by Lynn Theodose

Yogi, Heal Thyself – The Power of Restorative Yoga

Oh, what a year it has been. When Covid-19 became an undeniable reality last March, it was hard to imagine we’d still be stuck at home a full year later, with hundreds of thousands of people dead, countless others with long-term health problems, millions still out of work, and thousands of small businesses shuttered. Every single one of us has suffered during this pandemic. We’ve gotten sick and lost people we loved. We’ve watched our kids struggle with remote learning and the pain of missing their friends and activities. We’ve worried about our health, our finances, our futures, and the fate of the elderly and compromised. Maybe we’ve lost our homes or couldn’t afford food. We’ve missed weddings, graduations, celebrations, vacations, face-to-face time with our social support systems, and hugs. We’ve really missed hugs! And we’ve all had to face one of our deepest, darkest fears, unable to shake the knowledge that most who have died from Covid, left this earth without their loved ones by their sides

My point here is that, regardless of how the pandemic has affected you personally, we have all been living through a collective trauma. And while we can finally see the hint of a light at the end of the tunnel, I think it’s safe to say we are all experiencing some degree of PTSD. The ramifications of this year will extend far past the point of mass vaccination and herd immunity. Whether or not we’re aware, the fear and suffering of the entire world has set up shop in our bodies…lodged itself in the tissues of our muscles, decimated our nervous systems, and broken our tender hearts. As we move towards a closer approximation of normality in the coming months, it is imperative that we take the time to tend the wounds we have acquired during this destabilizing time. Initiating, or ramping up, a Restorative Yoga Practice is a powerful way to nourish ourselves as we begin the healing process.

Restorative yoga involves spending several minutes in predominately seated and reclined poses, often supported by props. The goal is to surrender completely, connect deeply with the breath, and allow the body to release in its own time. The time and care we take to come into stillness is a radical act of self-love. It is an opportunity to discover where we are holding physical and emotional trauma, send those places the loving light of our breath, and release the trauma in a safe and supportive environment. It can be very uncomfortable, but the potential for healing is enormous. 

Restorative Poses for the Crisis Weary:

Supta Badha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose):  With our torsos supported on a bolster, blankets, or bricks, this delicious pose is a gentle heart and hip opener. We hold grief and sorrow in the upper back, chest, and lungs. This pose allows us to feel held and safe as we slowly release sorrow from our bodies, and continue to open our hearts. It helps relieve the tightness in our necks, shoulders, hips, and low backs from too much time sitting in front of computers. 

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose): This pose is the antidote for sitting around and worrying. It relieves pain and tension in the low back by opening the front of the hips, and allows the psoas muscle to release. The psoas is considered the seat of our anxiety. It naturally contracts when we’re preparing to flee, play dead, or fight for our lives. As we invite breath deep into the low belly, the fear and tension we’ve been holding, perhaps unaware, will slowly begin to unravel.

Sukhasana (Sweet Pose): This is a gentle, seated hip opener that most people can comfortably explore. It helps release the hips and lower back, and stabilizes the sacrum. If the hips allow for a forward fold in this position, it provides a fantastic opportunity to breathe into the lower back ribs to support the adrenal glands.

Reclined Twists:  Twists help access and release tension deep in the back and abdominal muscles. They encourage breath to move into unexplored areas of the lungs, which increases our capacity to receive and harness prana. As we literally wring tension out of our bodies from the inside out, our spines gain flexibility and freedom.

Viparita Karani (Legs Up The Wall Pose):  This gentle inversion is famous for settling the nervous system and nourishing the internal organs. Extra blood flows to the torso, stimulating digestion and infusing the vital organs with oxygen. Extended time in Viparita Karani will shift us out of fight or flight mode, and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for relaxation and release.

Once the danger of the pandemic finally passes, I know we’ll all be eager to make up for lost time. When it’s safe to do so, I hope we’ll jump back into life with gratitude and a new appreciation for the simple things we may have taken for granted before it all began. We can use Restorative Yoga as a tool to help heal from this crazy year, so when the time comes to finally break free, we’ll feel relaxed, recovered, and ready to hit the ground running.

Good at Yoga

The post is for anyone who is new to yoga, intimidated by yoga, disillusioned by yoga, or uninitiated and curious. Maybe you’re drawn to the idea of carving out more peace in your life, or just wondering what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’ve tried a few yoga classes and felt way out of your depth. Maybe you started looking into it, but felt put off by glossy photos of beautiful young women, or sweaty chiseled men in complex arm balance variations, or contorted into pretzels, and thought, “Well, that’s obviously not for me! How could I ever be good at yoga? I can’t even touch my toes!”

If that sounds familiar, you’ve fallen prey to a common misconception – mistaking the container for the contents. As we are wont to do in our selfie-obsessed culture, sometimes we become dazzled by the beautiful wrapping, and never realize, or simply forget, that the real gift is actually inside. It’s easy to get caught up in the physicality of the practice. You can set your sites on achieving or mastering a certain asana (yoga posture), or reaching some arbitrary goal, and in the striving, misplace yoga’s ultimate benefit…peace of mind. So, if you’re interested in yoga, but feel like it’s out of reach, please consider the following:

·     You can’t judge a book by its cover: The Yoga Sutra reminds us that the physical pose is just the vessel. Yoga is what happens inside of it. (PYS 2.47). Picture this: Student A forces herself into an advanced posture, huffing and puffing, sacrificing the integrity of her alignment for the glory of the pose. Meanwhile, Student B reclines in Shavasana (corpse pose) in a state of calm, open curiosity, connected to his breath. By all traditional measures, it is Student B who is “Good at yoga.”

