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Meditation: Chaos or Calm

 

By YS Instructor, Christopher Roberson

Neurotic. Happy. Anxious. Sad. Loving. Cold. Scattered. Collected. Despondent. Untethered. Connected.

On any given day we can make a list of words that describes how we feel, think, and act. Sometimes the words we use to describe our way of being paint a picture that makes us feel alive, and other times the buzzwords we use act as an anchor that weighs us down. This war within can feel like a never-ending battle where internal calm or chaos shifts dramatically from day to day, and moment to moment.

The philosophy of Yoga supports a worldview in which the peaks and valleys of our emotions can settle and remain consistently solid. The Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture outlining the path to finding one’s true self, states that through meditation and the various practices of Yoga, we are provided with the tools needed to be at peace with our own self.  For instance, the Gita tells us, “To those who have conquered themselves, the will is a friend. But it is the enemy of those who have not found the Self within them.”

The Gita also speaks about meditation, a difficult practice for many: “Once seated, strive to still your thoughts. Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified. Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.”

By sitting with your eyes closed in a quiet room and attempting to let go of wayward thoughts, you have the ability to center your feelings and reactions. Meditation helps bring you toward the center where real truth lies. On days when you feel the most neurotic, meditation drops anxiety down a notch. On days when life is great and your worldview is filled with joy, meditation reinforces the calm, collected mindset that got you there. By taking time to cleanse yourself of judgment and reactivity, you create a more objective view in which to understand the world.

In the last few months, I have determined that a regular meditation practice is pivotal to my own personal happiness. In my yoga trainings and in my own efforts towards personal development, there is not much that has had a greater impact than learning to still my mind.

That said, I still squirm when I meditate. And sometimes my unquiet mind convinces me that my timer broke, and I check to be sure. The Gita recognizes this tendency and advises, “Whenever the mind wanders, restless and diffuse in its search for satisfaction without, lead it within; train it to rest in the self”.

As the days, weeks, and months roll by, the resistance that you feel in your body and spirit will subside, and your regular mediation practice will continually reinforce its importance. “Through constant effort [you] learn to withdraw the mind from selfish cravings and absorb it in the Self,” the Gita claims.” Thus [you] attain the state of union.”

This is the teaching of meditation as outlined by the Gita; but meditation, like the practice of yoga is just that: a practice. Thankfully we have a daily opportunity to try again and to recommit.

Considering how old the Gita is, it’s unbelievable how much mankind actually understood about our mind so long ago. So take a few minutes and give meditation a chance to give you a new perspective, and you might find some calm along the way.

Holiday Happiness with Half Pigeon

By YS Instructor, Morgan Martindale

You can prepare for the chaos, mad shoppers, and drama of the holidays by addressing and releasing your emotions through hip opening postures such as half pigeon. Everyone can benefit from a deep hip opener. Open hips also release the negative feelings and energy from your system since stress, tension and anxiety are often stored there.

Half pigeon pose stretches your thighs, groins, hip flexors, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and neck. It is also known to stimulate abdominal organs and helps to open your chest and shoulders.

Step 1: Start in a low lunge, with your right foot forward and your back (left) knee down.

Step 2: Walk your right foot to the outside of your left hand and lower your right knee near your right hand. Lower your right hip to the floor. Place your right shin as parallel as possible to the front edge of your ma and flex your right foot.

Step 3: Extend your back leg straight from the hip socket.

Step 4: Externally rotate your right thigh and internally rotate your left thigh.

Step 5: Inhale and draw your torso upright. Sit up tall and square hips to the floor. If your hips are not square there will be unnecessary force on your low back, and you won’t be able to open your hips to their fullest. If you find yourself falling into your right hip, prop up your hip with a block or blanket to stay aligned.

Step 6: Exhale and walk your hands forward. Rest your head on a block or towel. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your abdomen active. Forward bends turn on our parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) and are cooling, calming poses.

Step 7: Stay with it! You can create a mantra or count your inhale and exhale breaths, with your inhale & exhale at the same fluid length.

Repeat on the other side.

Don’t shy away from practicing the pose if you feel a rush of released emotion and cry. Sometimes this pose will take your breath away because of its depth, but stick with it, stay in the pose, and ultimately you’ll begin to notice improvement and even feel empowered. It’s important to remember in yoga that it’s not where we are going (to get out of the pose), but where we are right now (in the pose and in life). Keep the peace this holiday season.

Namaste.

