That's What I Thought....my Brain's a Liar

I have not been meditating in the 'traditional' sense lately.  It's been completely useless to track my thoughts because most of them are gargantuan shadows of my ex and the apartment I thought I'd be living in and the conversations I must have misunderstood, etc.  You know.  If you've ever broken up with someone, you know.  I broke up with wine and my boyfriend in the same month.  I loved these things (for different reasons, obvies) and I am struggling to not fixate on them both throughout the day (at different times.)  The process of taking seated meditation and concentrating on my breath is not impossible, but I've had to take some very specific steps FIRST in order to get on my ass (like that one?) and meditate.

Before I tell you exactly what these steps are, first let me say that something incredible happened to me a few days ago.  I was at an amazing gallery in Houston, surrounded by art patrons and their children and celebrating the publication of a beautiful collection of mermaid stories and I was with a dear friend.  

We talked about all sorts of things, including my recent breakup, which I gracefully brushed off.  Several people offered me champagne, which I politely refused.  The weather was gorgeous.  I was wearing new clothes.  I felt fancy and pretty and energized;charged.  
Nearing the end of the event I decided it was time to go, to get myself some dinner and figure out what I'd do for the rest of the evening.  

The charge of being out and looking nice and engaging with others around a creative production made me nostalgic for my relationship... Without going into the details, I began to fixate on how nice it would be to go to a movie with my ex and spend time together and have that old familiar level of comfort and friendship and stimulation on a night when I was feeling so good- I didn't want to just go home alone!  So I called.  No answer.  So I decided that I would buy a bottle of wine at the store and spend the evening alone.....

At the store I walked a walk not unfamiliar to me.  I ended up in the wine section of Whole Foods (hoping I wouldn't see anyone I know- RED FLAG # 68) and the strangest thing happened: I became sick to my stomach.  I wandered up and down the aisles I know so well, and it was like I didn't recognize what I was looking at, my head began to spin, my stomach started to churn and I felt suddenly very anxious.  I tried to convince myself to just grab any bottle and get out of there, but my physical response was too strong.  I made a salad, I bought a ginger ale and I went home.

My mind was so intent on fixing the subtle "charge" of discomfort and unfamiliar territory of being out and alone and without a partner to connect to that I wanted to ignore all of the work I've done over the last eight weeks; or so I thought.  Suddenly I understood what my teachers (and ME!) have been saying about this practice for years:the discomfort doesn't stop.  The thoughts aren't real.  Your thoughts are not your inner guidance or wisdom.  Your thoughts are the products of your habits, your stress level, your blood sugar and everything you've taken in through your organs of perception.  

So the practice, which I can't overestimate in power, is to stop wherever you are, whatever you're doing.  Get still.  

*Track your physical sensations- give yourself time to really sense temperature, tingling, pressure, numbness, etc.  Allow an image or a word to come through.  *Drop it.*
*Track any emotions or feeling states that are present.  Again, don't just take it at face value- what is the "nostalgia" after 30-60 seconds? Allow an image or a word to come through.  *Drop it.*
*Track your thoughts and mental state (distractibility, sensations, patterns, words.)  Notice any correlation or discrepancy between your mental state and physical/emotional states.  Allow an image or a word to come through.  
*Drop it.*
Finally, where is Spirit?  Where is that essential you in all this?  Can you feel anything in or around you that resembles your essence?

Get a pen, markers, pastels, paints, whatever, and get to work.  Get down on paper what you heard, saw, felt, needed, wanted, hated, smelled, etc.  Take time with this.  Be with what is moving inside you.  The more time you spend with this language the easier it is to understand when habit and old triggers get the best of you.  

This practice is not a substitution for more traditional methods of meditation, it is a supplement- a meditation that moves with you through your day so that when it comes time to sit there's a baseline level of clarity about what might be masquerading as truth in the recesses of your mind.  We can practice yoga and eat all the right foods and sit on a cushion for 20mins a day, and we are still human with an ever-present need for attention to the present moment.  You are a vibrant, subtle, sensitive being and this work of embodiment will allow you to gracefully navigate the task you've been assigned, whether that's to survive a breakup, to get sober, to be a mom, to sit in Houston traffic or to vote in the 2016 election.  Stay vigilant.  Be soft with yourself.

this is what my body actually craves....

My physical body craving is contact.  I feel the need to feel my body, and when I don't (because my mind is excessively analyzing and doubting) I take matters into my own hands and binge eat or drink alcohol or engage sexually.  I have done this.  I probably will do this again at some point, but it doesn't have to be my default, and I am developing an arsenal of resources so that I can be in choice about this response.  I never have to feel shame or pain about my cravings again.  And I will never pass my cravings off as "problems" again.

On the Physical Body level we have sensation- the tremor and tenderness of flesh: muscle, bone and sinew.  We experience the bulk of our craving here, yet we respond to external cues/directives to guide our actions: what's popular? what's comparable? what seems acceptable?  

The only worthwhile litmus test for action is thepresent moment which is the physical body: I'm in pain, I feel weak, I feel weak and strong, I want to run, I am numb.