·     Comparison is pointless and misguided: Focus on your own practice! You can admire others’ physical prowess, but it is impossible to know how they got there, or to gauge their internal experience. Every body is different. Some people have naturally open hips, or long hamstrings, or the perfect proportions for ease in a particular pose. Maybe their poses are beautiful, but their mind is in chaos. Other people have started out stiffer than you, and then put in years of consistent practice to get where they are today. Some may need modifications and piles of props to approximate the pose they are working towards, but are in love with the journey, free from self-judgment, and learning how to let go. 

·     You are probably the only person judging you: It can be easy to feel self-conscious in a group class, especially when it seems like everyone is more advanced than you are. But yoga is so very personal, and chances are good that the other students are too focused on their own practices to pay much attention to yours. Group classes are fabulous for the camaraderie and collective energy they create. But if you feel shy or embarrassed as you’re learning the ropes, online classes can be a great option to explore yoga without feeling so exposed.

·     Strength and flexibility are not prerequisites for yoga: Nope! They are side effects. There are so many ways to practice, and thousands of known asanas, variations, and modifications. You can start wherever you are, in whatever condition, and through dedication and practice, strength and flexibility will come. The great news for beginners is that when you go from zero to committed, change comes quickly. Initially, your practice will improve by leaps and bounds. As you advance, the path becomes progressively narrower. Refinement gets more and more subtle as you become increasingly intimate with your body. Prepare to fall in love with the details!

·     There is no hurry and no destination: Slow and steady wins this race. Hopefully your practice will span the remainder of your lifetime, and bit-by-bit, your body will continue to open and align. Perfection is a myth, and a pose is never mastered. Yoga asanas are not a list of goals to check off. They are living, breathing laboratories for self-exploration. They are ideals to strive for, and endless opportunities for deepening levels of peace. Simple poses are just as valuable as fancy ones.

·     The target fades: If you are doing yoga as originally intended, to quiet the turbulence of the mind and reconnect with yourself and your source (PYS 1.2), you will eventually lose the will to label. It is part of the natural progression of the practice for the poles of opposites to lose their pull. (PYS 2.48) Extremes like “good and bad” eventually dissolve. As the mind settles, and the habitual thought patterns unravel, you will start to live in the moment of each experience. You’ll begin to inhabit the poses and connect with them directly, without the filters of judgment and commentary that keep them at a distance. So, by the time your poses progress to the point where your pre-yoga brain might have thought they were “good”, hopefully you’ll be too busy merging with your body and your breath to notice.

How do you become Good at Yoga? You roll out your mat often, stay curious and light-hearted, and open yourself to the possibility of transformation. You strive to quiet the demons of self-criticism and comparison. You find a practice suited to your body and temperament, forget about what anyone else is up to, and focus on your breath. Anyone can do yoga. Everyone can reap the rewards. Especially you!!

Tending the Fire

Mid- February. Ugh! Even in “normal” times, for me this time of year has always been about Holding On. Winter has settled in, and shows no sign of ending. It’s been extra cold and snowy up here in Pennsylvania. The ground has been covered for weeks, and I find myself nostalgic for the green of grass and leaves in this grey and white world. Add to that the very real phenomenon of Covid Fatigue, after a yearlong collective trauma parade, and sometimes I’m not sure I can make it! Even my introvert’s delight at tucking in has soured. I’m cold and bored and antsy and a little blue…longing for daffodils and a vaccine. Now, more than ever, I must tend to the fire of Tapas.

Tapas, derived from the word tap,which means “to burn”, is the third of the Niyama (personal practices) laid out in the second chapter of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. It’s many translations include discipline, austerity, sacrifice, devotion, passion for transformation, and the burning away of impurities. Tapas,along with Svadhyaya (study of self and sacred texts), and Ishvarapranidhanat (surrender), is the cornerstone of the yoga path, and like the journey itself, shifts to accommodate wherever we are in the moment. Sometimes we are on fire – wildly in love with our practice, eager to temper ourselves in the flames of transformation. We are hungry for change and growth, and excited to jump on our mats and burn. At these times we happily sacrifice our time and comfort in the pursuit of higher goals. And there’s nowhere we’d rather be than in the center of the flames of metamorphosis. Oh, how I love these times!

But what about when life gets busy, or we just get tired or apathetic about our practice? Maybe we hit a plateau, or suffer an injury, or find some unexpected obstacle in our path. This is when the less sexy version of tapas comes into play. Discipline. These are the mornings when you’d rather stay in bed, but you get up, roll out your mat, and do a couple of uninspired sun salutations. This is when we have to dig a little deeper, and forfeit comfort for growth. We relax and KEEP GOING. We acknowledge the importance of honoring our commitment and keeping the faith. We must remember that yoga is always working, even when we cannot see the fruits. Tapas as discipline sustains us until our passion is reignited. Sometimes the fire rages, and needs to be contained. Other times it is reduced to smoldering embers that require a bit of oxygen to catch. The life of our practice is a study in tending the flames.

