Whoa! Such a slacker!

ImageI was so convinced that this year was going to be different….It seems like every year around the holidays my will is sorely tested. My will to eat healthy….my will to maintain a daily yoga practice…But, alas, I’ve fallen off the wagon. All of the wagons.

And my wee little blog hasn’t seen the light of day in a while either…

Since I haven’t been to a proper studio yoga class in an entire week, I’ve been trying to make do with some home practice. Thank goodness for Shiva Rea. She was my first and favorite home practice yoga instructor (well, I guess technically it was Rodney Yee, but once I got Shiva Rea’s Yoga Shakti, it was all over. Can we say matrix? Yes we can!) I hung out with Shiva yesterday and  rocked a few flows on her Daily Energy DVD. Good stuff.

 Image

Home practice aside, I had intended to head to the studio today but instead got waylaid with plans for a teeny tiny New Year’s Eve party with family and a few friends. Confession: I hate cooking. For some reason, despite this flaw, I LOVE hosting a small party with appetizers at least once a year. I like challenging my culinary skills, trying new recipes, presenting the finished product, hosting…I’m looking forward to this year’s shindig.

As much as I’m anticipating a fun New Year’s Eve, this ol’ gal is looking even more forward to returning to a more disciplined January. More yoga, less sugar.

I’m willing to bet I’m going to be missing in action for a few more days, so until then, Happy New Year! I hope this upcoming year is wonderful and fulfilling for us all.

I’m doing yoga in my dreams

alarm clocks kill dreams

I’d like to stay dreaming just a little longer…

I’ve suffered from insomnia for as long as I can remember. Not the kind where I can’t fall asleep, but it seems that I can’t STAY asleep. I’ve gone through periods of months where I’ve woken up every night at 2 a.m., finally falling asleep just in time for my alarm to go off. To further compound this problem, I’m a ridiculously light sleeper. Tiny bit of light from the alarm clock? I swear I can see it through my eyelids. Dust settling on the nightstand? Yep, I can hear it.

While I see no major bright side to this situation, I have to say I’ve noticed an interesting side effect. When I’m finally able to return to sleep, my dreams get weird. My dreams are normally weird,  but these last minutes-before-waking dreams are nuts. I’ve also taken the time, in those lying awake hours to mentally run through a yoga class sequence…the alignment cues I’d give, the order in which I’d arrange the asana, the filler explanations. In a way, it’s kind of neat, in another, I just want to sleep, already!

That brings me to this morning’s pre-alarm clock dream. I was doing handstands. Lots of them, and very easily. In normal life, I cannot do an unsupported handstand and it’s been years since I’ve even kicked up to the wall (I have some unconquered fear of being upside down. I’m cool with headstands, but handstand makes me nervous. My palms sweat just thinking about it.) These handstand dreams have recurred with greater frequency the past few months. I’ve probably had 5 or 6 handstand dreams in that time period. I think these dreams are the greatest dreams I could have. I need to figure out a way to channel the confidence and ease I have in these dreams to real life. I love dreaming about yoga.

What holds people back from trying yoga?

and breathe….

The other day, I was out with some friends and since I can’t help talking about yoga, I started talking about….wait for it…wait for it…yoga. I have no self-control. At any rate, one of the girls had just started practicing with some friends who are also in yoga teacher training (not at my studio…) Turns out, she likes it! I’d been trying for a few years to get her to go. Although I wasn’t the one to finally get her there, I’m glad she has. Just trying to spread the yoga love.  Now that she’s enjoying it, we then started strong-arming our other friend to give it a whirl. She’s got injuries that will need to be modified, but seems slightly game.

Then, we started talking about why people are so reluctant to take that first class? What’s holding them back? This is a topic that came up during our first teacher training session. The consensus was that a lot of people mistakenly believe that yoga is some weird religion, one that doesn’t jive with their own belief system. This is an argument I will save for another day. For the record, I adhere to no religion, a personal choice I made decades ago.

While we were discussing whether or not yoga was religious and the many ways it isn’t and the hows and the whys, I started thinking about the reasons that inhibited me from trying even though I’d been fascinated for years. Religion was not a factor in my decision. However, one of the items at the top of the list was that I just didn’t look like a Yoga Journal cover model, which is the most outward facing picture of yoga that many people have. For one, I physically did not resemble these women and two, I didn’t know what the hell I would wear. I didn’t own any cute yoga clothes. And, once I got past the shallow appearance-based part of my fear, I couldn’t even fathom how my body could contort itself. There’s no way I could put my leg behind my head. Or balance on my arms. And surely, I would be horribly out-of-place in classes if I couldn’t do these things, right?

