Be open to the beginners mind and find your joy

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This past week concluded my 9 month anatomy program. In our last class we were asked to share the most valuable things we each had learned. I cannot fully remember exactly what I said at my turn, but I began to think more about it in the days following. One of the most valuable things I learned was to have a fresh perspective in my own practice and as a teacher…breath and movement together make yoga even if it’s not a pose in a book; it is listening and learning with a beginners mind; an open mind that allows us to grow.

I asked my students to approach practice with a beginners mind this week; to draw upon a positive memory of a first time they experienced something. As we entered into our first Downward Dog on the mat, I reminded students to think about it as if it were their first ever…what could they do to make that pose feel good…and then do it….not to worry about what it looks like. To practice this way on the mat can be a gift because you can strip away expectations for yourself (i.g. to be the best in the class, to get the heels to the floor). Downward Dog can represent a new perspective…a chance to look at your feet in a different way, to turn the world upside down. Even though I encouraged them to have a beginners mind, the practice itself was challenging. Slow moving from High Lunge to Warrior 3 and then Standing Split staying very focused the entire time. We opened the shoulders with deep binds in both Uttitha and Pavritta (revolved) Parsvokanasana and stretched the IT band and hamstrings with Revolved Triangle and Standing Splits.

Pigeon was the pose I used to truly represent the beginners mind. We built up to it using a slow progression; using various piriformis stretches and then moving into a “z sit” position before finding our full pigeon pose; taking it slowly as if it were our first time working towards that deep stretch. All of that prep work along with our open hamstrings and shoulders allowed us to explore Pavritta Surya Yantrasana (Compass pose–pictured above)

Off the mat we can aspire for a beginners mind as well, to find the extraordinary in the everyday miracles in our lives, to practice having a new perspective, the freedom to go outside the box (or the pose on the mat). Sometimes when we know what is coming next we miss what is happening now. To give ourselves the gift to appreciate something as if it is new allows for so much joy along the journey. Nothing helps me to experience that more than being a parent. Getting to see your children experience things (whether “ordinary” or “extraordinary”) for the first time and feel the excitement they have, the willingness to openly accept and live in the moment….that is the beginners mind at its very best.

As we moved into Savasana, the practice changed a bit. The beginners mind in Savasana is often one of angst and impatience. And as we grow in our yoga practice we discover an appreciation for the quietness of mind that can happen once the body is still. Just as our Asana practice this week was physically advanced yet we used our beginners mind, the process of letting go of judgment and expectation, cultivating acceptance and being present in the moment in Savasana is an advanced practice; however each time it  happens it is just as special as the first time. It is through that practice on and off the mat that we find the Joy. Namaste

Learn Lisa’s Lessons

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It’s interesting how the universe works. It offers us perspective at just the right time if we are open to receiving it. Memorial Day Weekend I was feeling the passage of time. We went to Florida for a visit. It has been 7 years since we lived there and I felt….old. My inner voice was loud and negative. On the last day of our trip I was working hard to quiet that inner critic and I had a realization. It was 5 years to that very day that I had lost my friend Lisa. Lisa taught me many lessons in a very short time. And 5 years later, the universe reminded me of those lessons once again.

She taught me what a true privilege it is to get older, to experience the passage of time, to watch your children grow up. During her 6 month cancer fight she told me most of all that she was fighting for the privilege of getting laugh lines from years of joy with her children, wrinkles that come from a well lived life and even sun spots from endless hours on the beach (Lisa loved the beach).

She also taught me to truly listen to my body. Lisa had experienced abdominal pain for at least a year before she was diagnosed. She took Advil and Tums and very good care of her two beautiful children and her husband. She didn’t listen to what her body was telling her. Because she gave so much to all those around her she didn’t have much left for herself; she didn’t make herself a priority. We have the opportunity; the gift to care for ourselves. And when we do that, we are that much better for all the people we love in our lives. It is a selfishness that makes us more selfless.

So, as we began on our mats this week I asked my students to share in the wisdom of Lisa’s lessons. To find gratitude in the time that passes, to truly enjoy the moments along the way and to listen and nurture the body and the mind. We began in Supta Baddha Konasana (laying on our backs with feet together and knees out to the side) with one hand on the belly and one on the heart. We warmed up the abdominals and moved into Sun Salutations and let the flow and the breath begin to quiet the inner critic. We flowed, twisted and balanced on our mats to cultivate focus and cleanse the body of unhealthy energy; to practice listening and nurturing our bodies and our minds. We backed off when we needed and explored revolved Parsvokonasana into Eka Pada Koundinyasana (arm balance) only when we felt ready.

