Category Archives: Practicing

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Most Americans are introduced to yoga through the poses. (Sometimes I think that Krishnamacharya’s genius was to let us see it as a physical thing, instead of another religion to convert to or flee from. Later on, we can try on the spirituality.) Then we might find breathing or meditation practices. And eventually we get it hammered into our heads that it’s not just about physical health, or habits, but our whole psychology and worldview. And there’s more to practice than just Down Dog. As Patanjali put it:

“The eight limbs of yoga are: respect toward others, self-restraint, posture, breath control, detaching at will from the senses, concentration, meditation, and contemplation.”

[Bernard Bouanchaud’s translation of Sutra II.29 in The Essence of Yoga]

That’s where you get the benefits beyond a gym workout. Postures are only step three. Do we want to be in third grade forever? Did we even DO first grade?

But still, once we study and (somewhat) understand these tips that Patanjali gives us, it’s really interesting to circle back around and apply each of these steps to our roots, for example our asana practice.

  1. Are you respecting your teachers, fellow students, and studio staff?
  2. Are you applying self-restraint in asana practice, or always going for the most advanced variation?
  3. Do you understand the definition of a yoga pose — hard yet soft?
  4. Are you breathing comfortably in your practice, or holding / controlling / ignoring the breath?
  5. Are you able to detach from the sensations — or appearance — of your body?
  6. Are you really concentrating on the present moment as you practice?
  7. Are you able to prolong your focus and receive insight?
  8. Are you able to leave “you” behind and become just insight?

I’ll be on retreat for the next 8 days, so think about these 8 limbs for now. We’ll have some special guest posts, too, so keep dropping in. Take a look at some of the archives. Or, you know, actually get off the computer and practice ;)

Ugly Yoga

Last night at the park, after my run, a girl was practicing yoga next to me. (A cute assortment of yogis had gathered at one end of the track.) She did lots of stretchy poses, the ones I like to do: Standing Crescents, High Lunges, Wide-Legged Forward Bends. And after enough peeking, I noticed a certain drama, and emphasis, on the flexibility. A prevailing hardness, not so much softness. And I realized, “That’s me. That’s how I (used to?) practice.”

I hadn’t escaped the showmanship. I was very conscious of the shapes I could or wanted to make. The more flexible I got in my practice, the more I felt the temptation to show off how flexible I was. Yoga was still an achievement, a skill, a linear path. Challenging the body, pushing towards an idealized shape, gave me a goal on which to focus, and a feeling of actually DOING something. I only started breathing deeply in yoga a couple years ago.

I’m studying therapeutic yoga now, and anatomy, and it’s made me close my eyes to go for feeling instead of shape. “Ugly Yoga”, someone called it. Permission is granted to differ from the pictures on the posters. Deeper layers of muscles are being found. Practice feels like conversation with the body, not mastery. And old poses have acquired new energy.

But still, it’s hard to practice without performing. Our extroverted culture encourages beautiful entertainers, and we’re all social beings. (Shantitown has a good post about acknowledging the desire to be recognized.)

I try to remember that recognition, once received, is actually an obstacle, just like the Sutras say about siddhis. [III.37 — “These faculties are obstacles in contemplation, but powers in active life.”] Recognition may serve me socially, but it’s one more thing I have to battle on my mat. Once I get it, I expect it again. If I don’t get it, I wonder “why not?” And there are much cooler things to focus on.