Here, in the body, is where we start the true journey inward- not to the next rest stop, but to our deepest core level of being.  It starts on the physical level and often starts as the tremor of unrest, dissatisfaction, craving.
The next time you feel this tremor ask yourself:  What do I need so that I can go deeper?  Strength?  Softness?  Mobility?  Stability?  Touch?  Release?

After a short movement practice yesterday morning, I wrote this to myself.  (*I encourage you to talk to your body.  She (or he) is just craving contact.*)


I care about my past, but I do not have to cling to my past...  Whatever information and experience I needed is in me, silently, and I make the choice to listen to what is now; where my body and my breath coexist, where my feet and my feelings touch the earth.  

I am right here, this is right now.

What are you truly longing for? Name it.

The Four of Cups:

An outsider would look upon your life and see supportive relationships, pleasures and even a bit of luxury.  But you don’t see it that way.  Instead there’s discontentment, apathy and even greed for more.  The four of cups warns not to take your situation for granted, nor the people who supported you along the way.  Look around you.  What are you truly longing for?
 Name it.

The Wild Unknown Tarot


Last night I drove around Montrose for 45minutes contemplating alcohol as an acceptable antidote to my emotional state.  I felt anxious and alone and very vulnerable and my brain was fixated on having a drink.  My body was not in pain, nor particularly craving alcohol.  It took me the entire 45 minutes to figure that out.  When I finally dropped into my emotional body to ask what she actually wanted, it became very clear that alcohol would be of no help whatsoever.  Comfort.  Recognition.  Creativity.  I immediately drove home, made a cup of my favorite tea and hopped into bed with my favorite book.  I cried, and I slept.  I woke up puffy-eyed, but with no hangover and no regret.  I woke up to a piece of my power.

On Tuesday night I had a couple of drinks and the next day was so completely exhausted.  This may sound like no big deal to some, but I did it because I was nervous.  I did it because I was sad.  I did it because I didn’t want to be completely open and vulnerable.  I did it because I don’t fully trust my capacity to live without it.  “It?”

 

My addiction to pain, suffering, drama, conflict.  I’m mourning the loss of my closest confidante and trusted ally.
 

In recognizing the cycles of pain-binge and their long-term impact I not only feel the ever present sense of fear, doubt and anxiety, I feel completely untethered and lost.  

Where do I go from here?


My friends, my trusted, reliable, intimate partners are not the comfort they once were.  I don’t recognize them anymore.  They have betrayed me.  I want them to come back to me and apologize and never hurt me again so that I can go on without this pain, this hunger, this anger that has no escape route.   

It’s not appropriate for me to scream or cry or hit or punch or need or worry or doubt or wonder.  It’s not ok.  I should be stronger than that.  I shouldn’t feel the way that I do.


I want to see my ex.  I want to eat pints of ice cream in secret and put all of my feelings into that one, sick feeling that will pass in a day or two.  I want to go out tonight and finish a bottle of wine.  I want to get infatuated with someone and think about them in every waking moment so that I don’t have to think about how anxious I am about my life.

I don’t want to fail.  I don’t want to be in transition.  I don’t want to doubt myself.  I don’t want to have to prove myself.  I don’t want to be alone.  I don’t want to be in need.  I don’t want to feel less than.  I don’t want to wait.  I don’t want to feel ashamed.  

I don’t want to carry my heart around like burden anymore.  

*I long for connection and compassion and partnership.  
*I want a passionate relationship that floods my senses with enough sense to see/speak/move/act clearly.  
*I want stability and structure in my work so that I can fucking let loose and get real in my work.  
*I want to transform and unleash the power of my heart into the ether and sing songs with it, chew on her echo and embrace the victory of her sound.

For an intimate experience with the Emotional Body, please join me on Sunday, May 15 at 2pm for a *free* intro class and Q&A about my summer mentorship.  All levels of practice/experience welcome.

the ritual of addiction

It's time for me to be brutally honest, to say the things I've never wanted to say, and to take the steps I'm still not totally sure I want to take.  
 

I'm an addict and I have been for 17 years.  
I use food, alcohol and sex to bear the unbearable.

I noticed one day, years ago, that I felt tremendously alone most of the time, that feelings of stress and fear usually resulted from insecurity in relationship (which I had not yet connected to a brokenness in my relationship to Self) and that my default setting to cope with those feelings was isolating and eating, or clinging to the closest body and giving all of my attention (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) to that intense moment of sexual climax in which I felt free, loved and whole.  

After years of therapy, Twelve Step support, yoga practice, inquiry, journaling, dieting, cleansing, study, training, teaching, catharsis, sharing, living, moving, fucking up and STILL feeling broken at a foundational level, I extended a hand to an entirely new source of support- my addiction.  I turned to myself and the compulsive desire I had decided (and been told) was the problem and asked for help.  First, I actually turned to my trusted and deeply loving Ayurvedic guide, Sunita Tarkunde.  Through our diligent work together I am establishing a pattern of observing and being with the pain.  I have allowed myself to articulate core beliefs about worth and wounds and not automatically shut them away for fear of anyone else's feelings about my (perceived) brokenness.  