The Funny Thing About Folding: A Safer Way to Fold Forward

By YS Instructor, Christopher Roberson

As a yoga practitioner, it is easy to get caught up in trying to nail a fancy arm balance, or rock a full Wheel, but some students struggle with the most seemingly basic poses. Whether you have just found your way onto your mat or have been shaking your asana for years, try taking a deeper look at the way you fold.

Most of us know that forward folds are great for stretching the hamstrings, the long muscles that run down the backs of your legs. If these muscles are tight, the pelvis will have a hard time tilting forward. If the pelvis doesn’t tilt forward (meaning the tailbone lifts, and the front of your pelvis drops) pressure is placed on your low spine when the naturally concave curvature of your lumbar spine, or low back, begins to curve away from your body, causing hyperflexion. This is especially hard on your spine when it’s also supporting the weight on your torso.

Below are a few practical tips to tilt your pelvis, lengthen your back, and keep your spine healthy for a long life of yoga when you forward fold.

Squeeze your thighs. Your body’s muscles work together. As one muscle contracts, an opposing muscle stretches. This concept is called reciprocal inhibition, and it’s the building block for how your muscles function together. Your thighs oppose your hamstrings, so squeezing the tops of your legs will actually cue the backs of your legs to release and allow a deeper stretch.

Bend your knees. You do NOT need to have straight legs. In fact, most people should NOT have straight legs when folding. Bending your knees shortens the length of your hamstrings along the backs of your legs, which allows your tailbone to lift higher, and the front of your pelvis to drop lower. When your pelvis has room to tilt, you will find you have a greater ability to extend your spine longer. This isn’t cheating; it’s honoring your body.

Use your belly! Remember that reciprocal inhibition mumbo jumbo from before? Let’s put this concept to use in another way. The rectus abdominal muscles are responsible for folding your torso toward your legs and are what create the appearance of the much sought after 6-pack (a 1-pack is cool too). Engaging this muscle provides the physiological effect of keeping your back muscles from contracting. Combine this action with bent knees and your belly will kiss your thighs in appreciation.

Breathe like it matters. Because it does! Slightly lift and lengthen your torso with each inhalation. Release deeper into the pose as you exhale. This is a technique you can use in just about every pose in your practice.

Separate your feet. Try adding a little space between your feet. A wider stance opens up space around your sacrum and will allow your pelvis to tilt more. Over time, as your legs become more limber you can move your feet closer together.

Use a block. If you have a ways to go before you can touch the ground in a standing forward fold, don’t sweat! Nothing magical happens when you touch your toes, so give your back a break by using blocks! Place a block a few inches in front of your feet, and then place your hands on it to lengthen your reach. Remember, the goal is to keep your back straight instead of letting it round out and away from your body, so use whatever tools you can to protect your spine.

Try sacral nutation. Sacral what?! The area around your sacrum, the sacroiliac joint, is pretty much the most stable joint in the body. It’s meant for supporting weight, which means it’s really inflexible. Nutation is just a fancy word for nodding (as in nodding your head). In a forward fold, if you drag your feet away from one another, without allowing your feet to actually move, parts of your glute muscles, as well as a few more supporting muscle structures will tighten and free space around this oh-so-inflexible space. This will allow a few more millimeters of folding from the subtle nutation of your sacrum and will help protect your lumbar spine from hyperflexing. This is really helpful in longer forward folds, such as Ragdoll.

It’s easy to look back at the list above and get a little overwhelmed. But here’s the deal: try these techniques out when you practice and get a sense for what feels better in YOUR body. Overtime, these elements will become second nature and you’ll wonder how you ever folded before!

The Wayward Warrior: Virabhadrasana 1, in 10 Steps

By YS Instructor, Christopher Roberson

In every class, in almost every yoga studio, you will practice Warrior 1 multiple times. In a vinyasa flow, there is a tendency for this pose to become a transitory pose and not one that receives as much attention as it should. These 10 steps will help you strengthen and stabilize your Warrior 1, and create beneficial alignment.