I Hate This Pose

The last couple days, I’ve returned to Sun Salutations. They are a perfect practice in and of themselves. I used to hate them. Always forced myself through them, knowing I needed the warm up. Finally I realized: if you hate a pose in yoga, you’re doing it wrong. There is some other alignment, variation, or way of breathing that will work for you. Even burning, strengthening poses are enjoyable if you’re at your edge, and not over it. A few examples:

“I hate Warrior I.”
Many standing poses create intense burning in the legs. This pose in particular has some goofy alignment on top of the fire. Back foot rotates out while hips face forward? Are you kidding? Just know that different traditions have different expressions of the pose, for different reasons. Iyengar aligns front heel to back arch; Kripalu has the back heel up, like a Lunge! Once you learn or decide the intent of the pose (for me, it’s a heart opener with a lot of fire underneath), you can wiggle the hips and explore the breath until you feel that intention with full-body participation. We all have different skeletons, no two poses will ever look alike. The stance can be very narrow if that is where you breathe fully and feel stable. The hips can turn towards the side if it lets you lift through the heart and stop sinking into the lower back. You want ease but not easy. There’s a lot of room for exploration. Your teacher’s head might explode, just tell them you have a doctor’s note for self-medication. Adjust.

“I hate Ankle to Knee.”
One of the most intense hip openers, Ankle-to-Knee (aka Fire Logs) gets right into the freaky tightness in a mysterious corner of the hips. All around the classroom, students avoid the full parallel of the shins and round into a cross-legged ball. Try not to care that they’re cheating. See above. For full sensation, keep the ankles right on the knees, not on the thighs. Flex the feet and try to relax. In martial arts tests, you hold squats for 1, 10, 20 minutes to get your belt. The secret is apparently to focus on the sensations of breathing, not the sensations of pain. Like life: if you run around thinking about your problems all day, you will not be smiling very much. So, sit up tall, and breathe up and down the back. Maybe an exhale tips the hips an inch forward; maybe not. As Leslie Kaminoff says, think about spinal movement, not spatial. A new door opened on intense poses when I learned to stay where I was. Relax.

“I hate Handstand.”
This inversion uses an invigorating combination of muscle and fear. Even against a wall, I used to freak out. I was sure I didn’t have the strength to hold it. Heart openers immediately prior helped — a little clasp of the hands behind the back before diving forward — but I still hated the feelings of panic and wobbly weakness while in the pose. It was too unfamiliar, there was too much going on. So, I simplified. An L-shaped Handstand allows both feet to be firmly on the wall, which somehow feels much more familiar and secure, so that the alignment of the shoulders can be the focus. (Since we want to work from the ground up, we have to tackle the hands and shoulders before the core and legs.) Eventually, each leg could take a turn extending to the sky.  I firmly believe it’s better to do one piece of the pose well, then all of them terribly. Simplify.

And finally, “I hate Sun Salutations.”
The jump backs. The Down Dogs. The repetition. There’s so much to hate! My attitude finally changed I think at Sivananda, when we were led through two rounds of Surya Namaskar, and then told to do three more at our own pace. It’s a shock to realize that you don’t know what your own pace is. Suddenly, this exercise was an exploration of how I actually wanted to move. I started skipping Up Dog, and appreciating Cobra. Keeping the step-backs, and their connection to the core. Hearing the breath more like a breeze than a freight train. Since then, I’ve noticed how different the speed of my breath is at different times of day — sometimes it wants to race, sometimes it wants to relax. Following the breath is like letting an alternate brain lead. It’s a different choreographer each day; the quality and rhythm of movement changes subtly and sometimes drastically. Breathe.

Acknowledging, deciphering and accommodating irritants will create positive reinforcements for your practice instead of negative. Practice in a way that leaves you looking forward to the next one, not holding subconscious dread. You will start to get it.

5 Best Albums for Yoga Practice

Last night I tried to practice yoga with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. It was a rainy day and I needed some energy. Instead it pushed me into listening mode, I just lay on the floor enjoying the album for a while, until I finally got up and practiced in silence.

So, today I decided to share my five fail-safe albums for yoga practice. I exclude kirtan from this list; if it’s any good it makes me want to sing to a distracting extent. In fact, anything with words is excluded. I like practice music to soothe and smooth any rough moods, and add an uplifting vibe. I’d call my favorite genre “symphonic electronic” — complex abstract music. These are albums you can play straight through without skipping a song.