The secret that nobody told me is that these yogis, these perfect-bodied, flawlessly posed yogis aren’t really the norm. After I started taking classes, there was usually only one, maybe two who came close to this stereotypical ideal. Instead, I was surrounded by people of all levels of ability. Some who were skinnier than me, some heavier, older, younger, more flexible, less flexible, stronger…What was I worried about? I fit in just fine.

And then the second secret (which really isn’t so much a secret, but what I didn’t take time to consider) was, most of these yogis started out exactly where I did and only through due diligence of hard work and practice, practice, practice were they able to conquer some pretty impressive asana (which isn’t even the most important part of yoga.) Granted, you’ve got your former dancers who come to yoga post-injury or to de-stress and they come armed with impressive flexibility, but I believe the majority of people start out as terrifically average human beings who just want to learn.

To come full circle with my now seemingly endless endorsement of yoga, I’m still continually met with people who share those same fears that I had…that yoga is something they just can’t do.  And that’s just not true.

As a yoga teacher (in training), I just wish I could shout it from the rooftops that you don’t have to be perfect. You’re not expected or required to perform fancy postures. It’s all just this deeply personal, marvelous, unfolding process. The gains you get from moving with intention and mastering the breath through pranayama are worth more than any no-hands, headstand.

Tom Selleck, Prana Vayus and Bandhas

Tom Selleck on the red carpet at the 1989 Acad...

T’Om’ Selleck, get it? Ok, I’m just being cheesy…

Last Thursday night I went to my usual 6-7:30 p.m. yoga class, which is a  practice class before my teacher training session. I was all geared up to go through some massive Kundalini with the pixie sprite yoga teacher, but alas, she was sick and we had a sub. I’ve had this sub once before and she got major points for showing up to teach in a Tom Selleck t-shirt. I really like it when a yogi isn’t deadly serious all the time. A little levity goes a long way. Although she had a really sparkly personality, she was no joke about the asana she was having us practice.

An hour and a half later, we had a little bit of time before teacher training started, so we ran across the street to get some nourishment, which we typically do as the teacher training Thursday sessions have thus far been lecture classes. Unfortunately, this was a practice class. Now, I’m all about the practice. The more the merrier, but I was starving. I hadn’t even had a chance to uncork my kombucha or shove more than 2 or 3 almonds in my face.

Once I got past my hunger grumpiness, it ended up being a pretty fascinating practice. We learned, via movement, about the 5 Prana Vayus (the 5 vital currents that are continually moving through us and the universe in all directions):

  • Apana: downward energy
  • Prana: upward energy
  • Samana: inward energy
  • Udana: outward energy
  • Vyana: expansion in all directions, all-encompassing.

To illustrate these concepts, we paired movement that matched the direction of energy. It was a fantastic way to reinforce what we were learning. Fascinating stuff in general!

Then, we learned about the bandhas. I’ve used the bandhas before, but I never really grasped their implication in the blocking and redirecting of energy. Even more fascinating! We also did asana to incorporate the bandhas. Let me tell you, downward dog is a whole different beast when you’re engaging your mula, uddiyana, and jalandhara bandhas at the same time! I love this idea of harnessing the energy and reversing its course and directing it where I want. So awesome.

Kundalini Yoga….It’s What’s For Breakfast

Kundalini

Kundalini (Photo credit: vaXzine)

I realize the title’s a bit silly, but every morning for the past week, while I’m drinking my coffee/eating breakfast,  I’ve been reading from one of the assigned textbooks for my teacher training, The 8 Human Talents, by Kundalini yoga teacher, Gurmukh.

I’ll be perfectly frank, my verdict is still out on Kundalini. I’d had no experience with that yoga system prior to starting my teacher training (aside from one DVD by Ana Brett that I tried approximately once…) One of the studio owners is this lovely little pixie sprite, whose delicate size belies a powerhouse of strength. She has trained with Gurmukh and incorporates Kundalini in her classes.