It’s perfectly realistic to assume that your yoga practice will change throughout the course of your life. And varying levels of commitment will yield different results, just as the quality of wood will determine the fate of a fire. Sometimes you may be Green Wood…mildly interested, but never really able to ignite. There might be plenty of smoke, in the form of a fresh class pass or cute new yoga clothes, but after dabbling for a bit, you lose interest, often when things start to get uncomfortable. Other times you might be Dry Kindling. You dive headfirst into a training, retreat or immersion. You ignite quickly, and rapidly burn out. Maybe your enthusiasm leads to injury or exhaustion, or perhaps you simply realize that you’ve set a pace you cannot realistically sustain. Hopefully, you eventually become Seasoned Wood. You light the fire slowly and carefully so it can burn long and steady. If we want yoga to last a lifetime and create real change, we must strive to become seasoned wood. By remaining present and vigilant, we can turn the heat up or down as needed to keep our practice at a slow, sustainable simmer.

The fire of tapas burns away the impurities of our tension patterns. My teacher always says that a pose truly begins when you want to get out of it. A wonderful way to explore tapas is by remaining in poses longer than we want to. As the honeymoon ends, our muscles start to ache, our minds begin to revolt, and we can literally feel ourselves start to cook in the pose. This is when things get interesting, and the alchemy begins. Our hidden tensions reveal themselves. Our resistance presents itself for examination. Our stored pain and trauma scalds as it leaves our bodies. We relax where we can to soften the flame, and breathe deeply to give it more air when it wavers. Our hard shells begin to soften and our senses become purified as we surrender to the intensity of our experience. We trust in the difficult, and freely offer up our present comfort in exchange for future freedom. As we cook we become tender and open and pliable. We relax and let go in the center of the fire. We learn to welcome the warmth we create with our dedication and zeal, and remember that spring is coming…

Resistance is Futile

I’m not going to lie. I am really struggling with my blog this week. After cranking out posts week after week, I suddenly feel like all my inspiration has dried up. It’s not that I’m out of ideas. I keep an ongoing list of topics to write about, and at one point I found them all very exciting. I love yoga, and I love writing about it, getting to dive more deeply into the nuances and subtleties. I adore doing research and fleshing out ideas…sharing insights, and gaining new ones. But, I just can’t seem to get excited about anything right now. In this grey, cold Pennsylvania January, I find myself squarely stuck in the doldrums, waiting for the breezes of inspiration to blow. They refuse to comply, but my blog is due, so there’s nothing for it but to sit down and write. As I’ve stalled, motionless on this frustrating plateau for too many days now, I’ve mastered the art of avoiding my computer. But with time running out, I started working on two different posts this morning. I couldn’t get a purchase on either one. My words felt forced and stilted, my brain felt mushy, and I just couldn’t seem to find anything interesting to say. So, I was left with just one choice…to write about what I’m living in this moment. And what I am living is Resistance. Do you know anything about that?

I love how yoga brings our tendencies into such sharp relief. Before I even step on the mat, I often get a front row seat to my old friend, resistance. Yes, there are many times when I am super excited to practice, and I can’t wait to get down to it. Those days when I wake up feeling strong and energetic and powerful, ready to challenge myself and set the world on fire. But, then there are days when I just feel tired and uninspired. I just want to stay in bed with a good book, and maybe some mashed potatoes. I know that practicing will perk me up and calm me down, and make me feel better in a million ways. I know that I am ultimately responsible for my own health, happiness and state of mind, and that I have the keys to kingdom at my disposal. So why do I resist? Is it just inertia, or something more insidious like self-sabotage? I know that left unchallenged, I lean towards laziness. I also know that when I am inspired I am a force of nature. I know that it just takes the smallest action to get the ball rolling…and sometimes you just have to move in the direction of inspiration for it to appear. I know that energy feeds on itself. I KNOW all this, and yet… I think it might be time for a nap.

But wait!!! Here’s the inspiration I’ve been waiting for: What we resist persists…and I’ve been resisting Resistance! The internal dialogue sounds something like this, “Okay, you need to get off your butt and start working on your blog!” “But, I’m feeling so tired and uninspired. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just get moving? What makes me think I have anything interesting to say, anyway? I think I have the winter blahs, and I didn’t sleep very well last night. I think it would be better if I wait until I’m really feeling it!” I’m prone to sudden windows of creativity, and this technique can work quite well sometimes…but there’s no guarantee the window will open in the allotted time frame. And it’s far less likely to open when I’m busy beating myself up over my procrastination. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit down and start writing, or get on your mat and start breathing, or bundle up and take the damn dog out, and let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes you just need to look resistance in the eye and say, “Hello old friend! I see you, and I’d love to stay and listen to all of your very convincing arguments for inaction, but I’ve got things to do!” And with practice and perseverance, maybe we can start to tip the scales. Maybe we can learn to recognize and welcome resistance, without letting it tell us what (not) to do. Maybe we can even befriend it. Maybe it’s trying to tell us something. Maybe it’s there to provide us with an opportunity to recommit ourselves to something we value…to strengthen our muscles of fidelity. Maybe it lands in our path to help us buoy our self-confidence by stepping over it, to seize our independence by declaring, “You’re not the boss of me!” Maybe we should try saying, “Thank-you”?

Back in 2009, I came up with a mantra I employ when I remember. My Yoga Teacher training began at 7:00 every morning, and went late into the day… for six weeks. I loved it, but I was tired, and over-stimulated and sore. I would often wake to the thought, “I don’t want to go!” And then I’d smile and say to myself, “You’re in luck! You don’t have to WANT to go. You just have to go!” And I did…and it was awesome.