  1. Ratatat, self-titled. My all-time favorite album, I have yet to get tired of this thing. Two guys, a million effects, gorgeous textures and rhythms. It made the rounds of all the coffee houses a few years ago, and is perfect for bright, focused energy. It makes me so happy.
  2. Brian Eno, Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks. The most famous ambient album? Apparently Eno was hit by a taxi, and couldn’t stand any music while recuperating in the hospital. So he invented ambient. This album is an opiate, and the track “An Ending (Ascent)” is pretty perfect. Quiet and soothing.
  3. Four Tet, Rounds. A beautiful album by Kieran Hebden from Fridge (another nice electronic group). Blissful and romantic; drum samples and heartbeats underlay enchanting melodies. Perfect mix tape fodder.
  4. Bibio, Fi. A quirky mix of finger-picking, reverb, and synths. The soundtrack to a flashback to childhood. Dreamy and gentle.
  5. Dub Specialists, Dub. This will have to represent the whole genre of reggae, the best morning music ever. It makes you want to move, without any stress. Classic and groovy, this album chills me ouuuuuuuut.

All these artists have more recent albums out, I have not kept up 100%. I also have to mention Beirut for sheer heart, if they would put out an instrumental album I would die.

Any favorite practice albums you want to share? Comment away!

Morning Yoga Revisited

This morning I went to a free class at Om Factory, schlepping over to the Garment District at 10am. (Still better than the 7am call time when I used to teach there.) I was puffy-eyed and groggy from some gluttony the day before, but knew that three hours before breakfast wouldn’t work for me, so I had a quarter-cup of coffee with cream en route. (I had to save the rest of my daily coffee allotment for a meeting at everyone’s favorite coffee place, Grumpy’s.)

The class was slow vinyasa, a perfect pace to guard my shoulder from any aggravation. (I saw a sports medicine MD on Tuesday, who assured me my shoulder was no big deal and would heal without problem. Tendonitis is a really common yoga injury. But weight-bearing will stress it, I have to be careful to strengthen and not stretch too much. I have ligaments “like rubber bands.”)

I felt so alive and awake afterward, I wondered why I don’t practice in the mornings any more?? Then I remembered: the hump. I don’t make it past the first 15 minutes. If I plow through it I have an amazing, creative, fulfilling solo practice, but I have issues with plowing through yoga. Aren’t we supposed to listen to our intuition? What if that body awareness is saying “I don’t want to move! I want to lay back down!” How do we know if it’s actually tamasic (heavy) energy that needs to be burned up?

This is the weird dialectic that is my practice: I have to force myself through the beginnings, but once I’m going it’s an easy flow.

40 Days Without Breathing

Two-score days ago I started a little New Year’s Resolution, and guess what? Today is day 40! I did it!

“It” was a simple daily practice of Navel Lock with breath retention for 10–40 seconds. In most cases it was about twenty or twenty-five seconds; I’ve always had trouble with retentions on exhales more than inhales. Of course, I wasn’t using a metronome to count, just “Om 1, Om 2, Om 3…” like they do at Sivananda… so the actual times were who knows what. I started off doing it in bed, right after I sat up, but I felt like I had no capacity at all. Plus, I was sick for the first few days of this practice, and couldn’t breathe so well. So, after a few days I went for shower, clothing, makeup, pranayama, breakfast as my routine. (It is kind of bizarre to put on makeup before yoga, but it feels like part of my “getting dressed” bit.) This also created a nice pause if any rushing-to-get-ready feelings had built up.

