the most important yoga pose.

sitting

An organizer and lesson-planner at heart (and by degree) I try to be 110% prepared for each class I teach. My notes are illegible to anyone else– lots of arrows and stick figures and Sanskrit abbreviations– the usual. But lately, well.. my lesson planning book has been 110% BLANK.

It’s not like I haven’t been thinking about yoga all the time: I completely immersed myself for 5 days by studying with my teacher in Philadelphia and you know, that whole owning a yoga studio thing. But somehow last week, I found myself showing up at Westport Yoga KC with a blank lesson book. <awkwardly-embarrassed-grimace>

Here’s what you missed:

Me: Uhhhmmm… lis? Are you kidding me? What the heck are you teaching today? You don’t have a flow sequence and detailed lesson plan?!? What have you been doing all day?

Me:  Yeah, I know… don’t rub it in. I’ve been working all day.

Me: Great… but still?!? What are you going to teach today?

Me: Calm down, lady. I know Yoga. I know breath. I know meditation. I know how to connect with my Divine Light. That’s what I’m going to teach.

Because what I did I need to remember? YOGA is in the mind. It’s not in the super cool arm balances and super-amazingly-detailed sequence leading to a brilliant peak pose break through. Yoga doesn’t care how well I am prepared to teach some poses in a certain order. The poses are just some ways to PRACTICE my yoga, so that when I show up for life, sometimes unprepared, I still respond with compassion toward myself and toward others.

I’ve found repeatedly, that the most important yoga pose, of all time, is just sitting and getting prepared to approach all the chaos within myself with a sense of grace and compassion. The most important yoga pose is sitting still long enough to be present, to feel yoga.

It’s freaking difficult. It requires so much vulnerability. It requires so much forgiveness. It requires so much tenacity and so much courage. But, I promise you: it’s so worth it. Because you’ll learn to love the choas within and the choas without.

As Swami Rama reminds us:

Yoga teaches you what no one else can, how to love yourself.

If sitting still (quietly) is torture for you, try some of my Guided Audio Meditations (which I even listen to when my mind is going nuts!)

Here’s a good one: “Sat Nam”

And more can be found on my guided meditation page

Go sit outside… take a deep breath… get prepared.

seated

-lisa

how to practice daily.

standasana modified

It’s time to make your own tradition. Something that YOU, here and now, can establish to bring you closer to enlightenment. Or at least make your day a little easier.

Sometimes, I feel like ‘doing yoga’ (aka, practicing weird and challenging asana poses that an Indian guy conjured up a few hundred years ago or that a random yoga teacher put on YouTube yesterday) is like eating caramel ribbon brownies and homemade ice cream every day.  It sounds like a good idea, until you do it every day.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love moving my body with my breath and finding a moment of complete flow with life, but sometimes I just want to sit down do nothing but watch robins hop around in my backyard. (Or more accurately, I want to sit with Russell Clive on the couch and watch The Office on Netflix.)

A few students reached out to me recently and asked for help structuring their yoga classes into their week and figuring out an attendance routine that works for them. (You can read my post here about how to stay accountable and make time for yoga.)  Unfortunately, their requests started off with apologetic/delirious guilt-talk:  They were feeling guilty and not like a ‘real yogi’ because they couldn’t practice the Ashtanga Primary Series every day because they had kids’ karate lessons to attend, low backs that felt pain after three consecutive days of practicing, animal shelter benefits to run, ailing parents to take care of, or generally had any semblance of a life outside of a yoga studio. (I think this life exists… I’m not sure, though. Actually, I was just at the airport and I noticed everyone wearing yoga pants except for the TSA agents. So maybe everyone does spend their entire day running between yoga classes. All signs point to yes.)

And then they had other questions about how to schedule their yoga practice: What if they just wanted to do something different???  What about a hard-core sweaty Vinyasa class?  What about a deep stretch yin yoga class?  What about a relaxing restorative yoga class?  What about a yoga sleeping-laughing-toad catching- metal forging-class set to a Pearl Jam soundtrack? Choices: endless.

So my advice?  Find something to do every single day that makes you HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY! (That’s three times, so you know it’s important.)

Tradition are great; they are evidence that some person, somewhere, at some time, made up a routine of doing something and found enlightenment. Or at least found their day to be easier.

Traditionally, yes, maybe the original Ashtanga Yogi’s practiced the Primary Series at 4:30 am 6 days a week and then took Saturdays off.  Traditionally, the original Ashtangi’s didn’t have 3 kids in elementary school, two fluffy dogs that never stopped shedding, an SUV that needed maintenance, Facebook accounts to keep updated, and a fulfilling career.  Traditionally, the original Ashtangi’s didn’t fly to work Monday through Thursday in Toledo and then jet back to KCMO for Friday Night Buck Night at the Royal’s with their grandkids.  So maybe their tradition isn’t very useful to you, to your low back, or to your happiness quotient.

It’s time to make your own tradition. Something that YOU, here and now, can establish to bring you closer to enlightenment. Or at least make your day a little easier.