Serene Tips for Designing an at Home Yoga Space

As many of us still work from home and the world is ever-changing, some of us feel like there’s no escape from home. You might be looking for a way to relieve some stress with some peace and serenity in your home. The answer could be as simple as finding the perfect place in your house for a yoga space.

Whether you live in a studio apartment in Seattle, WA or a large home in Dallas, TX, all you need is a little space and some calming decor for the perfect at home yoga space. We’ve reached out to yoga experts across the country for their easiest and most serene tips for designing the perfect at home yoga space for your practice.

Have the right space. To create the ideal at-home yoga space you’ll want to pick a room with enough space. You should be able to stretch your hands up and all around without touching any walls or furniture. Then place your laptop or tablet about 9 feet away from your mat, so your online teacher can see you from head to toe, even when you’re standing. – Will Allen, Co-Founder of myYogaTeacher

Find the place with the most serene energy. Scan your house for any potential inside or outside areas that have the most serene energy. Sometimes, that is not as easy as it may seem, but it just takes dropping in and really feeling the energy of each space. Quiet is key, but also the sounds of the birds can be really beautiful. Add some design elements and nature to the space like beautiful plants or flowers, some crystals or put up some inspiring art. Just make sure everything you choose has calming, focused energy. You don’t want to put up a chaotic, red painting for example. It’s important to have the space and mat feel clean before beginning a practice. Listening to classical music or something soothing can also help to calm the nervous system and focus. – Erica Simone, Sacred Yoga Shop (use coupon REDFIN10 for $10 OFF any mat)

Limit the noise in favor of soothing sounds. When you are creating a space in your home to practice yoga you want to focus on creating peace and limiting distractions. I suggest using a space in your house where you won’t hear a lot of noise or be disturbed easily by those who live with you. It is a great idea to use soft lighting, include a little water feature or find some pretty candles to set the mood- whatever will help bring you peace and joy. – Jessica R. Fuller, The Hot Yoga Spot

Having a private space will limit distractions. Make sure to find a space where you can close a door or create privacy so that there are no interruptions.  Also try to find a place that is non-carpeted so you don’t slip. – Amy Vetter, Owner, eRYT-200 DRISHTIQ Yoga

Have everything nearby so there’s less distractions. Before I practice Yoga, I make sure my space is clean, smells good (I burn incense or a candle), have appropriate props (blanket or bolster),a glass of water nearby, and silence my phone. That way there’s less reason for me to have to pause my practice because I have everything I need surrounding me, with no distractions. – The Pure Bag

Store your yoga props where you can see them. If you’re short on space and don’t have the luxury of a yoga room keep all your yoga props in an easy to access bin, box, or basket where you can see it. The key is, where you can see it. This way you’ll always have the reminder to get on your mat. Plus, yoga props nowadays are pretty beautiful with bright colors and designs, no need to store them in a closet where they may not see the light of day. – Sarah Bodnar, Co-owner of Three Birds Yoga Studio

Keep your yoga mat rolled out. Our top recommendation for new yogis trying to create a healthy yoga habit is to always keep your yoga mat rolled out. If the yoga mat is rolled up in your closet, it’s easy to forget about it. Having it out in the open means that practicing yoga is always just a few steps away. – Shayna Hasson, Yoga Beyond the Studio

Get the whole household involved. If you have kids, creating the yoga space together encourages them to practice yoga with you and/or by themselves, as well as to respect the yoga room or corner as a special place of calm in your house. Give it a fun name like Relaxation Station, or Zen Den, and have everyone place a unique object in the space that represents love, peace, and happiness. – Sünje O’Clancy, MA, E-RYT, RCYT Founder of Yoga Rascals

Choose calming colors and a clean space. 
If you are able to dedicate an entire room to your home yoga space, consider a repaint of the walls with a natural earth tone or calming color. If you need to dedicate a space in a room versus the entire room, try to get the space around you as clean as you can so you are able to come back to that consistent space each day. Simplify and declutter to make the space feel calming. Accent your space with plants or any meaningful object you would like such as a singing bowl and your favorite props. Make it feel clean and cleanse the space with fresh air, sage, vibrations from a singing bowl and sunlight. Create a special area where you can relax and enjoy your practice. – Keala & Nicole, In Balance Yoga Studio

Make it all about simplicity. Since I both practice yoga and teach yoga classes online, I see lots of spaces via video. Some look cluttered and others are almost the picture-perfect setup with a place for yoga props, a couple of mats, and beautiful decorative elements, like a Ganesha painting or tapestry in the background. You don’t need to go out of your way to create a ‘perfect’ yoga space at home. All you need is a clear section of a room – enough space for your mat, and your computer or screen. I recommend doing away with clutter to create a more peaceful atmosphere – a space you can carve out just for you. From there, you can add in a plant or two, a designated corner for your props and perhaps a ring light to cast more light on your space. As I like to tell my teachers: Less is more – Robyn Parets, Founder of Pretzel Kids yoga

Natural light brings peace to your space. Our #1 tip for creating the perfect yoga space at home is to find an area with abundant natural lighting. Natural light is soothing for the nervous system for all times of day – energizing you in the mornings and quieting the mind in the evenings. – Tiffany Pridgen, Glow Yoga

