Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Supported Headstand

If you've had any kind of back trauma and are therefore scared of falling down and getting permanent spine damage (I know, I'm so dramatic) then I'm not the only one for whom going into headstand has always felt like being pushed off the Empire State Building...until now.

In the past, I've always attended classes where the teacher, about 3/4 of the way through the class pretty much says, "Okay, stand on your head!" and I would cower into a corner or have to suddenly go to the bathroom.  If the teacher caught me, I would have him or her help me to go the wall, do a few preparation poses, then when they left, find a comfy child's pose.

Core work is definitely a must for this pose.  I've always been in pretty good shape but never really worked too specifically on the muscles in my core.  (Try "Boat" pose and "Warrior I" to practice core strengthening!)  I would try to go up into a 1/2 headstand, being coached all the way, core tight, then when my mind got in the way half way through the pose, all muscles would loosen, fear set in, and I would collapse.

The other thing that I never realized was important for this pose - and every single pose as you'll begin to see throughout my posts - is shoulders on the back. There are plenty of exercises that can help build up the muscles to keep your shoulders back there where they belong.  One of my favorite and simplest exercises is to fold over into uttanasana, grab onto your elbows, and make sure the elbows are essentially behind the head. You can even rise up to standing, and fold back down, all the while trying to keep your shoulders "on the back."  Just imagine a pencil is stuck in between your shoulder blades...and try to keep it there.

If you're ready to go up, first come down onto hands and knees, measure the width of your elbows on the ground by grabbing onto each elbow, then keeping them in place while you clasp your fingers in front of you.  Please remember to tuck that bottom pinky on the inside of your folded hands, so it's in line with your other pinky - you do NOT want to put pressure on this finger! Once you've engaged your core and feel comfortable enough with your shoulders aligned properly, it's time for dolphinIf this is all you can do for now, do this about 3 times, resting in child's pose for a few breaths after each attempt.

Once in dolphin, some people "flip up" into headstand. But again, if you're a scared-y cat like me, you might want to learn a safer and stronger way to go up without fear of flipping over.  (By the way, you should be doing this a few inches away from a wall - with no paintings or windows behind you - so you still have that crutch to fall back on if you need it). Lift one leg high into the air.  Lift it even if it's not immediately in alignment so you can feel how long you'll need to stretch it to the sky.

By spiraling your thighs inward and using core muslces by pulling the perineum (yea, I said it - now you'll never forget to do it!) up into your bell, slowly lift your other leg off the ground.  KEEP THE ENERGY OF INNER SPIRAL AT ALL TIMES. Keep the perineum pulling up. Keep the core engaged and keep sending the tailbone down. Keep the heals reaching up. Now.....enjoy :) (and don't use your upper lip and jaw like I'm doing in this picture - SMILE!)

In this picture I'm almost there.  Shoulders could be on the back a bit more, I should be "inner spiraling" more and feet should be flat, as if they were pushing against the ceiling.  But you can only do so much when the camera is on a timer.

I was told that students new to headstand should not stay in the pose longer than 5 minutes.  HA!  After about 10 seconds, I feel satisfied enough to come down. :)  To come out of the post, use the same controlled method you used when you went into it.  Use that core to slowly bring either one leg or both legs down to the ground.  Rest in child's pose.

Ahhhhhh.....give yourself a namaste!

Until next pose....

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Home Practice - Finding your Intention

I used to practice Ashtanga yoga religiously.  I would practice daily and if I couldn't get in a full hour, my whole morning and sometimes whole day felt ruined.  My back hurt after a long night's sleep. I wanted to stretch. I wanted to concentrate on my breathing.  I wanted to clear my head.  I wanted to be alone. During the middle of my Ashtanga obsession, I moved to the south of France for 10 months.  I walked out of my kitchen onto a red clay slab patio.  I practiced, without a mat, daily.  I would get ornery if we had to leave early and I would miss my morning routine.  It meant everything to me.

Near the end of my trip I had a falling accident that traumatized my back.