  1. From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot between your hands. Ensure that the toes on your right foot are facing forward and not turned in or out. You want your weight distributed over your ankle so you can press your foot evenly into the mat.
  2. Pivot your back foot to the ground and squeeze the pinky edge of that foot into your mat, then straighten the back leg. Target a 40-60 degree angle in your back foot. If the outside edge of your foot isn’t pressing into the ground, the arch of your back foot will collapse, and your heel will lift off the floor. This will decrease your connection to the ground and make you less stable. Once you get active in your feet you will realize that they make or break this pose. Your entire back leg should be straight and solid. If you allow a bend in your leg you risk torquing your knee. A good rule of thumb is that the front of your ankle, shin, knee, and thigh should all face the same direction.
  3. Engage your core and lift your arms overhead. When lifting into any pose, tightening your belly in will stabilize your spine.
  4. Deepen into your lunge until your front knee is directly over your ankle. Most people with tight hip flexors have a tendency to let their knee roll inwards. Press your knee towards the pinky toe side of your right foot while drawing your right hip back. This will externally rotate your front thigh and help you avoid strain in your knee. For those of us who are tight, this is a LOT of work.
  5. Square your hips! If your hips aren’t square, you won’t access the deep stretch in the front of your right hip. The psoas connects your low spine to the inside of your leg and lets you do all sorts of amazing things like bend over, walk, and kick. Sitting all day long at work makes these muscles perpetually tight, so if drawing your right hip back is difficult, you’re doing it right!
  6. Tilt your tailbone down. Your spine should be vertical in Warrior 1. If you don’t tuck your tail, your low back will scoop in, and you could compress vertebrae in your low back. You can create this action by squeezing into your left butt cheek while drawing your belly in tight. These muscle groups oppose one another, and activating them both at the same time by tucking your tailbone down and lifting your pubic bone up will stabilize your pelvis.
  7. Square your chest forward. If your chest opens out to the left, the muscles in your back won’t be evenly engaged, and your hips will struggle to stay in alignment.
  8. Roll your shoulders back and down. By squeezing your shoulder blades together and dropping them away from your ears, you will strengthen the muscles in your upper back and open muscles in your chest. Sitting all day long tends to tighten the muscles in our chest and weaken the muscles in our back. This imbalance between the chest and back muscles cause your posture to suffer, which can cause all sorts of issues in your upper body.
  9. Rotate your pinky fingers towards each other and your thumbs away from each other. This movement eternally rotates your shoulders and helps support the action described in #8.
  10. Drag your heels toward the midline of your mat. They shouldn’t actually move, but the muscles that are responsible for drawing your legs together will tighten up and stabilize your pelvis. This is particularly important for those of you with a bit more flexibility that might otherwise rest in the stretch instead of staying active in your legs.

As you read through this list you might think, “Geez, this is a lot! How am I ever going to remember all that”?

Don’t freak out.

Keep checking back to this list, and work on incorporating these elements each time you practice. Warrior 1 is work, and you have unlimited opportunities to do your body good by being in alignment and building all the right strength in all the right places.

My Life as a Carnival Mirror

By YS Instructor, Christopher Roberson

 

There is this version of ourselves that we see when we look into a mirror. What we see reflected back at us can range from strictly superficial things like hair, skin, and smile, to a deeper, more personal view of ourselves as human beings.

Over the last few years I have begun to realize that the image I see in the mirror, where I brush my teeth and comb my hair, feels more like a carnival mirror. In this reflection, proportions are exaggerated, distorted, and any semblance to myself is nearly absent.

The carnival mirror has become a metaphor for my social behavior and the way in which I replicate and exaggerate the behavior of others.

I recall waking up many a morning overwhelmed with a heavy feeling of regret sitting on my chest. Who was that guy last night? He put on my clothes, wore my face, but didn’t represent the values and standards that I want for myself.

In an effort to fit in, I worked too hard to reflect the thoughts, energy, and attitudes of those around me. But in true “Christopher” form, I took what I experienced in others and exaggerated it three-fold. Throw me in a room with a slightly narcissistic and hedonistic variety of people, and suddenly, I became an “If you don’t have something nice to say, come stand by me” kind of guy.

I wasn’t content simply following the lead of others, and I often found myself disproportionately mirroring the energy and flaws of the people around me. This way of being became a mask I wore to absolve myself of responsibility for my behavior, as well as the effect this behavior has on others.

In the moment, it was hilarious to be rude, to make fun of my friends, and to talk shit about people who under any other circumstance I held in high regard. I justified that being catty and sarcastic was part of my cultural connection and sociological response to those around me.

This realization was a necessary step towards redefining who I see when I take a long hard look at myself, and how I can sometimes behave. Part of this process of growth was saturating myself in a community whose values I admire. Thus, emerging myself in the yoga community helped me find ways to create the change I needed for myself.

YogaSport, primarily, has been a welcoming community where smiles and honest connections are in no short supply. I have been fortunate enough to surround myself with people whom I admire, and strive daily to adopt traits that I appreciate in the people around me. It’s in this transition that I have realized that I am the company that I keep, so keeping better company has become a necessity to living the life I want to live.