I am becoming the source of healing, rather than the victim, the problem, the source of chaos and inconsistency.  

The body is ground zero when it comes to our human experience, but most of us stop our inquiry at that level.  Our culture fills us with absurd notions that it's our clothing, our diet, our exercise regimen and our brazenness in the bedroom that will curb or even satisfy our deeply rooted cravings.  On some level (the gross body level,) that could be true.  There's no doubt food, exercise, physical and sexual confidence and dressing in a way that feels authentic can create shift.  But under that physical craving lies much, much more that cannot be dressed up or dieted away.  

This process is not without tremendous difficulty.  I have relied on food, alcohol and sex as my most trusted allies in coping with the stress of life.  While they have not made me happier, they have ALWAYS been there when I need them, and in that consistency we have an incredibly strong alliance.  Over the next few weeks I'm going to explore with you the messages of your Four Levels of Being- Physical, Emotional, Mental and Spiritual and ways to integrate nourishing resources into the intimate ritual of coping.  We will, together, discover the source of impulse, pain, craving, creativity and healing.  

Please share if you know someone who will benefit from this work, and please reach out to let me know what your areas of greatest need might be.  

 Tlatzolteotl, Toltec goddess called "the eater of filth," reminds us that that which has the power to overwhelm and destroy us also has the power to heal and transform us.  That which pains you is here to empower you.  Tattoo by Lisa Cardenas of Haunted Hands in Tucson, AZ.

Tlatzolteotl, Toltec goddess called "the eater of filth," reminds us that that which has the power to overwhelm and destroy us also has the power to heal and transform us.  That which pains you is here to empower you.  Tattoo by Lisa Cardenas of Haunted Hands in Tucson, AZ.

when the walls are falling down, remember...

Yet again I am at a phase of profound changes, and while the walls are falling down around me and within me I feel a bizarre interplay of freedom and overwhelm.  How and what I practice, how and what I teach (and where and whom,) where I live, my priorities, the way I spend my time and think about myself, all of it seems to be under renovation, but I don't feel out of control.  And THAT is a profound shift from the past.

During times of big change and transition, consistency of practice can (and usually is) the first thing to be sacrificed.  There are, however, resources and reasons for prioritizing our self-care. I think that's pretty self-evident.  What may not be so clear, however, is WHY we lose our practice to begin with?  Well let me just speak for myself here: my practice hasn't been strong enough. My commitment to practice is and always has been strong, but what I was practicing wasn't strong enough to pull me out of my attachment to the chaos and the fatigue and the mental tail spin. Until recently. 

Over the course of the last five months I have been incorporating specific techniques into my dinacharya (daily routine) which have provided not only a stronger anchor for my practice, but much deeper embodiment and resilience.  Whether these techniques resonate or not for you is yours to discover, but if you're anything like me, why not give it a try, right?!

Breathe

As simple as it sounds, take a breath.  Becoming aware of the breath can immediately help you "relocate" to the present moment.  Then, after several intentional repetitions of breath you can reinforce your sense of stability (even if it's only at 50%) and gain clarity for making a powerful choice on your own behalf.  

Try this: sit or stand with even weight on both halves of the body (feet or sitting bones) and exhale with intention, even a little force.  Let the inhale happen.  Exhale intentionally again.  Sometimes I blow the air out of my mouth, but eventually you want to inhale/exhale through the nostrils.  Do this at least five times, or until you sense an evenness in the length of your inhale/exhale.  Relax your head and shoulders  (I usually wiggle my mouth around- tongue included!) and let yourself breathe for a full minute.  It is incredibly powerful to witness how capable we are of reestablishing balance and ease at the most basic level.  

Move

Generally, the nervous system responds to "threat" (upheaval, change, conflict, etc.) in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.  This is the animal in us attempting to survive.  In all instances, "stay alive" is the primary goal.  As humans, we have developed an intellectual capacity which allows us to override these instinctual responses, which makes it nice for saving face, but totally disastrous when it comes to dealing with stress.  Whatever the charge, it needs to be discharged, and the best way to do that is to move.  I HIGHLY encourage you to get out of any set sequencing or "cool" moves and just shake your ass.  Literally.  Shake, quiver, tremble, pulse, flail.  Your brain will thank you for it.  At some point in my practice I let my body move in whatever contorted, twisted way it pulls itself, often to discover that I am much more malleable than I thought.  I have a tremendous amount of space inside of me that traditional fitness and even yoga asana simply cannot touch.  It feels weird and even stupid if you think about it, so don't.  Just yawn with your every pore and let your animal out.