The practice of Yoga truly lives off the mat. Finding the perspective to be grateful for the opportunity to age, to experience stages of life and to be comfortable in our own skin comes from a gratitude and understanding that what we are given each day is a gift, not a guarantee. It is easy for our inner critic to be loud and critical. With perspective and gratitude we can quiet the critic and enjoy the journey.

Back in the room, we slowed into our final seated postures and transitioned into Savasana. As I felt the energy become quiet, I brought myself back to the moment in the picture above; Practicing  Uttitha Hasta Padangustasana on that rock, on a beautiful beach with the waves crashing behind me, I was practicing so much more. I was practicing gratitude for the opportunity to be there in that moment as I had been many times before and for having known and learned from such a special person. I was practicing nurturing the body and the mind by listening and quieting my inner critic. I was practicing Lisa’s lessons.  I feel incredible gratitude for the lessons she taught and for being reminded of them just when I needed them. Namaste.

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TAKE your Time, There is never enough.

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“TAKE your time, there is never enough”. I heard those words at the end of a talk I attended recently. It started me thinking. We use “Take your time” often to remind people to relax, slow down, to not stress but what about another interpretation…to TAKE your timeto own it and make the most of it because there is never enough. When most of us begin our yoga journey it starts as a physical practice, an opportunity to develop strength and flexibility in the body. As we develop a true connection to the body, we find insight and connection to the mind as well. First we learn to take our time (slow down and be mindful) and then we learn to truly TAKE our time (be fully present in the moment). Once we find that practice, the opportunity exists for more;  a refinement of mindful breath which brings with it a window into to soul. If we both take our time (move slowly and mindfully with the breath)  and TAKE our time (commit fully, live presently and truthfully), that is the journey and the practice.

I asked a lot of my students on the mat last week. I asked them to begin to establish the body/mind and breath/soul connection. As we began our Sun Salutations, synching breath and movement began the process of a mindful asana practice . From there, staying present and moving slowly through transitions such as Reverse Warrior into Half Moon allowed us to practice TAKING our time (making the most of it).

We paired together “Take your time” and “TAKE your time” as we practiced Forearm Stand. Forearm Stand requires deep engagement through the shoulders, back, deep core and trunk muscles. To stay in the pose requires stillness, presentness and patience of mind. It asks us to be mindful in our transition from Dolphin Pose to Forearm Stand and to be “all in” (TAKING our time) once we are up. Students played with one leg bent with foot against the wall and bending both knees (pictured above) and we “took our time”.

Yoga is the practice connecting body and breath to mind and spirit; to live mindfully and presently on our mats also can translate off the mat and into our lives.  When we can pair “Take your time” (slow down and focus) with “TAKE your time” (live mindfully and presently) we have the chance to connect to our soul…the things that makes us truly happy….. and share that happiness with others.

A mindful transition to Savasana came with a reminder that this is where the true work began, the body was no longer a distraction and the mind did not need to be either. Access to the soul and true happiness was there for the taking. Staying mindfully in the moment was all it took to TAKE your time, own it; make the most of it. It’s yours after-all and there is never enough. Namaste.

 

 

Be like the Element of Water and go with the Flow

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I have taken a few weeks off from writing this blog. It was something on the to-do list that just wasn’t getting done so I took it as a sign to step away. I have been sharing my inspiration with my classes but wasn’t finding the focus to sit and write them down. So I surrendered it for a while and now it has found its place again. In the spirit of Spring and celebrating the Earth on Earth Day, I found true inspiration last week in the element of Water.

Water is strong, powerful, unrelenting at times and it is soft and jovial and comforting at other times. Water is deliberate in its path but able to be flexible and alter course when necessary. Water is patient and a shape shifter; able to adapt to the hardness that lies in its path by going around it or through it and yet it Journeys on.

Water has a lot to teach us. It teaches us that there are times when we need to be strong and powerful and times when we need to be soft and flexible. It teaches us to be mindful of transitions; flexible to changes in the path, and it teaches us that whatever the conditions, that we can let go of the struggle and yield to the natural flow of life… we can Go With The Flow.

So on the mat this week we used our own vinyasa “flow” to connect to the attributes of Water. There were times when we were soft; warming up in Cat Cow stretches and moving freely to loosen up the hips and the spine. There were times when we were powerful; as we held Plank and Downward Dog for several breaths and moved from High Lunge into Warrior Three with the leg pulsing. There was the opportunity to push to our edge in Astavakrasana (pictured above) and shape shift as we flowed smoothly from half bound Parsvokonasana into half bound Trikonasana. We were patient and deliberate…Present,  by using our breath and focusing on mindful transitions from one pose to the next. By doing that we were able to lessen the struggles, connect to the smoothness, the natural flow; as we moved through our asana practice.