When I came back to the U.S. I immediately started attending classes at my old studio.  Then one day, I thought my back was healed enough - and from the downward dog posture (adho mukha svanasana) I wanted to try to "jump to the top of my mat" like I used to do in the asana series.  When my hips were in mid-air, something "tweaked" in my back - then I fell to the floor.  It wasn't so much as a crash - I happened to fall quite gracefully actually.  The instructor came over to me, noticing my pained but shocked face while lying on my back, and whispered, "Are you okay?" "Yes," I said, "But I just want to lie here."  "What do you want me to do?" "Ice would be good, but if not, I just want to lie here...please don't disrupt the class." After she slowly backed up to the doorway, still cueing the rest of the students, she looked in lobby for an emergency kit of some sort and came back, still cueing the advanced yogis all around me. She knelt by me again. "I don't have any ice. What do you want me to do?"  "Please continue teaching.  I don't want to move."

At the end of the class, an ambulance was called and I was brought to the local hospital on a stretcher.  Every movement hurt.  They took x-rays but never really figured out what had happened.  Chiropractic didn't work either.  This reconfirmed my opinion that general practitioners don't always look at "the whole picture."

I stopped doing yoga for a while and, as I felt better, would intermittently find classes to satisfy my craving for feeling tip-top.  But again, another injury ensued...this time in my shoulder.  Physical therapist after general practitioner after ultra-sound specialist; more physical therapy and pain relievers, I was getting so tired of searching for answers.

Alignment-based yoga found me.

Two years later, I can't believe the poses I am able to do as a result of practicing correct alignment.  I can't believe how this practice actually reverses injuries - injuries that developed from years of doing postures incorrectly. 
So for two years I have been attending every alignment-based class I can find; trying to soak in everything I can, learning new cues, learning new adjustments.  But something wasn't the same.  In Ashtanga, we did the same asana series every time we went to class. Nothing changed.  Once you knew the series by heart, it would have an incredibly meditative afffect on you.  I knew exactly what to practice at home.
Now in classes I discover poses I never knew existed from different teachers all the time.  I feel my practice has grown exponentially.  But it's never a consistent practice.  Then how do I know what to practice at home?  I started trying to make up my own sequences but never knew if I was doing poses correctly and didn't know if my sequences made any sense.
Then one day in a workshop, one of my favorite teachers said somethign that hit me: "Home practice is so important.  You can be lead by teachers all day long but how do you know if what you're doing is exactly right for your body?"

I went home immediately that week, found a quiet place, and meditated on that thought.  Then I began my practice - will full attention.

Since I am going through all these trainings not only to better my understanding of the practice, but eventually to teach in the same style, how am I going to learn how to create my own sequences if I don't practice them myself?!?!
If I miss a practice or I don't do a full hour every morning now, I don't become the irritable person I used to be - my mind has grown stronger, my heart more patient, and I know that practicing just a few alighnment-based poses, instead of an hour, will do wonders of good. I meditate to clear my mind, then I set an intention for myself to follow throughout my practice, and I start having fun - safely.

I become enlightened anew every day in this practice.  :)


Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Student Mind

I can't say that going through school was the biggest thrill of my life. I'm sure I appreciated it.  I'm sure I liked seeing my friends and playing basketball and running track and field after class. But when thinking back, almost all of my memories in the classroom are sour ones - filled with boredom. I couldn't wait to leave. 

I remember not being able to sleep one night and looking out my bedroom window at the stars and saying almost out loud, "I can't wait to discover all of you."

I can't believe all of the things I don't know. In fact, sometimes it's so overwhelming - all of these things I want to learn - that I just stop and take a nap. Or get on my yoga mat. Or meditate. Or eat chocolate. Yea, I probably eat chocolate mostly.

I had a lot of things to do tonight. Healthcare papers to look over, music venues to book, a new piano song to play, but my body told me to stop. So I listened. That's the beauty of a yoga practice. You start to listen to cues your body and mind give you. So my body said stop. You're tired. But when I laid down my mind said: You're hungry. Hungry for knowledge. Read. Discover

For one, I love learning about yoga. I love the history. I love translating sanskrit words into postures on my mat. If open and willing ears and bodies are in reach, I love sharing what I know.  I continue to go to class weekly because I continue to be amazed at my body's progress - "I didn't know my leg could do that! I thought only dogs could do that!" Yes. I literally said this in class.  Out loud this time. 