Express

Perhaps the most crucial part of this sequence is expression: saying, writing, painting or demonstrating how and what we feel, need, want, experience is the birthright of every human. We have needs, but so do animals and plants.  Humans need to externalize our internal awakening (even in private!) in order to come into right relationship with our environment.  If not, our emotional body gets suppressed.   The emotional body, as real and functional as the physical body, is more often vilified than praised in our culture, and the results speak for themselves (opiates, anyone?  alcohol?  how about television and junk food?)  I have a box full of art supplies, and while I don't fancy myself an artist, I have developed a deep passion for artistic expression.  Pastels, crayons, clay, pen, pencil, whatever your medium of choice, just start making stuff.  Let your emotional body "speak."

If these practices are of genuine interest to you, I encourage you to consider my eight week mentorship in the Fall.  Details can be found on my website under Mentorship.

If you want to know if your practice is working, look at your relationships

catapulted into 2016 by my partner getting severely ill, i experienced a rude awakening- i resented him for not being able to take care of me.  after all, "Ihad had a busy holiday, too!  I had driven all the way to and from arizona, too!  I needed tlc, too!"  this was a huge, harsh wake up call for me, though not entirely unsurprising.  
i have dedicated my life to taking care of others and often at the expense of my own needs.  it's a convenient way of not looking at my ugly stuff or asking for help.  when i caught these feelings (luckily before they had escaped out my mouth on the backs of sleek, passive-aggressive comments) i went back to the drawing board (my practice) and asked myself, 
"where are the gaps?  
what corners have i been cutting?  
what care am i not giving myself?"

i realized i wasn't practicing what i needed- i was cutting my home practice short and skipping dessert (savasana) every day.  
i wasn't putting myself in a state of being, i was just doing.  
i committed to one hour of practice a day- whether on my mat or curled up with silence and a book, and my fuel light stopped blinking.  i gave my partner what he needed- space to recover and heal (and a back rub and some netflix binges.)  

while i'm not proud of having those feelings, i'm incredibly proud of the way i dealt with them.  i'm not always able to trap the passive-aggressive comments before they escape, but taking deep breaths and some time outs sure helps.

have you ever said something you instantly regretted?  or not said something you still wish you had?  these are self-expression issues and they originate deep in our sense of self.  any time we've been laughed at for a comment or a question or a goal, any time we've been teased about our hair or clothing or music choices, any time our truth was met with ridicule or judgment,
a little brick is laid down between the feeling place
and the talking place
.  
we stop asking for help, start saying no when we mean yes, smiling and nodding and saying nothing at all, or spewing sarcasm and passive aggressive comments at those we're closest to because they can't read our minds and make us grilled cheese and tomato soup before we've even mentioned the craving.  *sigh*


this year, don't make anyone else responsible for you.  if you want to be listened to, LISTEN to your deepest desires.  if you want to be nurtured,NURTURE your creative impulse.  if you want to feel safe, DEDICATE yourself to basic self-care rituals every single day.

want help?  sure thing.  let's do it together.
check out a simple New Moon Ritual Detox here, and read my latest contribution on Embodied Philosophy, "Two Kinds of Practice"

Mirrors of Adolescence

The Empress card in The Wild Unknown Tarot depicts a tree under a crescent moon.  The tree stands, not unlike the proverbial Giving Tree, extending thick, sturdy branches skyward.  As though made of light, the luminous trunk tickles the sky with soft, deep pink leaves, embracing the moonlight, and thereby her own emotional nature.

When I began teaching yoga in an alternative high school, I imagined myself somewhat like this tree, moving with the same grounded aura through the halls toward my sanctuary-esque classroom.  In this dream, I provided shelter despite artificial lighting, warmth in spite of cold, gray tile floors, and I cultivated in my students the ability to examine their deepest, most personal places by sharing simple breathing techniques and yoga asana.  And all this I wanted within the first week of work.

In my musings, several assumptions had already been established: 1. My students would trust me.  2. My students would understand me.  3.  My students wanted to examine their deepest, most personal places.  4.  I was going to be responsible for all of it.  In other words, it was all about me.

At first, the struggle to keep them engaged was farcical.  Taking long, audible breaths while waving my arms slowly up and down, reassuring them it would “feel natural and even enjoyable soon,” I was more like a court jester than a resplendent maple tree.  I all but pried their crossed arms away from their just recently post-pubescent chests and had them stand in a circle to expose every area of physical self-consciousness to their peers, most of whom were strangers.  I cried every day as soon as I exited the parking lot and kneaded knots out of my shoulders at home.  The battle against nature had commenced.

Anticipating a crop of spontaneously blossoming yoga fanatics is as fruitless as planting a piece of gum into the ground.  What has become a wild love affair with the natural beauty of being a tender human for me has taken years of rollercoastering to develop.  I forgot that adolescence is beautiful like a cut of meat is beautiful; even foodies acknowledge the savagery in it.  Most of us prefer not to see the meat until it’s been prepared and dressed properly.  The inner landscape of teens is so raw and full of chaotic urges that I found myself gutted by it, and I was domesticating my students’ humanity rather than cultivating deep respect for it.  