Remember, yoga isn’t exercise.  Yoga is a study and a science of calming the mind waves in order to achieve freedom from our habits, our un-checked assumptions, and our fears.  It’s a calculated system of ethical living, breathing, attention, concentration, moving and meditation that just  makes your life happier. (There are a bajillion physical healing benefits to the poses as well: lowering blood pressure, healing nerve issues, strengthening bones and alleviating pain of all types, but that’s a different topic for a different day.)  So, whatever yoga you choose: Practice in a way that you can practice tomorrow and the next day and the next day.

wider for bc

So, whatever yoga you choose: Practice in a way that you can practice tomorrow and the next day and the next day.

Practice asana gently to avoid intentional suffering  and do something that makes you feel happy.  Yesterday, my yoga was an hour spent weeding my neighborhood organic garden plot.  (Happy and dirty!)  Today, it was one hour of Ashtanga Second Series with fifteen minutes of pranayama followed by a walk with my Russell Clive through the Kansas City Rose Garden. (Happy and sunkissed!) Tomorrow, it may be two hours of sweaty asana practice at Maya Yoga followed by mindfully cleaning my kitchen. (Happy and clean!)  The next day it may be ten minutes of breath meditation before I teach followed by a road-trip to St. Louis during which I say hello to every cow we drive past and delight in the robust green of Midwest Spring.  Maybe I’ll get out of the car and ‘yoga-stretch’ at Quick Trip, but whatever, the point is: Your Yoga can be ANYTHING.  On the mat, off the mat, in the morning, in the evening, in your body or in your head.  Anything that brings you into mindful, present-moment, wonderful awareness and draws you to a place of stillness where you practice compassion and self-care is YOGA.

So, please do this every day.  You will feel happy, happy, happy!

(And, please, come to my classes. That too. You should definitely come to my classes.  As often as you can. You’ll be happy, trust me.)

Happy Practicing,

-lisa

surrendering into a pose.

Image

2013-10-29 18.00.43

Autumn leaves in Kansas City, Missouri

“Oh Autumn leaf, be still and yield

When the wind wants to take you away.

Do not resist, be a player in the game.

Surrender to the dancing changes.

Let yourself be broken, seized

And blown to your next home.”

– H. Hesse

‘Surrendering’ is one of the most elusive aspects of a yoga asana practice.  Teachers always say things like “Follow your breath… surrender to the pose” or “Let go of the tension in your hips…let yourself surrender”.  And I think: ‘Sure. Good idea. I’m breathing, and I’m trying to surrender to this pose, but my right hip is frozen like cement.  And also screaming so loudly that dogs are barking down the street”.  

I’d been working on the mother of all hip-openers: Eka Pada Sirsasna (also known as Good-Lord-why-is-her-leg-behind-her-head?-pose) diligently for almost one year, coaxing my right hip open after years of running and dancing related injuries.  So many days I struggled to find the discipline to practice. So many mornings I wanted to cozy up on my couch and read books or hang out in my kitchen and bake treats.  And so many mornings, I glanced at my ‘Resolve’ frame (where I write my monthly Resolutions, check it out here) and reluctantly dragged myself out the door and into the practice room.  And every day was different.  Sometimes my hips felt supple and sometimes I felt like the Tin Man. Sometimes I found myself dreading the Ashtanga Second Series postures of One-Leg-Behind-the-Head (there are a few of them…) and frustration crept in.  I added a few wrinkles to my forehead trying to yank those ankles behind my neck. (Lame. I’m too young for anything but smile-wrinkles!)

The left leg?  Easy.  The right leg?  A joke.  On an especially balmy day I kept my right leg behind my head for 4 postures in a row (ha! breakthrough! success!) and then the next day I could barely walk, let alone practice asana with ease.  This is lame, I thought. and I gave up.

Literally.  Gave Up.  I watched a few online yoga videos, looked at some Instagram photos of my friends with their legs behind their head, decided that wasn’t going to be me for a decade…and gave up. I stopped being attached to the results.  Basically, I stopped trying to achieve and I started doing yoga.

photo (4)

i learned this! summer goal accomplished!

Finally, I experienced a breakthrough in July.  It worked!  It stayed!  I was so excited that I’d learned this new pose and met my summer goal that I shared it on social media.

And then I went on a epic journey to Peru (Peru travel-asana pictures can be found here) and I came home and jumped on my mat, feeling rested and excited, and… my hips were frozen in place.  My ego took a huge hit.  Then, slowly, patiently, my ankles tucked behind my head.  On a good day I would be able to find the full expression of this pose, at the expense of my shoulder and poor little neck.  Not yoga.  Just ego and effort, apparently.

So again, I gave up.  I began to surrender.  I read this poem by Herman Hesse and decided I could yield to the changing winds and the energy of the moment, adopting the philosophy of the autumn leaves now adorning my front porch.

“Oh Autumn leaf, be still and yield

When the wind wants to take you away.

Do not resist, be a player in the game.

