My Aura Embraces Your Aura

Head wrap and ear plugs at the ready!

Head wrap and ear plugs at the ready!

I’m anxious. Fidgety, clutched and giggly. In a tizzy.

This is not the state-of-mind one would associate with a yoga teacher. Yet it happens.

Anxiety happens. Because anything could happen. And isn’t it the fear and anticipation of the unknown that trips us up? Starts the spiral and spins the story? But the unknown is just that – unknown. So what’s the problem? It’s all good. As my grandmother may have joked, “Isch ga bibble!”

Yet if I had fingernails, they’d be chewed to the quick. Because my life is going to change this year.

That’s the one thing we can count on. Change. Change is constant. Each moment is new. Some moments of change, however, are more profound than others. And the anxiety and anticipation I’m experiencing is a mix of fear, joy and impending adventure.

It’s as if I’m an audience of one, waiting for the curtain to be drawn back (and hoping that I overcome my aversion to hugs and sharing circles).

On Tuesday I begin two years of study at Sofia University. In March I begin teaching at Samyama Yoga Center. Yes, I’ve mentioned my admission to Sofia and the building of Samyama in previous posts. They are small things in the course of human events. Very big things in the course of this small life.

So how am I handling the anxiety? How do you think?

Yoga. Yoga. Yoga. Breathing. Yoga. Meditating. Yoga. With a few sandbags and head wraps thrown in for good measure.

More specifically:

  • A strong Yang practice featuring plenty of Flying Dragons to burn off the fidgets.
  • A soft Yin practice to open and release.
  • Restorative work featuring the placement of a sandbag on my forehead (yes, seriously).
  • Meditation featuring head wraps and earplugs (yes, seriously).

And finally, embracing this time of deep change and new beginnings with a living, ‘off-the-mat, into-the-world’ daily practice – a practice that will melt rigid trepidation.  A practice that will encourage blissful surrender to the unfamiliar journey I’m beginning.

As for my aversion to hugs and sharing circles? Well, that’s something for me to work on. In the meantime, Samyama’s owner John Berg offered this advice at our last staff meeting, “If someone goes in for the hug, just tell them ‘my aura is embracing your aura’. Works every time.”

And it does.

 


Let’s Talk About Yin. Yes, again.

English: Tension lines of the human skin. They...

English: Tension lines of the human skin. They follow the main fibres of the connective tissue of skin.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about anatomy, too. And whether or not a yoga teacher needs to study anatomy and physiology…

I was having coffee last week with Anirudh Shastri and John Berg. Both are much admired and deeply loved teachers in the Bay Area. In January John’s dream will be a reality when Samyama opens its doors in Midtown Palo Alto. I am so proud John found me and asked me to teach at Samyama. I’m proud to be part of a faculty that includes – besides John and Shastri – Louis Jackson, Annika Williams, Hilary Easom, Amy Rogg, Clive Beavis and Lindsey Amrein. We are not only a team of teachers but a family. We meet regularly and support each others’ practice and teachings as strongly as we hold our vision of Samyama. We all chose different paths and somehow still managed to arrive at the same place. How wonderful is that? Eight individuals. Amazing journeys. Same vision. Different stories.

Here’s my story about why I believe the study of anatomy is important for any yoga teacher:

I didn’t go to medical school. I attended massage school. It was a good school and the anatomy was fast, furious and hard taught. I learned the names of the muscles and the names of the bones. I learned the origins and attachments. I looked at fake plastic skeletons and the living limbs of my bodywork clients and my yoga students. But until I saw these photographs I didn’t know. Until I studied with this couple and then this man I didn’t know. I didn’t know that for fifteen years I was teaching an alignment-focused style of yoga and assumed my students’ inability to move deeply into any particular posture was the fault of a ‘tight’ muscle. I never considered the important contribution bones and connective tissue make toward how we move and how we feel. How we experience asana.

It seems obvious. It feels like it is something I should have known all along. But I didn’t. It’s my continued study of anatomy that has provided an insight I didn’t have when I began teaching.

One of my responsibilities as a yoga teacher – particularly a teacher who loves introducing beginning students to the profound joy of an asana practice – is to keep you safe. Knowing the difference between a femur and a tibia helps me do that. Describing the sacroiliac joint and understanding fascia helps me do that. No, my classes are not a lesson in human anatomy. But sometimes it’s more efficient – more precise – to name a muscle in the body rather than indicate an area on the body.

In-depth study of anatomy has changed my teaching. I will agree – it’s not for everyone. But it turned me from an alignment-centric cookie cutter teacher into one who focuses less on the aesthetics of alignment and more on helping each student have their own, ever-changing, safe, unique life-affirming asana experience.