The change occurred one day, not surprisingly, when the Houston summer heat broke.  I took my students outside on the grass with one assignment: 1. Write down the five postures you like best, 2. Practice them.  They marched outside so precisely and lined up their mats like sentinels on the grass.  Amidst soft chatter and bouts of bathroom visits, there was a new atmosphere creating itself in which these young people felt free to be themselves and explore yoga, not as an assignment or another “you-must-do-this-or-else,” but a skill they were adapting and learning to wield skillfully.  Gone were the blank stares, the incessant comments and complaints.  Instead there were eager people, replete with smiles and insights, teaming up to guide each other through this new territory.  

From each interaction with nature, some new awareness blooms into being: the tenderness of a painfully shy boy forced to listen to his parents and teachers expressing delight and relief about his having a “new friend” yields empathy; the ferocity within a girl being asked to fall in line and behave like she’s “supposed” to awakens my inner mama bear.  Where does this part of us come from?  In alchemy they say, 'Tertium non data,’ the third is not given.  

The need for love in all of them tills my insides and reminds me how unruly life can be, and how close to the surface that feeling of inner chaos lies.   But what is teaching if not standing in front of a mirror discovering the wild unknown within?  What are teenagers if not the wildest, densest, most treacherous territory?  I see in this soft light of awareness the side of me that wants to love more, really wants to be loved more - the adolescent on her way to being an Empress.  

Like a Dancin' Fool

My teacher used to always say, “Look at the person on the dance floor acting a fool- they may not be the best dancer, but they’re having the best time.” She often included a little bit of spontaneous and free-form movement in her classes-- which sent many students into butt-clench mode-- but her words stuck with me far beyond my mat. To this day, whenever I find myself stiffening in the face of change (an unexpected sub, for example…) I try to wiggle my booty a bit and see what shakes down.

In spite of our best efforts, it seems we all invariably attach to our practice, especially us asana junkies. It is deeply satisfying to spend time upside down, and the moment our feet float away from the wall is undeniably sweet. But in that moment of feeling we have “nailed” our practice, we quietly tell our inner Self that practice is “X.” Practice becomes the thing that occurs when my feet float, or when I make it to the studio six days a week, or whichever "X" factor it may be. Practice stops when I encounter unforeseen financial trouble or emotional upset or fatigue. Over and over again we must remind ourselves that these instances are when the practice actually begins: in the face of change. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose what changes or when, we merely choose whether or not to accept the change and whether or not to go with the flow.

I have been injured several times in my "asana career" and have had to adapt my practice to the undeniable circumstance of not being able to put weight on my right arm, for example. At the time this particular injury happened, I had just settled into a consistent and budding Mysore practice. Now, anyone familiar with Ashtanga knows it’s all about that Surya Namaskar. I, however, had no access to urdhva hastasana, let alone any of the weight-bearing postures. I was deflated and deeply sad. In the moment, it was true that my asana practice could not develop because of the way that I had previously defined it. But because my teacher is a brilliant P.T. as well as a devoted Ashtangi, she encouraged me to show up and do whatever I could, including a makeshift assortment of standing postures from the Primary Series and savasana. To arrive at the shala each morning in spite of what I “could” do was tremendously humbling and opened a huge vault in my experience of “practice.” I noticed my breath with more sensitivity and put all my training to use smoothing out the jagged lines of, “But I can’t,” and “When will I be able to…?” In my mind, I remembered, ”Yogas citta vritti nirodah....”

Injury is an obvious place to start, but what about those less-obvious changes? Seasonal shifts, for example, and a necessarily altered energy level? Or an emotional upheaval, such as a breakup, a move, or watching the news?  As committed practitioners, it can be confusing at best (if not infuriating) to implement a strong routine for self-care and then be asked to loosen our grip on the reins. There's the mental agitation, the not having what we want when we want it, and worse, the not having a way to correct the problem; isn’t that the citta we’re trying to nirodah? When we find ourselves rigidly holding on to our routines and refusing to adapt, we can always count on Patanjali to drop his wisdom bombs and remind us, “Abhyasa-vairagyabhyam ta nirodah.” The fluctuations (citta vrittis) are stilled by practice and dispassion (Sutra 1.12). We must practice, i.e. show up, and bring with us a little of this “dispassion,” or the absence of craving for the sense objects, a category to which our body and our asanas surely belong.  


This is no small task, but it is the task, and while there are those who have mastered this, I find it soothing to look to nature for guidance; I don’t feel competitive with the elements. As seaweed is moved by the tide, we are moved by the actions of and our responses to the world around us. Owing to its malleability and ROOTEDNESS, seaweed dances gracefully. Likewise, a practice rooted in a focused, holistic approach or broader-reaching tradition can provide said root, but it is up to us to soften and let the tides of life move. They are part of a grander plan than our own. When pincha mayurasana is off the table, or maybe putting any weight on your left side is impossible, don’t sit to the right and wait for things to go back to the way they were. Dance like a fool, and see what could be.

The Alchemy of Subtle Awareness

The physical, mental, and spiritual ideals of yoga require more than asana practice alone. Ours is a culture on the move, and we find ourselves frequently traveling across the globe, commuting on mass transit, and navigating endless confrontations with socio-political chaos; in short, we are systemically tapped out. Studies have concluded that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body's decreased ability to regulate its inflammatory response, and therefore an increased susceptibility to the development and progression of disease. These repetitive exposures lead to symptoms that resemble trauma in the body: chronic stress patterns and tension manifested in misaligned posture, breath, and attitude.  

