theory that we are being conditioned to be alone. Offices are built around the cubicle model, people avoid each others' gaze on the street and would rather speak to each other through machines then make real personal contact. Social media outlets like Facebook, Linked-In, and G+ can bring us together, but they can also encourage us to connect without leaving our homes and making deeper, face-to-face connections.

I used to be that person. I used to attend class at the same gym every week. I would sit in the same area of the room, near the same person. We never spoke, sometimes not even saying hello. I know that my practice spoke to me and I had so many questions and felt that I had no one to speak to. I felt very much alone. But it turns out that the person on the mat next to me was going through the same thing.

I stopped attending that class and moved on to a yoga studio further away. One day, someone who looked very familiar sat down next to me. I couldn’t place how I knew her. We said hello and began to have an ongoing dialog. One day it clicked! “I know you! Didn’t you attend that class?” Since then we have both become more committed to our practice. We are now friends. We try out different classes together, share ideas and new lessons. We have both also become teachers. I treasure our new friendship. It is so wonderful to have someone to talk to and share my practice with.

This relationship has changed my mind about what a community really is. We are not just a group of people coming together to get sweaty (although that is part of it). Taking the time to build relationships with others I take class with has made attending class so much more wonderful. I have many yoga friends now, most of them just mat neighbors with whom I share a smile. But having that relationship brings me comfort and it makes the experience better for all of us.

Life is funny- sort of a cosmic joke. We are all looking for the same things, but many of us don’t even realize it. Say hello to those on the mat next to you. Share a laugh or a smile. You will be surprised what it gives you. You’ll thank me later.