My struggle is still constant, and I acknowledge that this process of growth is always in a state of flux, but now when I look at who I am, I like what I see.

Lost… Destination, Discover…

By YS Teacher, Morgan Martindale

Have you ever heard of the term boomerang? A boomerang is someone who leaves a job, only to come back to it later. I have a friend who is a boomerang. He started a new job, didn’t like it; went back to his old job and is now miserable.

My friend works in marketing; he has worked in marketing pretty much since graduating college. He believes you have to follow a certain path, ultimately leading to a “big brand” – the pinnacle of what it is to be a marketer. Working for a big brand means you get to work on “big” budgets and “big” projects and “big” ad agencies…that is the goal. Ultimately, my friend who got his one shot to work for a big “brand” didn’t like what he was doing, quit and went back to his old job. Now he is lost; he doesn’t know where to go from here. He feels he made a major mistake and is struggling to find out how to get back on track. He continually looks for jobs, hoping to get that shot again. I keep telling him that he is where he is supposed to be. He is supposed to be in his current job…he isn’t supposed to be in the job he quit. He never believes me when I tell him this. He believes he made a huge mistake and feels like the chances of getting another shot will be few and far between.

This brings us to what Melody Bettie wrote in her book, Journey to the Heart:
“You are where you need to be, on your path, guided, in just the right place for you today. We have a path, a map, even if our eyes and conscious mind can’t see it, can’t figure it out, or aren’t certain it’s there.” That is tough to hear, in such a raw and vulnerable state, but these feelings are part of being alive.

My friend is now trying new things. He is opening his eyes to experiencing life in a new way. Sometimes you just have to say “YES”! When you feel lost, the best thing to do is try different things, improve yourself and shift your vision. My friend noticed when riding his bike outdoors, he could escape his feelings. Also, he is now taking yoga and that is something he would never, ever have done before!

Yoga can be a good workout, but getting to the mat and practicing can be so much more if you are willing to be open to the opportunity for more. Our practice allows us to face our feelings head on. Be open to what the Universe holds. Open your eyes in a new way, a better way, to begin shedding the layers to your best, truest self.

Yes, boomerangs are objects that come back to their initial starting point. And though my friend is still unhappy with the outcome of his decision, he understands that just like a boomerang this gives him another opportunity to start over, and try again, and be better now and in the future.

Being Present On and Off The Mat

By YS Assistant, Twyla McCarthy

Many if not all of us have had one of those days. As much as we plan ahead, the universe seems to have a different plan. Take for example, one of those days that are perfectly scheduled to a tee. The lunch is packed, and appointments are made. When you look at your calendar, you just hope to be able to pull it off. There are appointments booked back to back all day, an interview, and yoga classes to teach.

Of course obstacles come up such as a nail in your tire, or a rescheduled interview. When these kinds of situations arise during a perfectly scheduled day it’s really challenging not to get extremely agitated and panicked. What is important to remember when these situations arise is to stay present.

Baron Baptiste talks about presence in his book, 40 Days to Personal Revolution. He says, “My ego screams out that there is so much to do, but I’ve learned that saying present in anything is a practice. As often as I forget and get distracted, I must remember and simply begin again.”

Beginning again can happen for you at any moment you choose: stressful situations, traffic, or even on your mat while practicing yoga. Calm, presence, and breath can be applied when situations arise in life. It is a choice to be present in the situation or pose that is happening right now. Instead of fighting what is happening, ease into it with breath, and everything will fall into place.

After recalling Baron’s words, I approached my hectic day with the calm centeredness that I learned in yoga. It worked! It was easier to tackle any bumps with a sense of ease. Presence works when dealing with schedules, work, and people. Presence works everywhere!

No matter how perfectly we plan, there is always an instance where we need to breathe and channel all of those hours spent on the mat instead of yelling at traffic, or being agitated. Practicing the asana life brings us while practicing presence allows us to start again if we need to. If our eyes and ears are open, the windows of opportunity will open around us. Yoga is a practice that unfolds when we need it. We just need to be conscious of it. Eckhart Tolle says in Meditations from the Mat, “You can’t think about presence, and the mind can’t understand it. Understanding presence is being present.” By learning to stand in power and breathe, we are able to use presence in day-to-day life. Yoga isn’t necessarily about being this enlightened being and quoting all of the masters; yoga is about using what you learn in class and bringing it into your life.