What does this mean for our yoga practice? Simply, we have direct access to our nervous system's ON/OFF switch. We can create an internal relaxation response by cultivating physical awareness of a safe, neutral environment and a mindset that is calm and open. If we approach our physical practice with an overly-analytical, prefrontal cortex attitude, we can never access that most basic part of ourselves that is in fact responsible for our responsiveness - the amygdala - and we will remain edgy and over-stressed.  

The whole body works as a lightning rod for stimuli; its systems combined are actually seven times more responsive than the brain alone when it comes to perceived danger. We can feel a threat before we physically see it. This is the amygdala bypassing the prefrontal cortex, the "gut reaction." When aroused, the Sympathetic Nervous System responds by preparing to defend itself: the heart rate increases, digestion slows, and the body braces for action. If those tension patterns go unnoticed, so does the sympathetic activation. Chances are, the stress cycle never gets completed and the residual “stress” lives on in the body as chronic back pain, TMJ, or severely stiff shoulders. The fight-or-flight-freeze gets hard-wired into our animal body, and as such requires sensation-based inquiry in order to organize. The body may get one story from the breath pattern adopted during rush hour, but when the narrative does not change, it continues to function as though in danger. The amygdala retains the memory of the threat and replays it over and over in a loop which keeps the body locked up.

Through yoga asana we can activate our “animal” to get in touch with our lower brain. By connecting slow, rhythmic movement to breath and exhalation, the parasympathetic system (that’s the OFF switch to the SNS) activates and releases the “charge” from the previous stimulation/activity. The key is, as it so often is, intention and mindfulness. By utilizing space between postures and intelligent sequences, the practitioner has the opportunity to internalize the undulating sensation as a felt experience and perhaps achieve some clarity in differentiating between past and present, anticipation and actual occurrence, or perception and reality. Most of our resistance or hyper-persistent attitudes in the practice are derivative of latent or pent-up feelings, which, as Bo Forbes said, “The body, for its part, continues to incubate.”Lawrence Gold explains the science behind a slower, more articulate movement practice on his blog: 

“A person stuck in a habit pattern is enclosed in the habit and to that degree, closed to new experience...However, a deliberate, new action can modify a habit – but only if that new action first frees attention from where it is stuck. The key to freeing attention is to change the habit from a self-perpetuating automaticity to an intentional action done with sufficient attention to resume the position of being the cause of the action. That means that a person deliberately does what ordinarily “happens by itself” until they can feel that they are doing it, rather than it happening to them. That intensity of intention and attention melts the mold of a habit so that it can be remolded. In that state [...] the person no longer feels identical to (identified with or as) that habit; (s)he has transcended it. That transcendence provides the space for the emergence of The New (in whatever form).” 

The process of inducing ease in asana begins with you (under the safe guidance of your teacher). Identify the response to the posture, or the cue: is the breath held or labored (or not coming through at all)? Are shoulders pulling up toward the ears, or is the jaw clenched? Are there thoughts of anger or resentment or fear (or brunch…)? Re-routing that energy is not an intellectual process, but does require a high level of sensitivity and awareness. Yoga poses involve weight-shifts into unlikely areas and compression into tight physical quarters with oneself, not to mention discipline and up-to-the-minute news reporting, a.k.a. proprioception and physical sensitivity. If your relationship to your body is that “it isn’t strong enough,” and you collapse under the weight of heightened sensation, or conversely, if you believe that the body is only useful if it’s extremely strong and capable of great feats, the notion of being “sensitive” probably sounds suspect. But consider this: if the body is in a posture that triggers fear (see symptoms above) or is gulping air like an MMA fighter between rounds, the nervous system will respond accordingly and automatically. If we can practice untangling those reactionary knots and learn to feel through the stress cycle, then we reinforce the nervous system’s natural resilience and become strong, flexible yogis. Even if our feet never make it behind our head once. 

The Soul of Practice

In an increasingly media-based industry, yoga teachers have come to represent the physical elite.  Instagram, Facebook, websites, newsletters thrive on images of impressive physical feats and physiques.  Yoga pants sell, more often than not, because of who’s in them.  With all of this focus moving out toward the still image of the yogi, I’m wondering if anybody notices that the still point is actually a state of being and not a static posture or singular moment in time?  Certainly the body is a visible, tangible expression of self, but everything we see is literally a trick of the eye.  In order to know the embodied self we cannot merely look at it from the outside, slicing and dissecting, comparing and contrasting.  Furthermore, none of the asanas on their own has any sustaining power.  It is the way in which we inhabit each posture that gives them power.  From this conscious embodiment we as practitioners draw resilience, patience and autonomy into our mundane lives.  