Make sure you have lots of light and air. Set up your mat in a comfortable space with as much light and air as possible and room to move comfortably. That sometimes means moving a few pieces of smaller furniture around, especially in smaller New York City apartments. Since many people don’t have practice at home I often recommend having rolls of paper towels or large boxes around that can be used as yoga blocks. And when I teach my Pilates classes if people don’t have small weights they can use soup cans. – Harlem Yoga Studio

Keep your space clear and clutter-free. When creating a home yoga space you want to make it clutter-free and clean. You need a space where you can breathe deeply, turn your awareness in and move freely. Sweep away the dust and roll out your favorite yoga mat and get started – Tarra J. Madore, Smart Asana Yoga

Determine what items resonate & inspire calm in your space. Maybe your yoga/meditation room is full of your favorite books, colorful crystals, totems, candles, and small ritual items thoughtfully placed throughout the space, or tucked away on a shelf for when you feel called to use them. Test out taking items in and out of your space because sometimes it’s best to look at what you need to take away that will distract you from turning your gaze inward while you practice. – Mala Yoga

Incorporate all the elements: water, fire, earth, air. An ideal yoga space includes connection with all of the elements, such as using the element of water to infuse cleanliness and aroma through essential oils. The stimulating element of fire can be enhanced through yellow dimming adjustable lights, candles, or a large window to bring in sunlight, moonlight, and starlight. Grounding through the element of earth can be found by mounting a soothing artwork on one wall, placing a tall house plant in the corner, and leaving one wall empty for stability in handstand and headstand prep. Finally, the element of Air carries healing chimes from singing bowls or vibrations of worldly meditation music (like Karunesh) on a surround sound stereo. – Hannah Faulkner Roman, Half Moon Yoga and Art

Three elements will maintain the sacredness of your practice. Clear as much physical and visual distraction as possible to keep your mind present to your body. Collect your mat and props in a basket for easy access. Create a small altar or a tray that holds two or three meaningful things such as a candle to hold your drishti or gaze, incense to engage your senses with aromatherapy, and a small plant as a reminder to breathe deeply. Rolling out your mat and routinely lighting your candle and incense as a ritual to signify the start of your practice will help your journey to your mat feel purposeful. – Wildlight Yoga

Make your space bright and full of color. Create a colorful sanctuary that makes you excited to get moving. Brighten up your space with a bold yoga mat that doubles as a gorgeous accessory to your at-home setup. – Courtney, MySolMat

Less is more, but choose items you like. A yoga space should be clutter free. Infusing a sense of calm as you step on your mat. You don’t need an elaborate space for your yoga, but it’s fun to add something that brings you joy like your favorite plant, a picture of a dog doing yoga, or a candle. Create one dedicated space in your home for your yoga and watch it become your favorite spot. – Aham Yoga

Your space just needs to be intentional. Setting up a dedicated yoga space doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; it just needs to be intentional.  #1- Turn Off Your Phone:  we need to disconnect to reconnect. Want music? Just put your phone on ‘do not disturb’  #2- Clear the energy in your space: burn Palo Santo, Sage, favorite incense, or light a candle.  #3- Create an Altar: turn to what inspires you. A photograph of a loved one to dedicate your practice to, a picture of the mountains to focus on grounding, a rose quartz crystal to tune into self love, a statue of Ganesha: The Remover of Obstacles – Marybeth Brady, Owner/ Director of Wild Heart Yoga

Your yoga space should be a place that is relaxing and inviting to you. A place that makes you want to practice yoga. I have a ton of candles and incense that I light and a small altar off to the right that I place a crystal, mala necklace for meditation, and a picture of my late grandmother (symbolically reminding me to always be strong no matter what life throws at you). Next to your mat keep a block, strap and yoga blanket for use during class. And lastly a journal for reflection, my mind is so much clearer after a practice. – Alyson Leinbach, Owner of Serenity Yoga Studio

Originally published by Redfin

Make More Love

“My body is my temple, and asanas are my prayers”- BKS Iyengar

Everything is crazy, right? It feels like we are living in a Star Wars movie, and the Evil Empire cannot be quelled. The events of last week are shocking, terrifying, and downright disheartening. I consciously surround myself with kind, compassionate people. I rarely interact with people consumed with rage and hatred, so it’s easy to convince myself that they are just a tiny cross-section of extremist who marinate in hate and racism, and traffic in conspiracy theories…pissed off, gun toting, whack jobs who slink around in the shadows. I am not naïve, but I am intentional in where I place my attention. I try so hard to focus on the good. But lately it seems like the forces of evil and hate are gaining strength and expanding, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it except watch in horror as darkness strives to snuff out the light. I can’t imagine I’m the only one.

Yoga teaches us that we all have a shadow…those base thoughts and feelings that hide in the depths of our unconscious…the yucky stuff we don’t want to look at. The work of the practice is to drag the demons out from under the bed and into the light of our awareness. We cannot evaluate or change what we fail to acknowledge. Well, the dark underbelly of our collective distortions has been exposed, and it ain’t pretty. Fear, anger, hate, intolerance, and bloodlust are wide-awake, and on full display, right here at home. We can’t wish or reason it away. But we also can’t let it go unchecked. We must work like hell to embolden the light. We must challenge the anger and fear we feel in response to the anger and fear we’re seeing in the world. We must dig deeper than ever to liberate the wellspring of love within. To quote Dr. King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  We are made of love. We are all connected in love – even those who have lost sight of it beneath the debris of fear and rage. Let us stoke the flames of love and compassion in our own hearts, until they light up the world, devouring the darkness. We are not powerless. Here are a few practices to explore in these frightening times:

