Sunday, March 21, 2010

108 Sun Salutations

Yesterday morning, on the first day of spring, I went to Free Soul Yoga to do 108 Sun Salutations (Surya
Namaskar A).  The instructor began class by talking a little bit about what we were about to do.

She told us we'd begin by doing 25 salutations toward the west, which signified what was ending (winter).  Then we'd do 25 salutations each to the north and south before ending with 33 to the east, which would symbolize the new beginning (spring).  She also spoke a bit about winter and how we often go inside during the cold months, both figuratively and literally.  Spring is a time for us to open back up.

The next class had to be in the yoga room just an hour after we began, and the sun salutations took longer than expected.  We ended up doing 54 instead of 108, but I learned a lot during those 54 salutations and the few minutes of floor poses that followed.

As we faced west, which symbolized winter, the instructor asked us to think about what we wanted to let go.  Then, as we faced east, we each set an intention for spring.  As a yoga student, I am often asked to set intentions, and it's interesting to observe what comes up for me in those situations.  I find that my first thoughts are usually the most accurate and truthful, but they are often followed (with breathtaking speed) by qualifications, justifications, and belabored analysis.  At that point, my job is to sift back through all the BS, find that initial thought, and gauge whether it is indeed the right intention.  

I also frequently encounter an indecisiveness that is not part of my everyday personality.  For example, yesterday when the teacher asked us to set an intention for what we wanted spring to bring, I debated for what felt like forever before narrowing it down to optimism, abundance, generosity, and strength.  Limiting myself more than that would have been impossible given the question and the context.  For some unknown reason I had placed huge amounts of expectations onto this one particular Saturday morning.

I learned even more about myself as we moved through our sun salutations.  For one thing, I started the practice drowning in complete self-absorption.  Am I doing this right?  Should my arms go here, or here?  Should I jump back to chaturanga?  Should I jump forward?  Should I even be here?  What if this was a very, very bad idea?  What will happen if I have to roll up my mat and leave?  Could I ever show my face here again?

I calmed down a bit after a few rounds and tried to focus on my breath, but little, annoying thoughts continued to creep up.  Am I going too fast?  Am I going too slow?  Should my breath be louder?  Am I exhaling too soon?  Maybe I should stop jumping back.

And then there was the counting.  The instructor had mentioned before we started that we should help her keep count.  I forgot this request until we had completed at least five sun salutations, and then I focused inordinate amounts of energy on trying to determine what the count should be.

After we'd completed 25 (or was it 27?), my mind found new problems to occupy itself.  My right wrist aches.  I felt a twinge in my left elbow.  Perhaps I should be modifying already.  Why don't I want to do cobra pose?  Since when have my wrists hurt in upward-facing dog?  Why must I insist on doing upward-facing dog anyway?  Maybe I should modify everything.  Maybe I should take a break.  I don't really need a break.  The break would be premature, and I might regret it.  After all, one of my intentions when we faced west was to shove laziness out of my life.

But should I be pacing myself?  Should I have started slower?  Maybe I should have modified in the beginning and not jumped back or forward until the end, once I knew for certain that I wouldn't have to pick up my mat and flee this yoga studio forever.  But wait, is this yoga, or a 10K?  What is wrong with me?  Why can't I focus on my breath and only my breath for at least, well, one breath?

As usual, my mind was hell-bent on travelling wherever it wanted.  Happily, though, I had so much time--so many breaths!--in that yoga room on Saturday that I was able to work past some of the chatter and go a little deeper.  About halfway through, I thought about an article in Shambhala Sun magazine that I'd read earlier in the week.  In the article, Thich Nhat Hanh shares five mindfulness exercises with his readers.  He talks in beautiful detail about learning to be in the moment and learning to focus on the breath.

"Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in," he says, and he reminds his readers that to breathe in is a miracle each and every time.  There is joy and happiness in recognizing this miracle, in viewing your breath as a "celebration of life."  As I worked further into the 54 sun salutations, I thought more about this and then, with some success, implemented it into my breath and yoga poses.