Shastri was about halfway through his coffee and John had probably finished his tea when the discussion turned to Yin and connective tissue.

Yin – like any style of yoga – can provide something different depending on what time of the day you practice and what your intention is for your practice.

Yin Yoga shifts our awareness away from yang’s contracting strength and power to soft and melting expansion. Contraction and expansion are neither positive nor negative. They are states our body experiences as we move through life. Yin Yoga restores but should not be considered the style of yoga we call Restorative. Yin Yoga is challenging but many of the challenges differ from the ones we find in classic Hatha Yoga.

Physiologically, Yin Yoga stresses connective tissue. These tissues include fascia, tendon, ligament and bone. Because we hold yin poses for time, the practice also offers a deep release to the nervous system. It feels intuitively wrong to consider stressing our joints, but done with right intention the practice results in greater stability and fluid flexibility. Consider this – we don’t correct crooked teeth (yin tissue) with a blow from a hammer. We use orthodontia – a long, slow and sometimes uncomfortable technique that realigns and corrects. That is Yin Yoga in a nutshell.

When I take yin in the morning my muscles are cool. They’ve not woken up. They’re at their shortest. This is the time when my yin focus is less on the benefits to the nervous system and more on the gifts to the connective tissue. My cold muscles won’t “steal” the stretch away from the connective tissue. The stretch/stress is not diluted by muscles that are warm enough to accept a deep fold or twist. The practice is more challenging to me in the morning because my body is cool and my ego is bruised. In the morning I cannot sink into the same deep and calming positions I can explore with an evening yin practice. The morning yin practice is sometimes frustrating but teaches acceptance and mindfulness. And it reminds us not only to be humble in our practice but to have a sense of humor.

But Yin Yoga is not all about the connective tissue.

When I practice Yin Yoga in the evening my intention shifts from the effects on the body to those on the spirit. In the evening our muscles, warm from a day full of movement and work, will absorb some of the effort saved for the connective tissue in the morning. But experiencing yin’s long-held poses in the evening calms the mind and prepares the body for sleep. Many of my students have told me the evenings they attend class are the evenings they know they’ll have the week’s best nights sleep.

Yin is a style of yoga that nurtures balance. For the yogi whose practice emphasizes power, strength and endurance Yin Yoga may feel too slow or too easy. With time and an open mind, however, even the most ardent Bikram devotee’ will recognize the grace, challenge and benefits of Yin’s quiet beauty.

As for me, I need both. I love a strong, contracting Yang practice just as deeply as I love a cool, quiet and expansive evening of Yin. That’s what balance is all about.


How the Faux-Grinch Made Christmas All Her Own

yogaI’m not really a Grinch. I’m just one of those folks who love winter not for the shiny tinsel but because their’s nothing quite as cozy as a cold winter day burrowed under the blankets with a few good books and a hot toddy.

Too much burrowing, however, does not a festive yogi make.

This year I’ve decided to celebrate the season doing what I love. Yoga.

And I hope you’ll join me. Over the holidays I’ll be teaching these four classes at the California Yoga Center:

Monday 24 December – Christmas Eve

7:00 – 8:30’ish PM (please note earlier start time)

Yin Yoga

Donation Based

Tuesday 25 December – Christmas Day

9:00 – 10:30 AM (please note extra half hour)

Hatha Flow

$18 drop-in

Monday 31 December – New Year’s Eve

7:00 – 8:30’ish PM (please note earlier start time)

Yin Yoga

Donation Based

Tuesday 1 January – New Year’s Day

9:00 – 10:30 AM (please note extra half hour)

Hatha Flow

$18 drop-in

CYC Students – Please note the time change on the Yin Yoga class.  We’ll be starting at 7:00 and NOT 7:30.  Also note the extra half hour added to the morning classes.  

I think we deserve a longer savasana on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  Don’t you?


Start Where You Are – Building a Home Practice, One Step at a Time

You might think you have no time for yoga outside of your once-a-week studio class.  Think again.  I’ve broken down your yoga practice into three sections – “Wake Up”, “Focus” and “Relax.” The sections correspond to morning, mid-day and evening.  Each should take no more than five to ten minutes.  You don’t have to do every pose listed in the section – choose what resonates and what you have time for.  Choose what feels good.  Stop if it feels bad.  Don’t rush.

These routines are very, very simple and exclude classic standing asanas (we’ll save that for later).  Still, it’s  not for someone brand new to yoga.  You should have enough beginning experience to be familiar with the movements.  Take your time and take care.  And remember to breathe.