It is very profound to begin each yoga practice with an intention, and end each practice with a dedication. Remember that we do this practice not only for ourselves, but to help raise the collective vibration, and heal all sentient beings. When we set our intention, – “I use my breath and body as instruments of peace.” – every moment on the mat serves that aim. Our actions advance our intentions. Our movement becomes a prayer and benediction. I always end my practice with an offering. I bow my head to the earth and say, “May my efforts here today help to ease the world’s suffering, including my own.” In this way my practice becomes a gift to all.
In this meditation, we slowly expand our sphere of loving kindness to include everyone, everywhere. To begin, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe deeply into your belly. Picture yourself, maybe as an innocent child, and offer yourself this blessing, “May I be happy. May I be healthy, May I be at peace. May I be free.” Repeat this for a few moments. Then invite in someone you love (your child, partner, pet, friend, etc…) Offer this person the same blessing, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be at peace. May you be free.” Next, picture somebody you feel neutral about (a neighbor, the cashier at the grocery store, a coworker, etc…) Extend the prayer to her. Finally, welcome somebody you feel animosity towards (your nemesis, your ex, an enraged neo-nazi, etc…). Look this wounded person in the eye, and tell him, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be at peace. May you be free.” This may not be easy, and you may not feel sincere. But keep practicing and reaching for those same heartfelt feelings of love and compassion you extended to your nearest and dearest.
In this practice we use our breath and loving attention to transmute negativity into positivity, and suffering into love. We offer ourselves as vessels of healing. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. As you inhale, draw in pain, fear and darkness. You might visualize it as a black stream flowing in. Pause and sit with it for a moment, lovingly. On the out breath, offer love and compassion in its place. Maybe your exhale is golden or sparkly. Repeat. Tonglen is a brave and radical practice, and it can be very uncomfortable at first. It encourages us to welcome, examine, and ultimately heal, those feelings we spend so much time trying to avoid. This practice greatly expands our compassion for ourselves, and the universal suffering of all humanity.
Please don’t lose hope! Remember how powerful you are. Be fiercely loving, and fearless in your efforts to help heal the pains of this world. We are peaceful warriors, tender-hearted heroes, and we are needed now more than ever. Charge!!!

Mute the Commentary

I don’t know if you saw it, but last spring a British sportscaster began commentating his dogs’ daily interactions. With sporting events suspended due to Covid, the poor guy found himself at a loss. He was a sports announcer with nothing to report. It was his job, his lifeblood, and he needed something to call. It’s hilarious. And it got me thinking about how we all have an inner commentator who’s always on the job. It’s that pesky voice in the skybox, watching and analyzing our every move. And I don’t know about you, but my commentator is awfully judgey.

I clearly remember the moment she arrived. It was one of those awkward 7th grade dances. Boys and girls stood in their neutral corners for much of the evening. And then a song came on that couldn’t be denied (probably Journey or Foreigner), so my girlfriends and I hit the dance floor en mass and boogied with wild abandon. A bit later, a very cute boy boldly told me, “I was watching you dance out there. I love the way you move.” And it dawned on me with growing horror that I had been watched and evaluated. And although the judgment was positive, it was also soul crushing. Self-consciousness was born, kicking and screaming. The ecstasy of moving to the music, and being free inside my body was forever tainted by the awareness of potential scrutiny. And once this watcher and judge woke up, she moved right into my head. She put on her jacket, clipped on her microphone, and settled in to report and dissect my every waking move. “It’s a beautiful day in Lynn’s World, Folks! I’ll be bringing you all the action…Live!” 

Sportscasters often work in pairs. You’ve got the play-by-play guy reporting the action, and the color man, who’s there to provide context, analysis and background. The duo in my head sounds something like this:

Play-by-play: “Wow, She’s really crumbling in down dog today…yep, there she goes into child’s pose!”

Color: “Well, you hate to see that, although this shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. She is getting a bit older, and has only been on the mat a couple times this week. I’m not sure she’ll be able to recover from this one!”

Play-by-play: “Ouch! That joke certainly fell flat. The silence is deafening.”

Color: “That’s true! You know she’s feeling the sting from that one. She might want to think about keeping her mouth shut a little more often! Remember that time back in college…”

Play-by-play: “She just taught a lovely yoga class that really seemed to resonate with her students.”

Color: “Yes, this was a good one, but considering that she was an early round draft pick, you’d think we’d see her succeed with more regularity. While we’ve seen a hint of her potential today, she rarely seems to live up to the initial hype.”

These two are snarky and rude. They comprise the Internal Critic, whose only job is to analyze and disparage all things ME. They speak with such authority on the subject, and like our bored British sportscaster will find things to report on, even in the off-season, “Seems like she could be using this Covid time to get more things accomplished. What’s with all the resting?” Thankfully, I also have an Inner Cheerleader, but she’s often relegated to the sidelines, and it can be hard to hear her megaphone over the Critic’s booming mic. We all have countless contradictory thoughts and ideas vying for our attention. For some of us the Critic is turned up way too loud. So, how do we turn it off?

