A little bit is better than nothing

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Me coming out of crow.

Apparently, September is National Yoga Month. For me, every month is yoga month, but hey, I’m down for celebrating and creating more awareness. I am, in a small way, celebrating this month by upping my home yoga practice. I admit, I tend to like going to the studio a lot more than I like practicing at home. For one thing, I love being surrounded by the collective energy of my fellow yogis. It’s nice to have the variety of different teachers who challenge me to push myself. For another, I’m ridiculously easily distracted (hello, vata) and most of my home practices are liberally punctuated by the sound of dogs barking and kids yelling and lawnmowers doing their thing. I can look at it positively and see it as an opportunity to learn to tune out distraction, or I can get annoyed that while I’m in savasana or yoga nidra, my very lovely, loving pug is trying to lick my face or jump on my stomach (not to mention when the neighbor dogs start barking, Monster happily joins in the barking frenzy.) Truth be told, I’m not yet at that point where I’m able to completely disregard distraction and the yoga studio environment is so much easier for me to stay in ‘the zone.’

For a long time, especially in my first few years, I grappled with the notion that if I didn’t practice for an hour or 90 minutes, it didn’t count. So, I didn’t until I went to my studio classes. All this really accomplished was that I missed out on a lot of really great yoga practice. I tried to establish a home practice and was fine following along with DVDs for a while, but after the 10th time of the same class, I’d lose interest and again, miss out on some great yoga time.

More and more often, I’ve read advice from other yogi(ni)s that has really resonated with me, “a bit of yoga every day is better than a) nothing or b) a lot of yoga once (or twice, or three times) per week.” So, while I may not have an extended physical asana practice every day, I try to incorporate some dedicated yoga time daily to either meditation or philosophy. And, on my meditation/philosophy days, I’ll try to throw in a sun salutation or two, or maybe just a pose I’m working on. Often, giving myself permission to practice a tiny bit leads to more practice.

That said, in the past few weeks, I’ve been working on honing and extending my daily home asana practice (distractions be damned!) My most recent useful tool is: YogaGlo. It beats the same DVDs every day by a mile and a million. I am kicking myself that I haven’t signed up earlier. I have on several occasions almost signed up, but didn’t feel like ponying up $18/month when I’ve got access to free yoga through my work/study. $18/month is actually NOTHING in Chicago, where $18 will get you approximately one class at many studios. Unfortunately, my studios are not close to my house and while I love the 10-14 mile round trip bike commute when the weather is nice, some days, I just don’t feel like it.

The day I signed up, I felt like a kid in a candy store. The choice and variety of teachers is fantastic, especially since my 2 favorites, Jason Crandell and Kathryn Budig are amply represented. I love that you can filter classes by duration, which really fits in nicely with my “a bit of practice every day” goal. Yesterday, for example, my energy was way low after I found out my poor sweet pug had another mast cell tumor. However, I found a 20 minute class that was perfectly tailored to my energy level and needs. I’ve been so excited by my options, that I queued up and scheduled classes for nearly every day of September. Sometimes two or more a day (i.e. vinyasa flow in the morning and restorative/yin in the evening.)

The ultimate point of this post is that every little bit does count and that the all or nothing/studio or bust approach, especially for me, doesn’t work. The key is to make a commitment to let yourself practice for 5, 10, 20 minutes, whatever it takes, in lieu of thinking it doesn’t count if you’re not practicing for an hour or more. And, there are so many tools at our disposal these days that make even the short practices more enticing and easier to stick with.

So hey, why not join me in practicing every day in September?

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.

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.