Off the mat, we can also develop the practice of connecting to the attributes of Water that will serve us. Just as Water has the qualities of Power, Strength, Softness and Flexibility; So Do We. Considering we are made up of about 65% water, that is not so hard to believe but sometimes we do forget.

As we moved through our final back bending and spinal twisting and began to prepare for Savasana, I reminded the students to draw back to the intention we set at the beginning of class; to connect and remember all the attributes of Water that we have inside us. As they let go of the physical “flow” of the body in their final meditation, I  asked them to imagine a calm, clear, still lake and to put themselves sitting beside that lake in a state of calmness, stillness and clarity; to channel those qualities that are already inside them and to bring them into their lives off the mat.

As I walked out of my classes last week after sharing my message, I felt my own “flow” begin to  draw me back to my writing. Sometimes, just as Water does, We need to avoid or go around what is in our way. And then sometimes…We need to Jump Right Back In. Thank you Water for bringing me forward on my path this week. Namaste.

Connect to your strength below the surface

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Life is like the ocean. There are calm days and rocky ones and all types in between. When our “ocean conditions” are rough we can get swept up in the turmoil on the surface or we can make the choice to go deeper. Two quotes together inspired my message last week.  “In quietness and calmness is our strength” and “Calm waters run deep”. When we only focus on the surface turmoil, we live a “shallow” life. If we delve deeper we can go where the calmness and strength reside.

On the mat last week, we set the intention to connect to the quiet deep waters regardless of what was happening at the “surface” in our bodies. Suynamaskara A felt like calm familiar seas; safe and comfortable. Then as we swept arms up and down in high lunge and the intensity began to build, we channeled the calm, quiet strength within. No matter what the pose, how challenging, the practice was to connect to the still waters below the surface. We used Star Gazer pose with a flow into Side plank several times to simulate rougher seas as we continued to practice calmness of the breath and mind. When we felt the “surface conditions” begin to penetrate, we took a rest, to again connect to what the true practice was.

On the mat we practice, off the mat we live. Our practice of connecting to the calmer waters within ourselves,       (no matter what we were working on in our bodies) was in preparation to live our Yoga off the mat.  As humans we can expect to spend some time on the surface handling whatever conditions exist but as we practice; it can become easier to access our calm inner strength and to more often live a “deeper” life. The breath can be our guide on and off the mat as it navigates us through the rough seas with a calmness and consistency that can serve us any time. I often find myself exhaling with a hissing sound in my throat (Ujjayi breath) to help me connect to my “deeper” waters. It is a gift to be able to live in a place below the surface sometimes.

Back on the mat, we noticed that sometimes it can be harder to stay in the calm deeper space once the body is at rest. Savasana is the ultimate test of this practice; with nothing to distract us from the deeper mind, can we stay calm and focused? Can we access our inner strength or does the clutter and rough water at the surface prevail? I reminded my students that “Calm waters run deep” and that “In quietness and calmness is our strength”. What we practice on the mat, becomes our life off the mat. We get to make the choice; do we stay at the surface or do we go DEEP. Namaste.

 

 

Learn what the Breath can Teach

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The body can teach us so much. This year of studying anatomy has reinforced that for me more than ever. The physiological process of inhaling and exhaling is actually very enlightening, not just from an anatomical standpoint but from a spiritual one as well.

Very simply, when we INHALE our diaphragm moves down, our ribcage moves up and space is created for the lungs to take in air. The lungs are not muscles, they don’t actually pull the air in, rather when space is created in the cavity, the lungs accept what is being offered. The larger the space (the larger the inhale), the more the lungs can accept. When we translate this out of the body, there is a powerful message; The more open we are in the mind, heart and spirit, the more space we have to receive what the universe is offering.

What is there to be learned from the EXHALE?   When the body exhales, it releases out what it no longer needs, what is not serving it. Again, from a spiritual perspective a lesson is there; We can use the exhale as our  opportunity to surrender and let go of what is not serving us spiritually.

We began practice in seated meditation and visualized the air moving in and filling the lungs (taking in what the universe is offering) and then moving out of the lungs (as we surrendered that which is no longer serving us).  In the opening Sun Salutes each movement connected to an inhale or an exhale. As we moved from Warrior 1, to Half Bound Parsvokonasana and then into Half Moon, we continued our journey into the breath. With each inhale we accepted what the universe was offering in our bodies, in our hearts and spirits as well. With each exhale, we surrendered, released out into the universe what we no longer needed, what was not serving us.