“In many ways, I still maintain the mind of a student, which helps me in my quest to help others,” said an owner of a NY City studio who attends retreats and workshops continually while she teaches and who left a lucrative career to follow her passion for yoga. 

I think I've always maintained that student mind. There was just something about 4 walls and a chalk board that really turned me off.  When I left school I loved discovering people and new places and asking questions. I heard conversations differently.  I discovered things they never would have told you in school - maybe weren't allowed to tell you.  However the more I discover, the more I realize how much I don't know...which reminds me of a gorgeous Joni Mitchell song, "Both sides Now."  Go have a listen. I am still realizing though, more and more each day, that I can do and be and discover anything in this world. The quest, the journey is the fun part.  Sometimes I don't even know what my goal is because I allow my learning to take me places I've never dreamed of.

Today I was feeling friendly - and, well, needy - so I went to my local health food store to ask for advice. I had seen this woman there before and love seeing her contagious smile and hearing her wealth of knowledge as I eavesdrop on other customers' conversations. When ringing me up with my new products, I said, "I knew you'd have all the answers."  She replied, humbly, "Oh I don't know all the answers.  I'm still learning every day."

The world is my school and my playground. I just like making up my own rules. Namaste. 

Marseille, France

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Transition Time

"Your left ankle is directly under your left knee.  Your back toes are pushing into the earth and simultaneously pulling organic energy up through your foot, into your back ankle, up your leg and buttocks and into your core. Your right hip comes forward and your legs isometrically pull towards each other. Your back thigh lifts.  Smile.  Feel the beauty - feel the light. Now - JUMP SWITCH!"

Transitions are inevitable and you can choose to welcome them or drown in them.  As one of my amazing teachers says, "You can be a pedestrian throughout this life or you can live life to the fullest."  Transitions can be tough, because they mean change. Transition from summer to winter.  Transition to a new location. Transition with relationships. But they also welcome new opportunities.  An opportunity to clear your mind - to build something new - to set goals for yourself - to become a stronger person.

A self-taught yogi I know who is perfectly content "stretching" on his own asked, "Why spend money at a yoga class when I can just do what I know right here in my living room?" Good point. I do love getting in a good stretching session with the kitchen within reach but I tend to skip out on things. I tend to have more of a "monkey mind"at home. I don't have the opportunity of hearing the waves of breath around me.  I don't challenge my core strength enough. I don't have the benefits of partner yoga.  I even tend to skip savasana (the best part!).  I love my home practice. But I challenge myself to transition from my my mat in my room, get in the car, and learn something from a more experienced teacher with other yogis all around me.

I've realized in my years of transitions from one yoga class to another that it's not just about stretching. It's about meditating. It's about growing. It's about becoming more and more aware of what the body and mind are capable of.

My teacher also inspired me to transition to fall-colored nails. I love change!
The first time I heard "jump switch" I looked around and saw classmates perform a scissor-kick that seemed impossible with burning thighs.  But on the next command, I let my thighs burn a little more and let the energy soar through me and my back leg became my front leg....and the corners of my lips turned up into a smile.

Om namah

Monday, May 7, 2012

You Are Your Own Teacher

Namah Shivaya Gurave
I offer myself to the Light, the Auspicious One,
Who is the True Teacher within and without,
Saccidananda Murtaye
Who assumes the forms of Reality, Consciousness and Bliss,
Nisprapancaya Shantaya
Who is never absent and is full of peace,
Niralambaya Tejase
Independent in existence, the vital essence of illumination.

I love the Anusara chant, because, as a singer, it's one of my favorite melodies to sing...and in a typical Anusara class we get to sing it three times :)  But what I love most about it is that it reminds us that consciousness, the energy of the universe, the one and only teacher, is in everyone and everything. In fact, it is everyone and it is everything.

“If you know how to listen, everyone is the guru.” – Ram Dass

Ironically, the founder of Anusara has come under accusations and has stepped down from his Anusara throne because of "scandals" he's been involved with.  People loved John Friend. I've been to classes of his where students are piled on top of each other's mats because of overcrowding.  His classes were fun, spiritual, creative and heart-filled.  I learned long ago, however, that it's okay to revere someone - but not obsess over them - and to take their teachings with a grain of salt.   They're human, just like you. They make mistakes. They have imperfections.