So why do have asana/poses then?  What’s the point or benefit in working the body beyond the place of cardiovascular maintenance?  Most of our teachers (as in Patanjali, Shiva, Krishna, et. al.) said one or two things about stillness.  I think maybe something about yogas citta vritti nirodah, or, “yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind.”  And if you’ve ever tried to sit still without your mind wandering you know Yoga is more than just working your hips open to hit Koundinyasana.

Stagnant physical energy is what makes sitting and stilling the mind so difficult.  Energy, once set in motion, must go somewhere, and since most of us cycle our energy through the thought wheels rather than consciously through the nadis, the result is an anxiety-ridden being that just needs to sweat and chatturanga.  Teachers practicing in front of their class with a “come-along-with-me-to-this-very-cool-pose” attitude, forget that the body might be going through the motions, but the psyche could be fragmented and therefore the “motions” are likely causing more harm than good.  This premise is based on the work of Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing (which we will explore in future articles,) and the movement system of somatics.  “Somatics” refers to a lineage of movement studies that emphasizes internal physical perception (or the body as perceived from within), and employs techniques that highlight the mover's internal proprioceptive sensations, in contrast with performance-based techniques like dance.  Through the lens of somatics, movement is an indispensable precursor to that still point of transcendence, which brings me to my point: how do we know if ourasana is helping or hurting?

Let’s examine the word somatics for a moment.  Recognize that word, Soma? That wondrous elixir residing in the liquid contents of body and mind, Soma is the counterpart to Agni, the moon to the sun, the feminine to the masculine.  “Soma,” according to Dr. David Frawley, is “the delight inherent in existence itself (Brahman), not simply the pleasure produced by contact with external objects. Soma is the ‘pure delight’ that we are truly seeking in all that we pursue, not mere temporary pleasure that wears away the senses and is only its reflection.”

Soma might be exactly the remedy to our yoga conundrum: a felt experience of pleasure that is activated and contained by posture, then lingers and floods into every open space in the body like a nourishing stream.  In the Sri Vidya tradition, this is exactly the point of asana: to activate and engage Agni and Soma in equal parts.  How do we know we’re doing that?  First and foremost, with an inwardly focused gaze- beyond staring at fingertips or nose during Surya Namaskar, this gaze is self aware with an observational quality.  This gaze recognizes strain, rushing, unrelated self-talk and the difference between right and left, front and back, straight and bent.  Secondly, the practice must generate energy as well as contain it.  Throughout a vigorous sequence, if the breath comes through in starts and stops and the form becomes soggy, your Agni is probably burning more Soma than ignorance, and your Soma is nothing but a puddle on the mat.  Finally, it should feel pleasant to return to your life following practice, as though you have been fortified with supernatural powers to bear the weight of winter or rush hour or sick children (or adults for that matter.)  Sleep comes easily and harmful substances hold no temptation.  Practice is the balm that soothes all ills and prepares us to sit quietly in the presence of Om, the Absolute, Isvara, et. al.  

I don’t know if that can be captured on camera.
 

 

Home Practice: How to Begin

"How do I start a home practice?" is an oft-asked question in the yoga world. Initially, figuring out how to do yoga on your own can be a mystifying, overwhelming, and even nerve-wracking process. For many, home practice is the ultimate “come to Kali” moment; it’s just you and yourself—truly and inescapably. And with no teacher to tell you what to do, uncertainty, lethargy, frustration, and distractions often prevail. Plus, there’s no way to know if you’re going to do the right thing and no way to know how long you're meant to do that "thing" for. There are so many options! Why even bother?

For one, home practice is a radical form of self-care. A bold declaration of self-empowerment, self-acceptance, and self-awareness. After all, following someone else’s cues and direction is usually a heck of a lot easier than coming up with your own way of doing things. It’s in our nature to question the validity of things, including our own capabilities, and sometimes, within gaps of uncertainty, to allow someone else to step in and take control of the decision-making process is just simpler. But imagine setting aside time every day to honor the part of you that feels deeply, to acknowledge what you know on a deep and undeniable level, to facilitate a trusting—even reverent—relationship with your body. That is the power of home practice.

How to Get Started

Let’s make this simple. Have you ever left a class thinking, “That was exactly what I needed today"? A really great class or workshop can serve as the spark that ignites your home practice. Take something you love home with you and recreate it the best you can, almost like cooking from a recipe. In her book "Yoga, Mind, Body & Spirit," Donna Farhi offers a really lovely comparison between yoga and cooking—in both cases, we need to learn fundamentals, and we also need to familiarize ourselves with the ingredients and the ways in which the ingredients complement each other. That's where teachers and classes come in: they introduce us to the ingredients, and once we get familiar with them, it’s time to get creative and cook for ourselves. And that's when things get really interesting!

Sometimes a great yoga class is simply the result of the perfect mix of ingredients—the teacher, time of day, sequence, playlist, and vibe. Home practice presents the perfect opportunity to distill the essence of this recipe. The work will be to examine these ingredients and make them your own through a process of self-inquiry. The first step? Get on your mat and experiment!