I paid close attention to my breath and how it filled my lungs and expanded my torso from all sides.  When my mind wandered, I tried to bring it back to the moment, concentrating on both my breath and my body awareness.  I don't think it's possible to focus on your breath and physical body without travelling to a place of sheer gratitude.  In those moments, instead of worrying about what the future might bring, I felt my muscles moving; I felt the strength of my body; and I felt thankful. 

There I was, in a yoga studio, on a Saturday morning, lifting my arms up, jumping my legs back, worrying about silly things like whether I'd lost count during my last downdog.  I was breathing in deep, forgetting to breathe entirely, exhaling beautifully, inhaling twice in a row to catch up with the others, feeling inadequate, feeling absolutely adequate and special and connected, concentrating on stupid things, and opening my mind to all kinds of possibilities.  I was knee-deep already in optimism, abundance, generosity, and strength, and, best of all, I knew it.

[Click here to check out the Global Mala Project.]

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What's Your Vibe?

Please accept my apologies for the delay between postings.  This week was busier than usual, with a busy work week, subbing two yoga classes in addition to my regular two classes, and some (amazing!) yoga workshops.  Free Soul Yoga hosted a "Weekend with David Swenson," which included five separate workshops, and I was able to attend two of them.

David Swenson is one of the foremost experts on Ashtanga Yoga, which is one of the yoga styles that provide the foundation for power vinyasa yoga, the style I practice most.  I own Swenson's book, Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual, and I've been wowed by photos of him demonstrating incredible yoga poses.  Swenson began practicing in 1969, before yoga was well known or accepted in the West, and he studied under K. Pattabhi Jois (!).  To have Swenson in Denver leading a yoga workshop of this kind was an amazing gift - I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to attend.

Swenson truly seems to live his yoga.  He is caring, humble, thoughtful, and, most of all, present.  He seemed genuinely to care about each person in the room as an individual, and this was clear both when he lectured and when he instructed a yoga practice.  I had planned to attend only the Friday night workshop, "Ashtanga: An Introduction," but I found myself registering for a second workshop within minutes of finishing the first!  And I'm very glad I attended that second session, which was called "The Physics of Flight and Flowing through Practice."

During the first session, Swenson discussed what he calls the "five elements of Ashtanga practice."  These elements are ujjayi breathing; Drishti; the bandhas; asanas; and vinyasa (he explained that "vinyasa" means that every movement has a prescribed breath attached to it).  He talked about each of these elements in some detail, illustrating difficult concepts with personal anecdotes and a sense of humor, and he encouraged us to keep these technical details in perspective. 

Perspective is necessary because, as Swenson explained, the real goal of yoga is "to increase prana in our bodies," and the real test for our yoga is, "What do you do with that energy the rest of the day?"  He said, "We are each pulsing energy all day long - what is your vibe?  Is it positive, or is it negative?" 

This is what yoga is really about.  Swenson added that lots of mean people can put their bodies into perfect yoga poses; yoga is not about a perfect pose or having a perfect body. 

He expanded on this point during the second workshop, explaining that alignment in yoga postures is about avoiding injury, and it doesn't actually matter what your body looks like in a yoga posture.  The big picture is about staying present and focused; how we look in our yoga poses or whether we can do a certain pose are both irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

This doesn't mean alignment has no place in a yoga class, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to improve our yoga practice.  But, as Swenson explained, most of the time we "live on the plateau" with regard to our yoga practice.  Sometimes we progress and sometimes we feel like we've taken two steps back, but usually we just live on the plateau.  As a result, Swenson went on to say, yoga means making every effort you can towards something and then detaching from the outcome. 

I shared a lot of this with my beginner-level classes today, and I think it resonated with them.  I reminded them to let go of expectations on the yoga mat (which is a practice we can try to take off the mat as well).  Swenson reminded us that every day on the mat is different, and, when you first step onto your mat for the day, you really have no idea what you're going to get.  We shouldn't measure our yoga practice by how balanced or flexible or strong we are on a given day.