That'll Do Pig, That'll Do

By YS Instructor, Christopher Roberson

One day, when I was a kid, my father asked me if I wanted to know the difference between a dog and a pig.

“When a dog gets shocked by an electric fence, he will never go near a hot wire again. But pigs…pigs will test the fence everyday. If the electric fence goes down, you end up spending the afternoon trying to herd them back onto the farm.” Pigs, it seems, push boundaries on a regular basis; whereas, dogs have a tendency to “learn their lesson” the first time around.

Starting out as children, we learn valuable lessons from our mistakes. Eat before swimming, and you’ll get cramps. Touch a hot stove, and you’ll get burned. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

I’ve worked with a lot of beginner yogis, and at some point certain poses create fear and discomfort. Stories are created in our minds that talk us in and out of toying with new places. “If I lift both feet in Crow, I’ll surely fall flat on my face,” is a very real acknowledgment of uncertainty, and I have heard it many times. I will let you in on a secret: falling on your face from 18 inches off the ground won’t kill you. Falling down isn’t even indicative of failure; it’s a sign of perseverance, assuming you get back up again.

We can’t possibly know our limits until we test them. Up to that point, it’s not a limit; it’s the idea of a limit. In order to be the best person you can be, push your comfort zone continuously and see what happens.

Comfort and complacency is our mind telling us we are safe. But instead of being safe, what we really are is immobile. We are safely locked behind the fence, living day to day in the same place, and closing ourselves off to growth because we don’t want to get shocked.

In her book Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson dispenses a variety of improvisational maxims that coincide with real world challenges. In “Don’t Prepare,” she states that confidence follows success. Her context for this statement is primarily in regards to stage fright, but its application extends onto our yoga mats and into the world around us. The joy of success can’t ever happen if we don’t try to push past our fear of failure.

By letting go of tangible fears of anxiety and failure, we create the opportunity to learn something about ourselves. Real success doesn’t happen when we are afraid to try, and playing it safe doesn’t foster confidence.

I challenge you to explore the places you typically avoid. I’m not arguing that we all go out and touch hot stoves, or eat Chipotle before swimming laps, but there is always room to explore perceived restrictions and boundaries.

Explore your limitations and see what happens. If a pig can do it, so can you.

Angela's Blog Has Moved

Angela’s Blog, life, unscripted, has moved to her personal website. Find her new posts at her new website www.angelawagneryoga.com and specifically her blog here.  She promises to write more in 2013. 😉

I Am Them by Evelyn

Our Teachers in Training share their insights with the YogaSport community.

by Evelyn Roland

I don’t think it’s any secret that I love yoga. Why wouldn’t I?  Yoga has so many great things to offer. I have been practicing for 3 years and have learned a lot about myself along the way.  There are things that I have heard teachers say that have really hit home for me and helped me to make changes on my mat and in my life, such as, learning to breathe through the challenging moments and how beneficial it is to just sit still. But there are also things that I have heard said many times by many instructors that very clearly did not apply to me, such as, how certain yoga poses can bring up emotions
and how what we do on our mats, we also do in our lives.  And while these messages did not apply to me, I thought they were great and I was glad that they were being delivered to ‘those people’ who needed them.  I hoped that ‘they’ were listening so that ‘they’ could grow and get as much out of yoga as I was getting.  And then this summer, it suddenly became clear… Holy Crow, those messages are for me!

As much as I love yoga, I have always struggled some with my practice.  There have been poses that I have resisted strongly, mostly poses that involve going upside down.  I knew that there was some self-doubt that I needed to deal with, but I also knew the largest part of my resistance was based on fear of losing control.  And in the end, I was partially right.  It was fear of losing control … but not physically like I had always assumed.  It was emotionally!  Lo and behold, there really are some poses that bring up emotions, but the reason that hadn’t been true for me up until now was because I was actively avoiding most of them.

That realization shook me up a little bit.  But it also forced me to look at some things differently and to think about what else I might be avoiding for all the wrong reasons.  I am now actively trying to lose a little control and I have cried through several of my practices recently.  Amazingly enough, I feel so much better!  My practices (and my soul) are so much lighter and less strained.  I have become incredibly aware of the amount of energy I was spending trying to maintain strict control over things that are not always supposed to be in my control.  I was literally exhausting myself.  And letting go of some of my control has been surprisingly freeing.  But, as happy as I am to have learned all of that, what I really learned was that there is no ‘them’.  There is only ‘us’, and we should all try to be as open as possible to any message offered to us in the course of our practice.    Who knows what might happen.