"When the hurt disappears, the realization might just dawn that it's okay to separate the teacher from the teaching. When someone sidesteps, there's no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. That teacher inspired us because he/she brought something valuable to the world -- at least for a while. Whatever that valuable teaching/inspiration was, however long it continues to uplift and inform us, that has a value in and of itself."
Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D. from a post of hers in the Huffington Post

It's great to have a teacher or a "guru" that you admire if he or she is someone you feel comfortable with and from whom you love learning. I think it's important to have someone in your life you can go to and trust, or if they're a teacher who's not accesible to you, someone who at least you can learn from through readings, lectures and the like.  But once you take all these teachings into your home practice of yoga postures and meditation, you become your own instructor. After all - the very purpose of yoga is to unite the individual self with the divine...and to do this, as Ram Dass says, you must listen - to yourself - and everything around you.
You can always learn something from everyone you meet.  You may not agree with everything someone does or says, but it's what you take from interacting with them - what may resonate with that intuition inside of you - that makes you your own teacher.  Your own intuition is older, more wiser than intellect. When you were born, you first felt your intuition without relying on all that "learned intellect." Your intuition, especially if you cultivate it in positive ways, is almost always more reliable. If you think about it, you have the knowledge of the entire universe and the cosmos within can you not?! And what could be more reliable than that?!

"Being human is never easy. But that's the point....Hex me with all the bland management jargon in the world, zap me with all the perfect theories and models you like, but I'll never, ever accept the idea that triviality, mediocrity, and futility are appropriate goals for any human being, much less our grand, splintering systems of human organization."
Umair Haque, from a post of his in the Harvard Business Review Blog

Looking around me, listening to daily conversations of passersby, colleagues, friends, watching posts online, I wonder how many people are settling for mediocrity. I wonder how many people are fine with being told what to do instead of actively seeking out knowledge, listening to their inner purpose and letting it shine.  I know I feel much more purposeful - more like I'm contributing to the positive energy of the universe - when I make an effort to do what I love; just a little...every day. 

Not sure what your life calling is? Sit in silence and listen. Repeat the mantra, "Om mani padme hum" to yourself to quiet your mind. Be aware of your universal energy and trust it.

To sum up one of the Buddha's many tenets, every "teaching" the Buddha ever delivered was only for you to understand your own true "Buddha nature".  Every buddha that ever lived was just like you and I that had a materialistic, egotistical, dillusional outlook on life.  When the buddha  became enlightened and spoke to his disciples, it was only to remind you of the teacher already inside of you. To harness that, you have to listen more. Quiet your mind. Trust yourself.

So today start listening to yourself.  Listen to those around you. Inspire yourself and inspire the world around you. Never stop learning. You are your own teacher. 


 Photo by Ashley Daige of

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bodhicitta - Get your Givin' on

I once heard an olympic athlete say in an interview that he doesn't let a day go by without training, physically and mentally, to be the absolute best that he is humanly capable of being.

Imagine if we all thought like that? Imagine instead of waking up, rolling out of bed, feeding our pets, driving to work half asleep with a drive-through coffee cup warming our hands, staring at a computer screen for 8 hours, driving home, making dinner, sitting in front of the TV, feeding our pets, and going to bed - we changed it up a little?

It's hard for me to get up every day and do a little home practice of yoga.  My bed and tempurpedic mattress are 2 things I look forward to every night...and every morning when I hit the snooze button and snuggle into them for another 15...ok...30....okay, fine 45 minutes.  What brings me to my mat, though? The memory of how much better I feel on those days that I do yoga.  Conditioning my body and mind daily for the past several years has resulted in a pattern that is now hard to break.  And "conditioning" is the key word here.