If you look at Swenson's Practice Manual, you'll see that he offers alternatives for many Ashtanga poses.  He seems to want yoga to be accessible to everyone, and providing modifications for the postures is a way to do this.  For many reasons, I'm grateful to him for this philosophy of inclusiveness, and, on a purely physical level, I was very grateful for some of those alternatives!  I'd only taken two Ashtanga classes before this weekend, and I was definitely a beginner.  That, too, was a great experience for me - it reminded me how my beginner students probably feel, which further deepened my compassion and respect for them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Practice and Theory

I'm slowly learning about the blogging community (the "blogosphere"), and it's quite intriguing.  There's a whole world out here, and I like it!  I'm following a few other yoga-related blogs, and I'm searching for some blogs that discuss writing and the writing process.  When I have time, I'd also like to find some good bloggers who keep up with hip-hop and alternative music. 

I've been very impressed with many of the other yoga blogs.  My yoga studio and teacher training peers have become a terrific, supportive community for me, and it's fun to think there might be an online community that could provide similar support and conversation.  I can't wait to dig in a bit deeper.

In reading several posts on a few yoga blogs, I noticed that some writers seem concerned or bothered by some of the ways yoga is perceived and practiced in the West these days.  This isn't unusual; I've read opposing opinions for years regarding whether the "Westernization" of yoga is good for yoga or whether it's having a negative effect.  Certainly, yoga in the West is constantly changing - some might argue it's evolving; others might say we're moving backwards.

For me, it's an easy call.  I truly believe anyone and everyone can benefit from yoga, and I don't really care why someone first comes to the mat, where they practice, or how traditional their yoga experience is.  If I place my mat on the floor of a 24-Hour Fitness, the benefits of my yoga practice can be just as powerful as if I practice at the most traditional yoga studio in town.  Same deal if I unroll my mat on the basement floor of the local church or community center, and no different if I roll my mat out in a tiny space at home and follow a yoga DVD or podcast. 

I'm oversimplifying to some extent, and I do recognize that one's practice space can have an impact -- beauty, comfort, inspiration all matter -- but I think my underlying point is valid.  This is yoga we're talking about, and I think we, as a community, should strive for inclusiveness and non-judgment at all times.  Yoga may be the hip thing to do right now, and some of our students may practice yoga for precisely that reason, but such reasons are likely to change over time. 

I can appreciate and respect others' concerns that, if we're too flippant or indifferent, we might lose sight of important aspects of yoga.  I know that many people practicing yoga in the United States today likely do so without a fundamental understanding of yoga's benefits or history.  In fact, when I first practiced, I lacked any such understanding.  But, ten years later, I've made yoga a major focus of my life.  I study the benefits; I study the history; I come to my mat consistently; and I try to pay it forward, teaching others what I've learned.  Yoga has made me a better, happier person, and how I found it initially is far less important than the fact that I found it. 

The fast growth of yoga in the United States has certainly changed the practice in many respects.  But it's also vitalized it in new ways.  A great example is Western yoga scholarship.  Stephen Cope's The Wisdom of Yoga discusses ancient yoga philosophy alongside recent neurological science, explaining how yoga works to the modern -- and perhaps skeptical -- reader.  Cope's work is a valuable contribution to yoga literature.

One limitation of the blog medium is that there's not a lot of space to address nuance if I want to keep my posts to a (somewhat) reader-friendly length.  This is one post for which I think nuance, detail, and thoughtfulness are extremely important, and I want to be clear that I'm not indifferent to the concerns of more traditionally-minded yogis.  But a recent quote I received through Darren Main's quote-of-the-day email seems quite relevant to this discussion.  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, esteemed yoga teacher and a leader in bringing yoga to the West, said, "Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory."

I've written before about how the physical yoga poses (asanas) are only one part of The Eight-Limbed Path; the yogic path is not exclusively (or even primarily) about the physical yoga practice, though in the West we often focus on that aspect of yoga. 

But, even if much of Western yoga ignores the rest of The Eight-Limbed Path, I can't think it a bad thing for Westerners to come to their mats to practice, even if many never delve any deeper into yoga and even if "practice" means only the physical asana practice.  After all, it's the practice that matters most (99%!), and it's our job as teachers to convey -- and live -- that truth.