Equipment:  Yoga mat, bolster or a firmly rolled blanket, a strap.  Anything else you may need for support.

“Wake Up – The Morning Routine”

 Begin Supine on Floor

Pelvic Rolls:  Inhale the tailbone toward floor; exhale the tailbone toward the ceiling.  You can add arm movements after the fourth or fifth cycle simple by taking the arms up and back on the inhale and bringing them down by your side on the exhale.

Knees to Chest: Alternate one knee at a time, extending the opposite leg.  Hold for several breaths and switch sides two or three times.

Windshield Wipers: Knees are bent and the feet about hip distance apart.  Drop the legs gently from one side to another.

Both Knees to Chest:  Hold the knees toward your chest for a few breaths and then allow the knees to move with the breath.  You’ll find they move away as you breath in.  You can tuck them tighter on the out breath.

Supported Bridge:

  • Place the bolster under the hips – keep the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor
  • Stay in supported bridge for a few breaths
  • Extend the legs along the floor and take the arms behind you if it’s comfortable – if this bothers your lower back return to supported bridge
  • Extend the legs toward the ceiling for a bit of an inversion
  • Bring one foot down at a time

Reclining Twist:

  • Cross the right knee over the left knee
  • Shift your hips to the right a few inches
  • Drop your knees to the left
  • Allow the right shoulder to drift toward the floor
  • Repeat on the other side

Table Top/Hands and Knees

Cat/Cow:  On the in breath lift the tail bone and face; on the out breath tuck the chin and the tailbone.

Downward Facing Dog:

  • Come to table top
  • Walk the hands a hand length forward and take them about shoulder width apart
  • Tuck your toes
  • Inhale the hips up
  • Exhale the heels down toward the mat
  • After five breaths step forward to a standing forward bend and then curl up slowly to a standing position

 Finish with any standing stretches that feel right – your body will know what to do. And then standing breath awareness.  I love “pancaking” both hands over my heart to feel the beat of my heart and the warm of my hands meeting one another.

“Focus for the Afternoon”

We begin seated in a chair

Neck Stretches: Move slowlyand hold each position for several breaths.  ‘Tease’ the stretch a bit to find what I like to call the ‘sweet spot’.

  • Right ear to right shoulder
  • Right ear toward right shoulder blade
  • Right ear toward right armpit
  • Repeat on left side

Chin to chest:  Allow the chin to drop to stretch the back of the neck.  Don’t force the position.

Shoulder Shrug:  Shrug shoulders to earlobes and hold (but don’t forget to breath); count three and then drop the shoulders.  Repeat three or four times.

For Your Ankles and Feet:

  • Cross the right knee over the left
  • Circle  the ankle ten times in each direction
  • Point and flex the foot three or four times
  • Repeat on the left side

Piriformis Stretch:

  • Cross right ankle over left knee
  • Sit close to the edge of the chair
  • Hinge gently from the hip
  • The sensation should be in right hip
  • Repeat on left side

Seated Back Bend:

  • With your hips toward the edge of the chair place your hands on the seat of the chair behind the hips
  • Lift through the sternum
  • Think less about bending the lower back and more about opening the front of the body

Seated Twist:

  • Place your right hand on the left leg, left hand behind left hip, twisting to your left on the exhalation.
  • Breath in – lengthen the torso.
  • Exhale and settle into the twist.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Seated Forward Fold:

  • Sit toward the edge of the chair with your feet wide
  • Allow the spine to round forward until your upper torso is folded forward between your thighs
  • Hold for a few breaths and then inhale and curl up slowly

Standing

Standing Stretch with Flat Back:  Use the edge of your desk or the wall.  Stand about three feet away and hinge at the hips.  Let your hands rest on the desk, arms extended and legs perpendicular to the floor.

  • Bend right knee and drop right hip for stretch in left hip
  • Bend left knee and drop left hip for stretch in right hip

A standing stretch with a flat back is a great stretch for any time of day, anywhere. It’s particularly good if you’ve been standing all day – it brings a lightness to the feet and legs.

Wall Stretch:

  • Keep right foot about twelve inches from desk
  • Step left foot back about three feet
  • Hinge at hips, keeping hips level.
  • Allow your hands to rest on the desk or a wall for stability

With the right foot forward this will wake up the right hamstring and left calf.

Repeat on left side.

Shoulders:

  • Standing with feet hip distance and the arms by your side, turn the palms out and inhale the arms up.  Extend the fingers toward the ceiling and, if it’s comfortable for your neck, look up between the hands.
  • Turn the palms out and exhale the arms by your side.
  • Repeat three to five times.