This kriya/pranayama is called a Golden Nugget, one of the most powerful yoga practices (according to the excellent blog/resource Mastery of Meditation, Yoga & Zen). I did the intermediate option: one retention only, for 10–40 seconds max — although I had quite a few vinyasa classes this month that threw in this bandha practice too! So I might be disqualified. And on two mornings I forgot to practice, and did it later on the subway platform or in bed. We’ll assume that those disruptions did not affect the efficacy of the exercise (?). As for the quoted benefits:

  • “Dissolv[es] blockages (granthis) caused by emotional debris and toxin buildup in the psychic channels (nadis)” — I’ve never directly experienced the specific energy channels in the body, only the more general waves and tingles of energy or lethargy. So I can’t give a full traffic report on my blockages and channels. But I have felt more like myself lately; enlivened by spurts of real joy and actual relaxation. The lows are not so low, the highs are actually high.
  • “Tones and cleanses all the digestive organs and markedly improves the entire digestive system” — My digestion is getting better, but I’m doing some dietary changes as well. My skin looks better. I should have kept watch on my tongue, that’s a real indicator of toxins. But if this kriya is cleansing, shouldn’t I feel WORSE as the toxins come out?
  • “Works on the respiratory system and nervous system” — Not sure what “works on” implies, but I’m less nervous and more easy-going.
  • “Builds core strength and power” — Definitely. It’s helped my postural awareness too.
  • “Most importantly, its goal is to burn up unresolved emotions stored in the subconscious mind.  Steady and sincere practice of Golden Nugget Yoga Pranayama, results in a significant refinement of awareness and a calm, peaceful, silent mind capable of connecting with the Divinity that lies within.” — This has been the most pronounced or noticable change: I can meditate again. For the last six months, or even year, I’ve really struggled with my mind’s dances and dashes when I sit. It was really depressing and discouraging, because I really craved those moments of peace, and didn’t know why they had disappeared. I went back to open-eye, object-focused meditation; no luck. I tried a more regular schedule; still crazy. Group practice, solo practice; same thing. But in my Hatha class the last week or two, I’ve finally felt really at ease in the poses, and ended up in a peaceful little buzz of stillness. Credit to my teacher, too — he’s quite radiant :)

We can debate if I was “steady and sincere”; I will put forth that I felt genuine excitement to do the practice each morning. I’ve missed my pranayama routine, it really cleared my head in the mornings, and I was happy to have the inspiration to restart it. (In fact, these Golden Nuggets often led into a long round of Breath of Fire and a few rounds of Alternate Nostril Breathing.) One of the nice things about pranayama is that it doesn’t trigger my athleticism or vanity like asana sometimes does. It’s unique, mental, and wholly engaging, and in any case I’ve reached a point in my life where I think 80% effort is a lot better than 100% (and the subsequent 0%). It was a very valuable exercise to focus a practice on regularity versus quantity.

Overall, however, I’m left with a chicken-and-egg situation, because there are a lot of things going on in my life right now, so I can’t credit or blame individual factors with any degree of certainty. In the last two months, I ended a long relationship, I started talking to a therapist, I turned 30, and I finished a big job  — all these things affected my habits and health. Did the kriya inspire some of these events, or did the events actually cause the above benefits? This is one of my continual confusions with yoga; it’s not a black-and-white science, and none of us are isolated laboratory subjects. It’s empirical, holistic, and slow; you have to get a big-picture perspective of yourself over time. A steady practice works you like water in canyons — the current is most eye-catching, but years later what’s dramatic is the epic change.

The image that keeps coming to mind is from the Scientific American piece on rapid thinking: “even brief periods of heightened mood can lead to upward spirals.” This pranayama practice was part of an upward spiral… or the bellows beneath the whole great contraption.

Never Too Late for the New Year

Its your year, baby
It's your year, baby

New Year’s is probably my favorite holiday (in spirit, not in typically exorbitant and excessively drunken practice). It’s about starting fresh with what you have, doing things you’ve been wanting to do, declaring your intentions for the next year. I’m not usually a resolution-maker; I’m kind of a self-improvement junkie so I’m always tweaking my habits anyways. Plus, I don’t like to make good health a source of additional pressure — cause then I rebel against myself like a schizoid.

But this year, post-holiday, I’ve been really inspired by watching a few resolutions actually get carried out — namely this one and this one. Both women committed to daily yoga practices; one general, one specific. Both have described real transformations taking place even in just these few weeks, and I’ve even noticed their writing styles changing.