Surrender to the dancing changes.

Let yourself be broken, seized

And blown to your next home.”

– H. Hesse

 

photo (1)

yeah, that’s the left leg… but you get the idea

And, unsurprisingly, surrendering worked.  Letting go of my attachment to the result of my practice (which is the phrase from the Bhagavad Gita that I’ve been teaching in my classes recently) actually worked.  Surrendering is possible when my face is soft, my ego is checked, and my body is concentrating on breathing rather than moving.  (Practice what you preach, right?)

I mean, it’s not perfect, and I’ll probably be confronted with the same lesson again in a few months. But it’s getting there.

Most importantly, I learned to surrender: I realized I was gripping my perception of ‘success’ so tightly that my muscles could never surrender and let go.  It’s a humbling question to ask yourself:

What can you surrender?

2 lessons yoga has taught me.

2 lessons yoga has taught me.

A few months ago, my dear friend and yoga student Stina Hergott blasted a post on her Pink Moon KC Blog called “10 lessons My Bike Has Taught Me.”  It got me thinking.  And thinking.  And thinking: could I narrow my list of ‘lessons that yoga has taught me’ to a list of 10?

Well. As it turns out, I can synthesize my list to two.

  1. There is only today.
  2. There is always tomorrow.
2013-09-23 19.52.13-2

photo cred Saunders Fine Arts

 

1. There is only today.  Yoga is not a hobby or an activity.  Yoga is a practice.  Which means every time I practice yoga, it’s a practice of learning to be actively engaged in the present moment.  The present moment may be super enjoyable.  It may be slightly uncomfortable.  It is the only moment I have.

Yoga is a meditation on the Spirit that is found within the breath.  I can’t breathe into the future and I can’t breathe in the past.  Which means I shouldn’t let my mind live in the future and I shouldn’t let my mind live in the past.  Which means: there is now.  And there is today.  And if I desire patience, I practice that today.  And if I desire compassion, I practice that today.  And if I desire to be filled with God-light, to spread forgiveness, to find moments of hidden healing joy everywhere I look, I practice today.  When my shoulder was injured last fall, my daily Ashtanga practice was often excruciating.  (As was opening my car door, taking my Russell for a walk, and holding my coffee mug…ugh, much better now, thank you.)  So I challenged myself to ask this question when I was practicing:  “What if this were my last opportunity to take Downward Facing Dog Pose?  If that were the case, how would I want it to feel?  How would I want to enjoy it?”  Turns out: I would want to SAVOR it.  Yoga taught me that there is only today.  And today is to be savored. 

2. There is always tomorrow.  I like to accomplish things.  (Some might call me an over-achiever, yes, you, Mimi.)  Yoga taught me that it’s ok not to be perfect today.  I can attempt a pose (such as Royal Pigeon, which was my New Year’s Resolution in 2008 and I still can’t do!) and not freak out that I can’t do it.  I can’t take the full expression of this pose, YET.  Yet being the key word here, because there is always tomorrow.  I can get back on my mat tomorrow, even if I am sore, or tired, or cranky and: I can try again.  My all-time favorite Yoga Inspiration comes from Rolf Gates’ book Meditations from the Mat and it says this:

“We show up, we live passionately, we burn brightly in the moment, and when the moment is over, when our work is done, we step back and let go.”

Yoga taught me that life doesn’t require perfection, it simply requires me to savor the present moment and do my personal best… then let go of the results.  This lesson, more than anything else I’ve learned from practicing and teaching yoga, has had the greatest impact on my experience with the world and my often-anxious mind.  It has offered me peace of mind, it has calmed my anxiety, and it has truly healed my body and my heart. 

2013-09-23 19.49.21-2

photo cred Saunders Fine Arts

 

 

There is only today.  There is always tomorrow. 

What lessons has your yoga practice taught you? Please, share with me.  I would love to hear your answer.

-lisa

‘downward facing dog’ reduces diabetes?

So here’s good news: we all know that weight bearing exercise supports bone density and reduces body fat (stronger! leaner! yeah!) but finally researchers are counting strength-based yoga poses as ‘resistance training.’  A newly released study involving women aged 30-50 found that the women who routinely exercised– even doing non-aerobic activities like yoga– reduced the risk of diabetes.

A recap of the Harvard study can be found on NPR Health Shots.  It says that “for each 60 minutes of activity in a week, the women reduced their risk of diabetes by about 14 percent… Women who did muscle-strengthening and conditioning exercise more than 150 minutes a week lowered their diabetes risk by 40 percent.

And Downward Facing Dog counts!  That’s super good news for those of you who detest running and aren’t coordinated enough to bike for more than a few minutes. Aerobic activity is awesome for your cardiovascular health (Sun Salutations totally count– check out this video by Kino MacGregor for great instruction), but rest assured that the work you do in yoga class is contributing to your physical health on a level that you can’t always see and feel.

Celebrate your health!  Do some down dogs!

dd

photo courtesy of yogajournal.com

~lisa