Post SF Yoga Journal

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Oh, I have been so lax with the blog the past 2 weeks! So, here’s my little update. I flew to San Francisco on January 19th. As always, I really loved being there. The weather was a very, very pleasant departure from the winter chill of Chicago. Apparently, I missed out on some single digit temps. Can’t say I’m sad about that. In SF, it was sunny and 60-64. Perfect.

I was staying in lower Nob Hill (or technically, the TenderNob – what a terrible name!) Fortunately, it was a very pleasant, mostly downhill walk to the Hyatt Embarcadero where the conference was held. I attended a Sunday afternoon session with Gary Kraftsow: “Meditation, Contemplation, and Transformation.” Then, an all-day intensive with Mr. Kraftsow on Monday: “Evidence-Based Viniyoga Therapy for Stress Management.” Both sessions were incredible. He’s a very, very interesting man and a captivating speaker. Having studied with both Krishnamacharya and Desikachar from the age of 19…what can I say, he’s the real deal.  There was very little actual asana practice, but we did several pranayama, meditation and chanting exercises. I have become incredibly enamored of chanting in the past few months, so it was right up my alley.

I think one of the things I most appreciated hearing was that “yoga is not asana.” Obviously, that’s part of it, but there is SOOO much more. I think in the West, so much focus is placed on asana that the rest gets neglected. Gary told us about how people talk about how they practice yoga, and they also meditate. As if they’re separate. And they’re not. Meditation IS part of yoga. And a wonderful part, at that!

The most fascinating exercise we did involved langhana and brahmana, along with chanting. First we were told to think of something that caused us stress or anxiety. Once we captured that thought, we were told to really feel it, evoke those uncomfortable emotions. Then, we started the pranayama practice, as Gary chanted. We repeated a pattern of inhale/retain, exhale/sustain. I have to admit, I was seriously uncomfortable. I am no stranger to long inhales and exhales, but the retain/sustain parts were no fun. After several minutes of this, we were told to return to a more neutral/slight ujayi breath, while we did a guided meditation. Then, we were asked to summon that emotion we felt at the beginning of the exercise.

This is the amazing part…it was gone. All the emotion and stress I felt the first time I conjured the memory (and it was a super fresh one…something that had actually occurred about an hour earlier) was GONE. I was able to visualize the event without any sentiment attached. And even now, 10 days later…nothing. I’m a believer.

Four Days ‘Til San Francisco!

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Pretty “painted ladies” in SF

Only four more days til the Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco! I’m looking forward to studying with new teachers and learning much more about yoga therapy from Gary Kraftsow, whom I may want to study with in more depth after I finish my yoga teacher training. I also look forward to catching up with old friends and marveling at the crazy hills. San Francisco, here I come!

On being an urban yogini

The lovely Chicago skyline

The lovely Chicago skyline

As I get more and more involved with my yoga training, I’ve come to realize the necessity of incorporating yoga into all aspects of my life, not just during that hour and a half I’m on my mat in the studio. This has proven challenging to me and is something I feel that I struggle with on a daily basis.

For one thing, city living is a beast in and of itself. I’ve lived in larger cities than Chicago, but let’s face it, Chicago is really quite large – the 4th largest in North America. With big city living, comes big city challenges. Public transportation is crowded, the sidewalks downtown are swarming with either tourists or worker bees just trying to get where they need to go. It takes a long time to get from point A to point B. Cost of living is expensive. There’s a lot of time spent waiting in lines. The pace can be hectic and often annoying. Patience is tested. Tempers flare.

I am not immune to impatience or anger or frustration. Especially when I’m on crowded public transportation (my bugbear) and I’m standing, ass to elbow, with a few hundred of my not-so-closest fellow human beings. For a long time, I let these encounters really rile me up. I’d get super annoyed when people would jam up the front section of the bus, even though there was space in the back.  Or, if some teenager on the bus was obliviously swinging his backpack in my face while I’m sitting there, fuming and festering with anger, trying to decide if I should punch him in the knee or not.

Then, one day, in class, my teacher told us about how he used to let his temper get the best of him until he realized that the only one he was affecting/hurting was himself. In the case of that backpack-wearing kid on the bus, MY anger isn’t going to affect him in the slightest. I’m the only one feeling that anger. And is it really justified? He’s not sticking his backpack in my face to tick me off, he most likely is completely unaware that this is even an issue for me. One that could be solved with a simple, “excuse me, but your pack is a bit close to my head for comfort.” And then….let it go.

Of course, this is another example of ahimsa. Toward myself and toward the unsuspecting boy. The key is awareness. If you can catch yourself before that flame of anger ignites and be AWARE that this isn’t a situation that needs to escalate (in your head), it’s so much easier to just let it go and sail through it. You see the thought, recognize it and release it. Pranayama has been very helpful. Just the act of regulating my breathing and going from shallow anger-breathing to conscious, slow deep-breathing helps diffuse that negative energy.

My day-to-day life in a large city is one big experiment in practicing ahimsa, and I’m happy to say, it has been getting easier. But, it is still a situation that is unavoidable, so all I can do is practice, practice, practice.

Light in mind, light in body

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fly little elephant, fly!