Luckily, the Chinese have scheduled their new year to scoop up all us late bloomers. I’m using today’s Chinese New Year to resurrect my morning pranayama, and make it a real habit. Kundalini yoga recommends that you practice a set for 40 days to truly master it, psychology books tend to say it’s 30 days to build a habit, and here’s an article that says 21 days is the brain’s minimum:

Brain circuits take engrams (memory traces), and produce neuroconnections and neuropathways only if they are bombarded for 21 days in a row. This means that our brain does not accept “new” data for a change of habit unless it is repeated each day for 21 days (without missing a day).

So, I’m going for 30 Days of Golden Nuggets. Not only does it sound like a fast food special, it promises to burn unresolved emotions. Which I am kind of full of these days, post family time and post breakup. It’s also good for the digestion, which I am also kind of full of. Basically, it’s Navel Lock with breath retention. The intermediate version takes 40 seconds each day. Maximum. If I can’t handle that, then I need to be led around on a little velcro leash. We’ll see if the old routine (Breath of Fire / Alternate Nostril Breathing / meditation) seems appealing afterward. No pressure, though.

If you have a New Year’s resolution you’d like to share, please do! Happy Year of the Ox!

The Root of Flexible

Standing Forward Bend by Yoga Art & Science

In these chilly winter months, it’s good to remember that the root of flexible is FLEX. When you’re tugging away in a yoga pose, remember to support whatever you’re stretching by FLEXING the opposing muscles. This creates heat, which is essential for safe stretching. For example, in a Forward Bend, the more you flex the front of the legs (the quads), the more the back of the legs (the hamstrings) can release. You should feel a burning heat, not a pulling tweak, when you’re stretching.

Warrior II by Yoga Art & Science

Flexing also creates a safe boundary. If you pull and pull and pull with no resistance, you will eventually overstretch or dislocate something. Ligaments and tendons receive very little blood flow, so they are slow or impossible to heal once you’ve overdone it. In Warrior II, for example, you are stretching the hands away from each other at about 80% effort — not 100 or 110% — and pulling the shoulder joint BACK into its socket with about 20% effort.

If flexibility is one of your goals, I think Extended Side Angles (all the many variations) are the best poses ever. You get deep stretching in the hips, thighs, and hamstrings, as well as the chest, shoulders and neck. BUT to get there you must:

Extended Side Angle by Yoga Art & Science

  • keep pressing the outside edge of the back foot firmly down
  • keep flexing the back quad strongly
  • keep dropping the hips
  • keep rotating the front hip under and the back hip over
  • keep the front knee directly over the ankle, in line with your second toe
  • keep pressing 1/3 of your weight into the bottom hand
  • keep pressing your bottom arm into the front knee
    (unlike the picture, I prefer the hand inside the foot)
  • keep lifting the navel up and in
  • keep spiraling the heart towards the sky
  • keep spiraling the neck towards the sky (gently)
  • keep straightening the top arm
  • breathe calmly and slowly!

Just try doing all that at once, and imagine a yoga practice with that much engagement in every pose. You’ll break a sweat in the first five minutes.

Happy New Year’s Resolutions!

Images courtesy of Yoga Art & Science, Creative Commons license

Rise Up, Late Sleepers

Its nice and cool here
It's nice and cool here

I’ve recently noticed an upswing of “How to Become an Early Riser” articles (although I think it’s a topic that’s recycled more often than the magazines themselves), and I’m wondering if I should adjust my schedule. Getting up early satisfies the competitive achiever in us all — I remember one Saturday in college where I’d been to crew practice on the lake, fed the whole team breakfast, showered/dressed, and started my homework before my roommates even woke up (around 11am). I felt like an Olympian. It’s also said that the early morning hours (2–6am) are the best for meditation, since they’re the most still. Kundalini manuals insist that you should get up at 3:30am to begin your practice. It shows your commitment.