We PRACTICE. Yoga and meditation are designed to bring us into the stillness and quiet needed to sift through the crowd of thoughts swirling through our minds. When we familiarize ourselves with our habitual thought patterns, we learn to recognize all the different voices clamoring to be heard. The voice of the critic is subtly different from the voice that truly knows when we’re veering off course, or living contrary to our deepest values. It’s a voice born from all the unflattering messages we’ve absorbed from external sources – society, family, media…all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”.  Once we know what our Internal Critic sounds like, we can pause when we hear that grating voice, and tell ourselves, “Oh, there’s the critic again. I don’t need to listen to that drivel.” And every time we catch, identify, and discard the critic’s unwelcome commentary, we turn the volume down just the tiniest bit, until one day, God willing, we can’t hear it at all.

Sports announcers exist for the fans. They provide insight and entertainment for the spectators. But their constant chatter is nothing but a distraction for the players. The players are on the field to play. We come to the mat to learn about ourselves, and reconnect with the goodness and authenticity we tend to lose sight of in the noise of the day to day. We come to experience the wonder of living inside our bodies. Evaluating our performance pulls us out of the game and deposits us up in the stands, removed from the action. We come into existence to learn, to feel, to remember our divinity, and to experience the miracle of being alive in human form. Why waste our precious time listening to some inner “expert” who’s convinced that we’re doing it all wrong? Let’s mute the commentary, and Play Ball!

Begin Again

So, here we are at another New Year. For most of us, it is a time of reflections and resolutions… a moment to look back at the year behind us – the challenges, victories, missteps, and lessons. And gaze into the year ahead – identify opportunities for positive change, reassess our goals and priorities, and imagine what we might become. Although it is an arbitrary moment on a man-made calendar, New Years Day is considered a reset point. After the year we’ve had, it certainly feels like a poignant moment of possibility and optimism…and a much needed return to hope.

Unfortunately, we’re not going to wake up on January 1st to find the pandemic eradicated, or the economy fully recovered, but as we turn the page on another year, the possibilities seem closer somehow. It is the perfect moment to explore the first teaching of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. Atha Yoga Anushasanam– Now the process of yoga is explained (PYS 1.1). The 196 sacred seeds of yoga wisdom open with an invitation. I like to translate this sutra “And now the yoga begins again…” The very first word “Atha” or “Now”, is a prayer found at the beginning of many spiritual texts. It indicates an auspicious moment of readiness, a continuation, a next step, a fresh start. This first sutra rolls out the red carpet for anyone interested in following along with the teachings, right now, regardless of whether we have explored them before. No beginning takes place in a vacuum, but rather follows that which has led up to it. We can choose more of the same, or move towards a pivot or reversal. Even the tiniest shift can lead to great change down the line. Imagine you are preparing to walk a hundred miles. If you turn even one degree to the right or left as you start out, you will end up somewhere very different at the end of your journey. Atha is a ripe opportunity to move in the direction of a more authentic and peaceful future.

Whether or not we’re aware of it, we are constantly shaping our future. Our thoughts are the architects of our actions. Our actions are the building blocks for our experiences. Yoga teaches us to familiarize ourselves with the thoughts that drive us, so we can decide which ones align with the future we desire. When we put in the work to uncover our unconscious triggers and biases, we stop reacting and lashing out in ways that damage our relationships and wound our sense of self. As we clear away the cobwebs of our unexamined beliefs, we begin to move through the world with clarity, and learn to avoid kneejerk reactions that can lead to unnecessary suffering. Yoga is a tool for cultivating peace, and a time tested method for reuniting with source. The yoga path is always there, just waiting for us to take a step. How wonderful that we don’t have to wait another 365 days to begin again! The possibility for the smallest shift in behavior, thought patterns, or perspective is available any time. We can recommit again and again…

Every Practice – “As I set my intention and chant “Om” to plug into universal assistance, I listen to what my body is asking for, prioritize my breath, remain on the lookout for self-criticism, and cultivate gratitude for all of my blessings.”

Every Asana – “I focus on my own practice with honesty and curiosity. I build this pose from the ground up, with loving attention to detail, mindful of where I am pushing too hard or holding back out of fear.”

Every Interaction – “I remain open, patient, and compassionate. I understand that everyone is battling demons I cannot see. I seek out the best in everyone, and excuse any unkindness as a manifestation of unattended pain or fear.”

Every Breath – “I draw this breath deep into the places of tension in my body, pause in fullness, and invite release. I let this breathe go with faith, and surrender into the emptiness that follows…confident that the next breath will come”

Every Moment – “I choose to stay present, accepting the reality of this moment. I investigate my inner landscape, and recognize the urge to react. I pause & consider the most appropriate and loving response.”

Yoga teaches us that we always have a choice in how we meet each moment. Every second we are alive is another opportunity to choose love, peace, kindness, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, and acceptance. Even if we have never made those choices before. The past is behind us, and the future lies ahead. The direction we face NOW determines where we will end up. 

Happy New Year, Everyone! Celebrate a new chapter. Embrace the transition between past and present, old and new. Bid adieu to what you’re leaving behind, and welcome what you’re moving towards. And in this stillness between what was and what will be, remember to take a deep breath and marinate in the brief beauty of what is.