We can condition our bodies and minds to do just about anything we tell them or show them.  On many occasions, upon hearing me speak french or italian, two languages I learned well after my adolescent years, people often remark, "I always wanted to learn another language but it's too late - I'm too old." Or when I explain to people who are constantly complaining of stiff joints, muscles and ligaments that a slow, steady practice of yoga will surely benefit them, I hear often, "Start yoga at this age? I can't even bend over! I'm not flexible - I'd be horrible at it."

We tend to do things we are used to doing - things that are part of our routine - things we are comfortable with.  And then we are bothered if this routine is interrupted.  We also think we don't have any time to do anything outside of our routine. Practicing Bodhicitta will rid you of that feeling of being "bothered" at all and might even allow you to break your old habits and integrate some new ones into your life.  To explain bodhicitta (bow-dee-chee-ta), the following quote:

"Boundless joy is the joy you should feel when you see gifted and learned beings who are happy, famous or influential. Instead of feeling uneasy and envious of their good fortune, rejoice sincerely, thinking, "May they continue to be happy and enjoy even more happiness!" Pray too that they may use their wealth and power to help others,...performing...worthwhile deeds. Rejoice and make a wish: "May they never lose all their happiness and privileges. May their happiness increase more and more, and may they use it to benefit others...."
Pray that your mind may be filled with boundless equanimity, loving-kindness, compassion and joy--as boundless as a Bodhisattva's. If you do so, genuine bodhichitta will certainly grow within you."
p.49) --from The Excellent Path to Enlightenment, by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, translated and edited by The Padmakara Translation Group, published by Snow Lion Publications

My father always said, when I felt bad or dumb for not knowing something, "You know what you know and you don't know what you don't know." Simple, eh? We're all on different paths in this life and you can't judge someone for not knowing something that you may know...because it's almost certain that they have knowledge of something that you lack. Why not create bodhicitta and reach out to share what you know, instead?

In many of the spiritual texts I have read, it states over and over that without developing bodhicitta, spiritual growth cannot be attained.  It also feels damn good to help a brotha or a sista out. :)
Didn't have a date for Valentine's Day? Spread the love! Instead of pouting like 5 million other people on this planet, be the one that helps one of those Debbie Downers feel better about being on this earth.

It is very easy to be jealous of somebody.  It is very easy to compare ourselves to others and to want something - the job, the life, the relationship - that someone else has.  It is very easy to keep things only for yourself. But what we are doing when we are focusing our energy on these types of things is just that: giving our energy away to somebody else and creating negative energy inside ourselves. 
What if we practiced sharing our knowledge and congratulating others on their positive force in the world?

Imagine if we could diminish that feeling we get when something doesn't turn out as expected.  Imagine if we were never disappointed in anyone.  There's a way to practice this.  During a time when normally you would expect your husband or your friends or your family to do something for you, turn that expectation around and beat them to it.  Instead of waiting, hoping and wishing for gifts or accolades, give to somebody instead. Give your love, give a gift, cook a meal, lend a hand.  If we ask for something we want or think we might need, this actually diminishes our boddhicitta. 

This week - try to add a little giving to your routine. Buy a coffee for somebody else.  Let somebody go ahead of you in traffic. Get up early and do a little yoga sequence for yourself (this will help others, believe me!) Smile. Say good morning...and mean it.  Condition yourself to make giving part of your daily agenda and to be the best that you are capable of being. You'll be surprised what good things will come. 
"Silhouette of Autumn" by Ashley Daige of

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Acu-High - Driver Recommended

It's been an interesting yoga year for me.  The moment I started on a new path-yogically speaking-I noticed a new sensation in my shoulder. Yea, that's what I'll call it - a sensation.  I was very aware of this shoulder sensation when I signed up for a 4-day yoga extravaganza back in June.  But I did it anyway.  I was drawn to this festival: yoga from 8-5, over 8 sessions to choose from, all day long? Yes, please.
Because of where I live, a community where most of the yoga studios teach only one specific kind of yoga, I have kind of been pigeon-holed into this certain type that is in love with "chaturangas".  Chaturanga Dandasana = Four-Limbed Staff Pose = mucho amounts of pushups.  Don't get me wrong, I love pushups and love having the lean, musculur arms that come with doing them....if they are taught properly. 