Ideally the Focus practice ends with 5-minutes of seated meditation,

quiet reflection or breath awareness.

“Relax Yourself to Sleep”

 Seated on Floor in Easy Cross Legs

Seated Spine Stretch*:

  • Sit in easy cross legs with your hands on your knees.
  • Inhale – lift the chest toward the ceiling.
  • Exhale – hollow out the front of the body and round the spine to stretch between the shoulder blades
  • Inhale – lift the chest toward the ceiling
  • Exhale – fold forward

You can do this for as many cycles as you wish. I suggest beginning with at least three.

Seated Twist*:

  • Bring the right hand to the left knee
  • Place the left hand behind the left hip
  • Inhale – lengthen the torso
  • Exhale – twist to the left

Take a few breaths to move into your full expression of the pose and then settle into the twist for a bit. Avoid “cranking” into the twist by using your arm strength to pull the torso.  Repeat on the other side.

Lateral Stretch*:

  • Place the right hand on the floor next to the hip and then walk the fingers out until you begin to lean to the right.
  • You’ll notice the left hip is lifting from the floor.
  • Inhale – Bring the left arm up and over until it’s arching over the head.
  • Exhale – Press through the heel of the right hand in order to encourage the left hip to move toward the floor
  • Repeat on other side.

Forward Fold:

  • We want this to be as gentle as possible as this practice is supposed to a “winding down from the day” practice.
  • Sit with your legs in front of you, feet and knees slightly apart
  • Place the bolster underneath the knees
  • Round the torso forward
  • If you need to, use your hands to help support the torso but know that this forward fold is heavy and relaxed as opposed to a forced struggle.  Make it as gentle as possible and just trust that the spine is going to become more and more giving with each practice.

Supine on Floor

 Alternate the Knees in the Chest – just like you do in the morning practice

Hamstring/Hip Stretch– TAKE YOUR TIME WITH THIS!

  • Place a strap at the ball of the right foot.
  • Extend the leg toward the ceiling, opening the back of the knee and stretching through the heel.
  • Extend the left leg along the floor.  Stretch through the heel and point the toes toward the ceiling.
  • Take the strap in the right hand and drop the leg out to the right, rotating from the hip so the toes of the right foot point toward the floor.
  • Continue to work the foot toward the head to stretch the inner thigh.
  • Bring the leg back up and take the strap into the left hand.
  • Drop the leg a few inches toward the left to stretch the outside of the thigh.
  • Repeat with the left leg.

Knees to Chest and Windshield Wiper

Rest quietly in Savasana for ten minutes.

I need to thank teacher Kelly McGonigal for the Seated Spine Stretch, Seated Twist and Lateral Stretch in the “Relax Yourself to Sleep” section.  I first learned those movements from her at Avalon Yoga Center in Palo Alto, California.


The Healing Power of Yoga. Any Yoga.

I taught my first Yin Basics Workshop yesterday at the California Yoga Center, my home studio.  One hour of theory followed by an hour of practice.  Nine beautiful yogis joined me.

Teaching a workshop requires a different skill set to teaching a class.  I felt challenged by the task of explaining the theory and practice of Yin in sixty minutes and then further challenged by the questions raised by students coupled with my self-doubt.

It was a great afternoon.

And yet, this morning I’m convinced that despite the training I’ve completed, the workshops I’ve attended and the books I’ve read I really know nothing about Yoga.  After thirty years of practice, my knowledge only scratches the surface of everything there is to know about how Yoga affects the body on a spiritual and cellular level.

It was a wake-up call.

Meanwhile, labels are beginning to irk me.  I’m beginning to get the feeling that we’re all making it up as we go along.

During our workshop the question that is always asked was asked yet again:  What is the difference between Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga?  I tried to answer by explaining my experience with the restorative class I attended two weeks ago (read about it here).  The student asking the question – who is a yogi for whom I have great admiration – replied:  “That wasn’t restorative.  In my restorative classes we do eight to ten poses in an hour and hold them like we’re holding them today.”

And yet, at the end of my Restorative Yoga experience two weeks ago, I felt restored.  So who’s to say it wasn’t restorative yoga?  And maybe what she’s calling Restorative is really Yin?  And does it really, really matter?

The truth is I want to feel restored at the end of any yoga practice.  I want to feel connected.  Grounded.  Free of doubt and fear.  I want to feel my blood moving and warm, living muscle tissue.  I want to experience an ease of movement in my body, my spirit and my soul – as though I’ve come home to something I longed for.

That’s how yoga heals.