Here’s a little of what we’ve come to expect in her Thursday night class: Hold plank for 3 minutes (try it,  3 minutes in plank is a LOOOOONG time), your shoulders are burning, your arms are shaking, you think about dying, then she’ll instruct you to go into half chaturanga and…. BACK TO PLANK! Since our shoulders are already broken, why not throw in some dolphin? And then…back to plank. I hurt just thinking about it (and I’m actually fairly strong.) This sequence isn’t particularly Kundalini in nature, but more an illustration of the focus and determination this teacher is trying to instill in us.

It’s hard to even describe Kundalini, since it was quite different from the vinyasa flow classes I am partial to. For one thing, there were no sun salutation sequences. It felt a lot like pilates. A lot of repetitive, fast movement linked to breath. We were working on some 3rd chakra exercises, which relate to personality, self-esteem and ego. My teacher warned us that some of the exercises might bring up some emotion. I was skeptical. I’ve been practicing yoga for 6 years and I had yet to encounter a practice that evoked an emotional response, though I’ve heard it happens.

kundalini

After about half an hour, we moved on to one sequence that involved placing your fingers on your shoulders, thumbs to the back, fingers to the front (see picture above!) You then twist from side to side, inhaling to one side, exhaling to the other, keeping your elbows shoulder height. She instructed us to close our eyes and focus upward, where we imagined our third eye to be. This movement was done at a fairly rapid pace and I felt like that thing in washing machines that spins the clothes. All of a sudden, I felt this tightness in my chest, a lump in my throat and my eyes were getting a little moist. Damn it, I felt like crying. It was quite the experience.

These past mornings, reading Gurmukh’s book, I’m really getting into her explanations of the physical application of Kundalini. I’m starting to gain a deeper understanding of the chakra system and the physical ways we can address blockages via movement and breath. It’s also made me understand the exercises in class, why they’re so different from other vinyasa classes and the intention behind our teacher’s sequences. I’m intrigued to see where this leads!

I Challenge You To A….Downward Dog? (from jello arms to yoga teacher training)

yoga

yoga (Photo credit: GO INTERACTIVE WELLNESS)

After over a decade of working in various advertising, media, PR and related fields, I decided this past September to enroll in a 200 hour Teacher Training program at Nature Yoga.

This was a decision that was years in the making. After taking my first yoga class in 2006 at (the now defunct in Chicago) Crunch gym, I was hooked. Seriously hooked. At the time, I was working at a media agency and one of our health magazine clients came into our office every week for a month to give us tips on nutrition, fitness, and health. Those of us who participated in her program received free passes to Crunch as incentives to (join the gym) get in shape. One of the trainers was a woman I had worked with a few years earlier, and I knew she knew a thing or two about fitness, she was a seriously ripped little woman. So, when she told us that if there was ONE thing we REALLY needed to do during the program, it should be to try a yoga class, I thought, “Eh, why not?”

I’d always been a little fascinated by yoga and, not to brag, had dabbled in it a little myself when I was a small child, along with my mom and Lilias Folan, who was the Queen of Yoga on PBS in the 70′s (oh, I didn’t mean to date myself…) But, decades later, I never really thought to seek it out on my own.

Armed with this “challenge” from my trainer, a colleague and I made a date to hit one of the Crunch yoga classes over lunch. My first observation was that there was an interesting mix of people in the class, young gym rats, middle-aged people, nearly as many men as women. I situated myself in the back near a woman I gauged to be in about her late 50s. Seemed like a safe enough situation, surely I wouldn’t feel out-of-place next to this nonYoga Journal cover model.

Gads, I was so, so wrong. The class seriously kicked my ass. When I was in downward dog, my arms were shaking like crazy. When it came time to lower down into chaturanga, I basically belly-flopped. Holding warrior was like trying to walk a tightrope. There was very little balance to be had. All I could think was…THIS is yoga? What happened to the gentle stretching? I’ve always been fairly flexible, so I assumed it would be a cakewalk. By the end of class, I wasn’t quite sure what hit me and I was a little humbled by my lack of strength/balance, but somehow….I felt AWESOME.

I remember turning to the older woman next to me, who was firmly holding her down dogs – no shaky arms there – and fully in control of her chaturanga. “Does this EVER get easier?” I asked her. She replied, “It does if you stick with it.” CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! It also didn’t hurt that my colleague was similarly in awe of the difficulty, yet awesomeness, of this experience. So, we went back…over and over and over. Soon, my noon-time yoga class was the absolute high point of my days. And over time, those downward dogs stopped being shaky.

