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.

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.

Ahimsa!

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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.