After realizing there was more to yoga postures than just practicing chaturangas, I started to really focus on my alignment. "Alignment." Huh.  I don't think I'd ever heard that word uttered in a class I'd taken up until now. I don't know much about anatomy, but it would make sense that, before you move into a challenging posture, one would want to align the body correctly so as to avoid all possibilities of injury.
As I began un-learning postures that had been engrained in my head over the past 10 years and re-learning them the correct way, the sensations in my body became more pronounced: lighter, better, but I kept coming across blockages: tightness in my elbow, kinks in my back, a stiff IT band. 

I do this stretch at night, while laying on my back, that "cracks" every vertebra as I roll my back against the floor.  When my chiropractor found a knot in my back, he asked if I was doing any kind of twist or stretch that would crack my back.  When I told him what I do and how good it feels to release that tightness he responded, "What you're doing is aligning your back in an incorrect way.  I'm releasing that tightness as well, but back into the correct alignment."

By finally practicing postures and techniques that made sense to my body, my "old" body was saying, "Wait a minute....I'm stuck!" So what do I do now?

Weeks of physical therapy helped to strengthen, but didn't seem to get at the root of the problem. Massage is a quick fix but it seems to revert back to the same old problems once I start exercising and posturing. What's next?! Do I have to spring for an MRI?  I play the mandolin and I have shows coming up! I can't afford surgery!!!  Hmmm....something to remove the blockages....

Acupuncture.  And when you need needles stuck in you at an affordable price, where do you go? Portsmouth Community Acupuncture, where you can lay comfortably in an armchair with a man snoring in another one right by your side. Ahhhhhh.

I told the acupuncturist about my three main problem areas. She listened intently as she mulled over in her mind where she was going to place the little needles into my flesh like a voodoo doll. When I finally made it over to the big plush armchair, she started by placing the first needle on my collar bone, then moved to the muscle right above my collar bone, my sternum, forearms, hands, calves, feet, and even forehead and hairline. When she left the room I felt the effects immediately.  There was a liquidy-feeling to my arm. Then it turned hot. Then seemed to go numb. Then it was heavy.  I felt the sensation radiate to my left foot - somehow it seemed to relate. I moved my head slightly at one point to adjust myself.  My deltoid muscle throbbed.  "Wow," I qi (chee) is doing some funky shit."

I lay for the next hour reciting "om mani pad mi hum", to myself, which was interrupted by a few passing thoughts and muscles twitches.

To explain the new sensation I felt after being pin-pricked, I'll compare it to what i know best:  After a steady, flowing yoga class, and a nice, relaxing savasana, you feel a "yogi-high" and walk around smiling with a feeling of bliss all day...or, at least until you leave the studio :)

This was different.  I felt foggier, but still light. Things had shifted. Emotions had been released. Physical sensations were apparant. Certain limbs actually felt stiffer, then, when I moved them, lighter. I chatted with Emily for a while about next steps, how long it would take to feel results, etc. What she didn't mention, however, was that I should have called for a driver. 

I decided to take a ride out to the outlets, since I was already out and about, as I had heard about a mega coat sale.  Now I've lived in this area for over ten years.  I know the streets like the back of my hand. The outlets are less than ten minutes away from where my car was parked.  I left the parking lot, then took four wrong turns before I finally made it to the outlet which ended up being closed. Four wrong turns - as if I was a complete stranger to the neighborhood and was reading directions upside-down off a scrap paper in the dark.  My mind seemed to shut off and my body was just floating around in the ethers of Acu-land. I was so glad the store was closed.  I was a danger to the roads, and I probably would have tried to buy more than I needed. 

I went home, made a quick dinner, and relaxed for the rest of the night.  I looked up: "Acupuncture: What you need to know after a treatment."
I related particularly to this statement: "Some may notice their body was floating, as if they were weightless, or on the contrary, they felt heavy, as if their body was sinking into the bed," and was glad to know that a little cloudiness was normal after reading that "Some patients would become more emotionally sensitive for a short period of time. One could cry for no reason; grief for something that happened long ago; can't tolerate other people."  Feeling bitchy at work? No problem. Just tell your colleagues you've come from acupuncture. They'll understand.

I've already made a second appointment for next week. My qi is ready.