My current schedule usually gets me to my desk by the bright sparkling hour of noon. I read blogs and news for an hour or two, then plan my day, fit in a yoga class, and generally get my best work accomplished after 9pm. Some nights it’s 1 or 2am that I’m really in the zone to work — it’s nice and quiet then, with no neighbors (like the one currently blasting NPR) to distract me. 3 or 4am is not an unusual bedtime. It feels right for me, but I have this nagging feeling that meditating at 3:30am — on the tail end of my day — is not going to get me full credit w/the gurus.

Finally, this month, my guilty conscience was assuaged by the geeks at Wired:

Three Smart Things About Sleeping Late

1 // You may need more sleep than you think.
Research by Henry Ford Hospital Sleep Disorders Center found that people who slept eight hours and then claimed they were “well rested” actually performed better and were more alert if they slept another two hours. That figures. Until the invention of the lightbulb (damn you, Edison!), the average person slumbered 10 hours a night.

2 // Night owls are more creative.
Artists, writers, and coders typically fire on all cylinders by crashing near dawn and awakening at the crack of noon. In one study, “evening people” almost universally slam-dunked a standardized creativity test. Their early-bird brethren struggled for passing scores.

3 // Rising early is stressful.
The stress hormone cortisol peaks in your blood around 7 am. So if you get up then, you may experience tension. Grab some extra Zs! You’ll wake up feeling less like Bert, more like Ernie.

I think the important thing is a RELATIVE schedule. No matter what time you wake up, you do your meditation and asana practice straight away (or after 15 minutes, or before bed, or whatever). I get lost when I look at the clock and think OH SHIT IT’S LATE and skip my practices because “I need to get to work.” But my efficiency and creativity are down, so the day is less productive than if I’d taken 30 minutes or an hour for yoga. Granted, my brain and body would be more habituated to asana and meditation if I did them at the same time every day. But when I follow my heart, my evenings do NOT end on schedule. So my days just get pushed four hours out of sync with everyone else. Fingers crossed my next job will let me work second shift…

Dharma Mittra’s Recommendations for the New Year

Sri Dharma Mittra
Sri Dharma Mittra

Dharma Mittra, the inimitable (or eminently imitable) senior teacher, just emailed these tips for the new year:

  1. Spend time Meditating. Meditation is unbroken concentration and the most effective type is self-reflection. Spend at least 15 minutes meditating every morning.
  2. Get serious about your practice! One must get serious and simply attending class is not enough. Spend at least 15 minutes each morning doing Asana and focus on the main ones: Headstand, Shoulderstand, Plow, Fish and Cobra.
  3. Drink lots of green juices and remember the first Yama, Ahimsa. As long as you are involved with violence, your meditation will go nowhere.
  4. Understand the five subtle bodies or sheathes so that you can commence negating them at once.
  5. How you begin something is of great significance. If you begin the New Year with a big mug of coffee, it sets the wrong tone for the entire year to come. Begin 2009 committed to the attainment of Self-Knowledge.
  6. Outside of the three main texts, The Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Yoga Padipika, read and study Swami Sivananda’s Self-Knowledge as it contains all the answers.
  7. Dedicate the fruit of all action and be nice to everyone. OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

I found them inspiring and hope you do too. Lots of good ways to start the new year here. I did my 15 minutes of meditation and asana this morning; it was great to be reminded that it’s not how much you practice, but how regularly, and that the basic principles are the most important achievements.

If you’re ever in New York for New Year’s, I highly recommend Dharma’s New Year’s Eve classes. The vibe is intense and uplifting. He did not do the midnight celebration last night, but taught his regular 6pm Asana and 7:30pm Meditation/Psychic Development. The former is an open-level vinyasa class, the latter is chants and breathing exercises to purify and strengthen the mind. Both began with Dharma talks that really cleared my mind. (And then my evening was free to see Blonde Redhead at Terminal 5!) The center is chanting 108 Hanuman Chalisas all day today, so if you’re near 23rd and 3rd drop by for a little spiritual high.

PS — You can download Swami Sivananda’s book, and others, for free at The Divine Life Society.