And that was basically the genesis of my love of yoga. Eventually, I started not just physically practicing, but reading about it any chance I could. I bought DVD’s to practice with at home when I couldn’t make it to the gym/studio. I purchased books that offered more insight from experienced yogis. I researched the Sanskrit names of the poses. I checked out different studios. I busted out warrior in the elevator when no one was looking.

Over the years, I’ve ebbed and flowed in terms of commitment and ability. There were times when I practiced every day and periods of injury where my mat grew dusty for months at a time. I still feel guilty periodically when I think about those down times. Sometimes my ego berates me for not having practiced consistently enough that I am able to just fling myself into scorpion pose (although, I feel like my rotator cuff injury may have nixed that particular pose for me…) at moment’s notice.

And honestly, the single largest reason I had only wistfully entertained the notion of yoga teacher training for a few years is that I felt like I needed to be perfect at it. But, let’s get real here…I’m never going to be a Yoga Journal cover model. I’m not getting any younger and with that realization, I need to accept that perhaps I never will be able to do scorpion pose. But y’know what? That’s OK! What I lack in sheer gymnastic ability, I make up for in passion. Besides, asana is merely one little teeny tiny bit of yoga. If I can teach even a few people here and there the things I’ve learned along the way, mission accomplished!

I’m so very glad I made the decision to pursue teacher training. It has been an amazing experience and dare I say, life-changing?

My Mat

Happy little travel mat

Happy little travel mat

Oh, I know this is exciting stuff, but every yogi/ni practices on some sort of surface, and most western yogi/nis practice on a mat. I had 3 mats prior to my most recent birthday, now I have 4, with the addition of the Manduka Eko SuperLite Travel Mat. I have used it several times since and I enjoy it for the most part. I can vouch that it lives up to its name. It is indeed a lite travel mat (2 lbs, but FOLDABLE!!) I love that I can chuck it in my backpack, which is very handy, as I travel via public transit in Chicago. Nothing like constantly bumping into people with a regular rolled up mat. Also, I work in an office and there’s something that makes me feel horribly guilty when I’m leaving at the end of the day…with a yoga mat. It just makes me feel like a slacker. I’m sure I should get over that.

Ok, onto the pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Sticky surface (unless you’re sweating, in which case, there’s a little slippage)
  • Did I mention foldable? Love.
  • Nice colors
  • Full size mat

Cons:

  • Oh, the rubber smell…I can’t wait til it wears off. Til then, I was reminded to think of happy rubber trees instead of toxic plastics.
  • Very thin (not a horrible con, unless you like a thicker mat. I usually throw mine on top of the studio mats, which is a great idea because I don’t like having my face on someone’s foot funk when I’m in child’s pose.)
  • Slightly slippery when wet

All in all, I’m very happy with my new mat!

Ahimsa!

Image

I toyed with titling my blog, “Searching or Ahimsa,” and that is exactly what I’ve been working on the past few months.  Quite literally, ahimsa means “non-violence” or “compassion” and often we apply that to mean that we shouldn’t harm others, which of course is common sense…right?  But what about ourselves? We can apply ahimsa to ourselves, which was something that I hadn’t really considered before. I imagined it as something that only applied to my interaction with others.

(A little background,  in the yogic tradition, ahimsa is the first of 10  ‘yamas’ in the eight limbs of yoga as presented by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The yamas are a series of ethical guidelines, similar in nature to the Ten Commandments.)

I think most people are in agreement that non-violence and compassion towards others is ethically very important.  But how often do we contemplate the violence we inflict upon ourselves? Think about how many times we let negative thoughts pervade our minds? That inner dialogue can be harshly critical, “I’m not good enough,” “I suck at (insert item here),”  “I’m too fat.” We also practice violence towards our physical bodies by not getting enough sleep, eating the wrong foods, drinking too much, smoking…oh, there’s a myriad of ways.

Once I started grasping that I needed to start living a more yogic life (and not just in the sense that I regularly practice asana, which is only one small part of the bigger picture), I became more aware of the ways in which I engaged in destructive thoughts and awareness has been the first step. It’s been about a month since I’ve been actively practicing ahimsa and I continually notice subtle changes in the way I have been treating myself and how I mentally treat others. I feel like it’s made a major difference in my frustration level. Hanging onto those negative thoughts are really destructive and I have no space in my life for that.

I’m sure practicing ahimsa will be a lifelong endeavor, but it’s a challenge I’m more than willing to live with.