Due to what I now identify as my vata nature,  I tend to have a very active mind when I’m out of balance. Not always in a good way, either. Sometimes I feel like I have so many thoughts in my head that it’s like a hamster on a wheel, constantly rotating, going nowhere. I can think about things so much that the line between truth and fiction get a little blurry. The past few months, I’ve been dealing with some internal and external issues in my life that I felt needed to be resolved, but I wasn’t sure how or when. I hoped that the teacher training process would give me some tools to deal with these situations. And boy have they!

For one thing, practicing being present has been incredibly grounding. It’s not healthy to spend too much time in the past or the future. When you’re stuck on either end of the spectrum, you’re taking energy away from dealing with the now, and the now is when you make the decisions that affect your future.

Breathing, the practice of pranayama, has helped calm me down in so many instances, that I now unconsciously “return to my breath” (in yoga speak :). It hasn’t always been easy, but the more you practice something, the more it becomes part of you without having to work so hard. I’ve had to continually consciously redirect my thoughts from ping-ponging back and forth from past to future. This process is almost second nature now.

After my last teacher training class (the one with the good ol’ yoga cry), I have been not-so-slowly moving toward this amazing sense of clarity. My two biggest worries required that I make a decision in order to move forward. One, I was working toward, but without a plan. The other, I was sort of trying to ignore, hoping that I’d know what to do eventually.

Since that class, I have had an entire mental shift that is leading me down the path of resolution. I took a step toward freeing myself from the burden of one of the things that was keeping me tethered and as soon as I took that step, almost immediately, I felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Once that weight was lifted, I made a decision. Two actually, concerning both of the issues.

That was two days ago and today, as I have walked around from the train to the office, or just down the hall, I feel physically light. Almost like I’m floating. I’ve never experienced this sort of lightness before and it’s incredible! And I know with all the certainty in the world that this yoga journey has been the catalyst.

Kundalini’s killin’ me

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I’m finally back to my teacher training after a short holiday break. It’s so great to be back! On Saturday, we had a workshop on Psychology and Yoga and it’s truly interesting to see how closely related they are. As it happens, I came to yoga from a psychological perspective (I earned my bachelor’s in psychology and while I don’t work in that field, I am still very interested.) Through my years of practice, I can’t deny the psychological implications yoga embodies. It’s been such an integral part of my life in terms of giving me the tools to deal with life’s frustrations, stresses and anxieties. I kid you not, if the me that I was 10 years ago met the me I am now, we wouldn’t even recognize each other. And that is a good thing. To that end, I plan to focus my teaching energy toward yoga’s healing properties instead of how to get a perfect yoga booty. Not saying that an asana-based practice is a bad thing, but there is SO much more to yoga than the physical aspects.

One of my teachers (the little pixie sprite), in addition to being a yoga teacher, also works as a psychotherapist. It was great to have her discuss psychology with us. First, we did a 45 minute kundalini practice with a lot of focus on the 3rd eye chakra. I think I mentioned in another post that I’ve got a strange relationship with kundalini. I don’t necessarily love it and often I find it frustrating, but somehow, it never fails to evoke a really powerful response (even if it is anger.)

We did a kriya on our backs where we scissored our legs back and forth for about 5 minutes. That is an incredibly long time and it was so uncomfortable (and then we repeated it again.) I’d already done an intense 2 hour practice before training and was feeling a little cranky about having to go through a kundalini practice. Long story short, we did several uncomfortable kriyas. Two with our arms over our heads, employing kapalabhati breath (breath of fire.) It almost seems comical to me when I look at the words I’m typing, how it doesn’t seem like these exercises should be very difficult, but when you’re doing them for five minutes each and then repeating after a short rest, it’s seriously intense. During the last arms over-the-head kriya, I actually lost feeling in both arms. It’s challenging to focus on your breath, your third eye, AND to try to block out pins and needles in your limbs.

Finally, we ended with a meditation set to music. We sat, legs crossed, one palm facing up in guyan mudra, the other arm fully extended in the air. Our teacher invited us to listen to the mantra and join in if we felt like it. The song was “Bountiful, Blissful, Beautiful” by Bachan Kaur. It repeats variations of “I am bountiful, I am blissful, I am beautiful, I am.” Cue tears. I was trying so hard to keep it together because I am NOT a fan of crying in public. At. All. When I heard the words, I just had this feeling that the words were true, but I so very seldom apply those adjectives to myself, which just made me deeply sad. By the end, I just had rivulets of water streaming down my face. My poor friend sitting next to me was triggered by the sound of me sniffling, so post class, we just sat together crying a bit. Part of me was deeply embarrassed and part of me realized I needed this natural release and was grateful to have experienced something that moved me so deeply. Humans are feeling creatures and so often we’re prone to extinguishing our feelings. 

My biggest takeaway however, was the message of the mantra and really believing that about myself and others. And, again, ahimsa in the form of self-love/acceptance. That’s my goal for 2013.

My New Year’s Resolution….no resolution

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Year after year, I make resolutions. They generally involve the same things that I reckon most Americans put on their lists every January 1: eat healthier, exercise more, lose weight, etc…This year, I’m making no resolutions. Since the start of my yoga teacher training, I feel like every day, in small ways, I’m committing to resolutions that aren’t just fleeting list items. I should live every day with the omnipresent resolution to live each day to the fullest. To make better choices. To incorporate ahimsa into my life in every possible way. To treat people, even people I don’t like, with the kindness I’d like to receive in return. To make the most of challenging situations and envision them as another opportunity to learn and grow. I could go on, but you get the idea. So, this year for me, no resolutions, just to live.