But maybe you're thinking “I just can’t focus on my own for that long!”—but how long are we actually talking here? Home practice doesn't have to take 90 minutes; 10 to 20 minutes is plenty to start. After all, it's important to be realistic. The practice you truly need might take only 15 minutes, and you can always go to a class later that day, or the next day, and find even more interesting ingredients to play with. Soon, the amount of time you practice on your own will grow (I promise!).

And if you enjoy yoga classes for their social qualities, I offer you this: While gathering in groups does generate connection, within the context of your home practice you'll have a unique opportunity to connect with yourself. You might even discover that you enjoy taking some time out to be alone. When my home practice first got going it was almost exclusively about that: a time to close my door, turn off the phone, and have quiet (or music, or mantra) for an hour. I realized that I had a lot on my plate, and I often felt depleted. Home practice was an opportunity to create the quiet I so craved. I didn’t need much more than a few minutes to feel like I had gotten "my time" in. 

No More Excuses 

Once I cultivated a home practice that was tailored to my needs, I also found that my list of excuses for not practicing grew considerably shorter. (This may actually be one of the less-talked-about reasons for not starting a home practice—it forces us to take responsibility!) I had often used my busy schedule as an excuse for not getting on my mat. If there are no classes I can get to when I have time, I can blame my lack of yoga—something outside of myself— for all of my stress, anxiety, and malaise. Except, with a home practice I discovered that the "I don't have time" excuse is a lot harder to justify. Any time that can be classified as “killing time” is perfect for practice, and just that well-used 5-, 10-, 15-minute practice session can ripple out into the rest of the day in profound ways.  

Deciding What to Practice 

My yoga practice actually started at home—granted I was following along with Patricia Walden and Shiva Rea DVDs, but I was in the privacy of my bedroom having a personal experience. When I left home for college and began taking classes in studios, "going to class" took over my understanding of practice. I was learning so much, and loving it!  A few years later I completed my teacher training and soon after I started teaching full time. I got to a point where my schedule (and energy levels) made getting to class a challenge, but more than that, I wasn't getting what I needed at the studio anymore. I found what I needed by once again getting on my mat in the privacy of my bedroom, with nothing else to attend to but my own experience. I first practiced a yin sequence that I remembered from a class, and afterward, I felt incredibly calm and nourished. That became the anchor in my week; every Wednesday around 4 pm, I gave myself a yin practice, and the rest evolved from there.  

These days, I generally practice on my own four to six times a week; I stretch my hips and legs for a few minutes, I practice agni sara, surya namaskar (sun salutations), a standing-pose series, backbends, relaxation, and meditation. Sometimes I scale back (depending on how much time and energy I have) and just focus on surya namaskar, pranayama, and meditation. Sometimes I just lie on my back in supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle pose) and breathe deeply until I feel my body ask for something else. There is tremendous power in staying still until you know exactly what needs to happen.  

Keep It Fresh

Your needs change, and your practice will need to change along with those needs. A couple of years ago I felt my practice needed a jolt and I began practicing Mysore style. In this form of asana practice students are taught a full sequence of postures (starting with the Ashtanga primary series) piece by piece and expected to memorize what they’ve learned each day. Students arrive at the shala (studio) with mat in hand and sequence in mind and body, and work through their set of poses until the teacher determines they are ready to take on more. It is a humbling experience, especially if you started out going to mixed-level classes with a “bring-it-on” attitude like many of us have done. However, Mysore-style practice also sets the expectation that you are the real teacher; you are responsible for working with the sequence in a way that keeps you safe, and you set the pace each day based on where you are in mind, body, spirit.  

Lessons from Mysore-Style Practice 

Mysore-style practice taught me to be patient, present, and loving—qualities that have been invaluable when it comes to my home practice. I had to learn to be brutally honest with myself and my needs. On days when I was sore and sleepy (and definitely not in the mood to get up at 5 am), I had to learn to breathe and move with it, not against it, to focus on giving myself what I really needed in those moments of struggle. I was blessed with a teacher who reminded me to let go of expectations, that the only thing that mattered was getting to my mat. Mysore turned out not to be what I needed every day, but for me it solidified the notion that consistency is key, and when it comes to personal practice, "personal" is the operative word. I’ve since returned to my home practice with a renewed confidence in myself and my ability to give myself what I need. What I still love most about the Ashtanga practice is that its promise is so simple and so clear: "Practice, and all is coming."

Just Do It

And that’s the best advice I can give: Just practice! Keep it simple, and do what you know. For example, that might look like surya namaskar A and/or B, followed by five minutes of nadi shodanam (alternate nostril breathing), and ten minutes of meditation. No one’s watching, and no one’s rating your poses against anyone else's. It's either “Yes, I did my practice today” or “No, I did not do my practice today”—not “Well, I didn’t hold handstand, and my warrior I felt a little off.” If we are truly cultivating equanimity in body, mind, and spirit through the practice of yoga, then practice needs to shift with our changing bodies and minds so that ultimately it serves the spirit. Practice is about taking the time to gather ourselves into something that resembles wholeness. And only you know what that means. So practice. All is coming.