From there we began a series of balancing postures with the intent to appreciate one more aspect of the breath, the concept of BALANCE. Air moves into the lungs when the pressure outside the lungs is greater than the pressure inside and vice versa.  The universe (and the body as a participant in the universe) is striving for balance, to equalize the pressure. So, just as our bodies are constantly working to achieve this balance of pressure, we worked on finding and cultivating balance in our poses. As we interlaced the hands in Warrior 3 and slowly lowered to Standing Split keeping the hands clasped behind our backs as long as our balance would allow, we appreciated all the subtle things that were working together to achieve that balance.

Off the mat, these lessons still apply. I spent quite a bit of time in my breath last week, visualizing the process and using its powers. It’s so amazing and comforting to have it. When I needed to be open to what the universe was offering (or throwing my way as it sometimes felt), I focused more on the inhale. When I needed to let go of something (an action or statement that wasn’t serving me) I embraced the exhale. And when I just felt overwhelmed or out of balance, I connected to the relationship between the two.

As the asana practice began to wind down it was a chance to start the transition of these lessons from the body to a deeper place. I encouraged them to learn what the breath can teach; to be open and accepting of what the universe is offering, to practice letting go of negative or unhelpful energy and to appreciate all the factors that work together to create balance in our lives. As we sat in our final seated meditation, we all inhaled and exhaled together. I felt such gratitude for the gift of the breath and all it can teach us, in our Yoga practice and in our lives.  Namaste

 

Little Moments Build a Joyful Journey

 

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Vacations are like miniature versions of our life journey…there is a beginning, middle and an end…there are some big, wonderful moments along the way and many many small moments. The more PRESENT we are on our journey, the more we get to connect to the joy from not just the big moments, but those small moments as well; the ones happening everyday. These are the moments that make the Journey Joyful.

I traveled to Hawaii last week with my family and it was wonderful.  We experienced  BIG things; the top of a 10,000 foot Volcano, an immense bamboo forest, an 80 foot waterfall, massive breaching whales and all-encompassing sunsets. However, to me, it was the LITTLE moments that made the journey special. I fondly remembered having many of the same experiences on my honeymoon in Hawaii several years ago. I watched my husband cliff-dive into a waterfall pool and my son and daughter boogie board all the way up to the beach together.  Yet, there was another little moment that touched me the most; every time (for which there were many on this trip) a small hand slipped inside my own; the feeling of the fingers of my children curl around my fingers, unrequested, just because they wanted, made this journey so incredibly sweet.

As I taught my classes this week, my message was simple and sweet (just like the feeling of one of my children’s hand inside my own as we walked) Be Present for the Small Moments and create a Joyful Journey. I asked my students to connect to an everyday moment off the mat that made them smile or feel warm in their hearts and to set intention towards having a joyful journey on their mats this week by acknowledging those special, little everyday moments on the mat that offer joy.  I shared that the feeling of my children’s small fingers interlaced with my own still makes me feel warm inside.

On our mats, we began our practice of connecting to those everyday special moments with our first Downward Dog of the day. I asked them to take it in, to connect to the feeling, the sensation as the body prepared for what it knew was to come. We spend so much time in Downward Dog on our mats, entering it and exiting it, using it to transition from one pose to the next that it seemed like the perfect pose to represent our little everyday special moments on our mats. We practiced Warrior 2 with arms behind our backs and when we did stretch the arms out fully in Warrior 2, we could appreciate how wonderful that “ordinary” pose felt, and we smiled. Often we focus on the BIG poses, the challenging arm balances or binds and less on all the small transitions and “ordinary, everyday” poses we do regularly in our practice that give our bodies what they need, that keep us coming back to the mat. Those are the small moments, the ones that provide the everyday joy. And off the mat, the same…often we measure our journey by those “big” moments and we are not as present for the “small, everyday” ones that can provide so much joy.

As we flowed through our Asana practice, we retraced our steps quite a bit; transitioning from Standing Split back to Warrior 3 and then Warrior 1 and from Dancers (pictured above) to Dancers Half Moon and then back to Dancers again. These served as powerful reminders that the journey is not a straight line forward…and sometimes retracing our steps, (as I did many times on my trip) can offer clarity and appreciation for where we have been and all the moments along the way.

Gradually we transitioned into Savasana and I reminded my students again to connect to their everyday moment off the mat, the one they had identified that made them feel joy or warmth or gratitude; perhaps something as subtle as a smile. The practice of being present, of connecting to the everyday joy in our lives is just that, A PRACTICE, one that we can take with us off the mat.

After class, a student came up to me. She said “I just loved that first Downward Dog”.   A smile came to my face, I felt warm inside and I realized that this moment was another one that I didn’t let pass me by. Namaste