A Christmas Wish

2020 – What a year. The Yogis believe that we come to the Earth School to learn, evolve, and enjoy the adventure of our unfolding. As it turns out, it is often the times of greatest discomfort that lead to the deepest insights. Comfort is just so darn comfortable, and sometimes circumstances beyond our control are necessary to shake us out of our complacency, and guide us to new ways of seeing ourselves, and the world. The yoga mat is microcosm of life, so it’s unsurprising that this difficult year has taught us many of the same lessons gleaned from a challenging yoga practice. And while I will be as happy as anyone to see 2020 in the rearview mirror, I’ve learned a few things along the way, and I hope you have, too… 

We Can Do Hard Things– Do you remember back in March, when it all began? How we couldn’t imagine staying at home, not seeing loved ones, wearing masks all the time, online school? And yet, we’re doing it. I am astounded by the way my low-tech husband has mastered online teaching, and my stepchildren have adapted to remote learning. I’m surprised by how connected I can feel to friends by just keeping a group text thread going. It turns out we are incredibly adaptable. It’s why yoga poses have modifications, and bricks, belts, and bolsters are available for extra support. While this past year has looked nothing like what most of us expected, we are getting through it, and may be better for it in the end.

Respect Your Limits– I tend towards nervousness, and recognized immediately that in order to come through this pandemic with my mental health intact, I needed to err on the side of caution. At first it was hard to turn down invitations– Everyone has varying comfort levels regarding risk, and I would wonder if I was overreacting…or just being a weenie. Maybe. But it’s what works for me, and I no longer apologize. As we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves through our yoga practice, we learn not to push past our limits, to respect our boundaries. It’s how we avoid injury, exhaustion and burnout. When we let go of our ideals about what a pose, or a year, should look like, we develop acceptance, patience and fortitude, and discover the relief found in surrender.

The Importance Of Rest– We often tend to gauge our worth by how busy & productive we are…how much we can get done. On the mat, we learn to rest in child’s pose when our breath becomes labored, signaling that our nervous systems are over-taxed. In a year of collective grief, fear, and trauma, we may have found ourselves requiring extra rest. Hopefully we’ve discovered that downtime, those hours spent reading, resting, binge watching Netflix, sleeping more than usual, or simply sitting with our breath, is not a waste of time, but absolutely necessary. We cannot sustain ourselves on high alert for long periods of time. We must pause and recharge to be able to fight again another day.

Don’t Miss The Point– Talk about perspective. The point of deep backbend is not an Instagram worthy pose, but rather to practice relaxing into fear, finding peace in the midst of uncertainty, and learning a bit about ourselves along the way. During this trying time I’ve rediscovered what’s truly important. I’ve come to prioritize my closest relationships. I have remembered the significance of a small gesture…a moment of commiseration with a neighbor on a dog walk, a quick check-in with a friend. I have doubled down on self-care: rest, home-cooked meals, long walks, snuggle time with my man and my dog. Instead of worrying that our kids are falling behind, I’ve found inspiration in watching them rise to the occasion, learn the power of adaptability, and recognize that personal sacrifices are worth making for the greater good. While I miss restaurants and live music and girls’ outings, I appreciate a good dinner in my warm home more than ever…and the beauty found in simple moments.  

Community Is Powerful– My teacher often says, “Together we can do so much more than we ever could alone.” As we go through this global crisis, it has been so inspiring to see countless displays of courage, compassion, and communion: Italians singing on their balconies during lock down. Doctors and nurses working horrific hours, risking their lives everyday. Neighbors running errands for each other. Thousands of volunteers running food banks. The Wall of Moms.  Young children raising money for Covid relief…and endless other examples of heroism.  And to all of the people around the world who have set aside their personal desires, and made hard choices to help keep everyone safe… Thank you.

So, my Christmas Wish is that, as we go forward, we continue to integrate the lessons we have learned this year. May we always remember that we are stronger than we think we are, more adaptable than previously imagined, infinitely capable of peace, and above all, we are ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. 

Wishing you all a peaceful and joyful holiday.

Eye of the Hurricane

Batten down the hatches!!! In addition to all its other unexpected developments, 2020 has emerged as a record-breaking year for hurricanes. Hurricanes are rude and inelegant. They sweep in, loud and chaotic, trampling everything in their path. They are unpredictable, frightening, and unstoppable. And for those who are forced to ride them out, the only option is to tuck in, hunker down, and pray for deliverance. Sounds a bit like everything this unique year has served up – the pandemic, a completely new way of living-working-learning, financial hardship, social unrest, political chaos…(add your personal challenges here). And now, just when we are drenched and exhausted, and can’t possibly deal with anything else, here comes the annual Holiday Hurricane! While this time of year can be Merry and Bright, it can also be hectic, expensive, and stressful. It is fraught with unrealistic expectations of how it’s supposed to look and how it’s supposed to feel. You might feel the added pressure of trying to create holiday magic in a season that looks very different from previous years. Many of you are already experiencing the force of this latest storm. But let’s not forget that within the maelstrom of every hurricane lies a calm and quiet eye. What if we could live there?

Patanjali tells us we can. According to the Yoga Sutra, the state of yoga is accessed through a combination of effort and release. The word for release, Vairagya, refers to dispassion, acceptance, and surrender. We let go of our attachment to a particular outcome, and meet every moment with openhearted curiosity. We embrace the adventure of experiencing everything, while learning how to tap into our center, regardless of the situation. When we have mastered the art of detachment, we become so firmly grounded in our inner strength and divinity that we are no longer affected by the forces around and within us (PYS 1.16). We stand firm and unflappable in the eye of the hurricane. Sounds great, right? So how do we get there?

We practice. It is much easier to find peace in a silent temple, quiet yoga studio, or tranquil forest than in the noise and frenetic activity of everyday life. In moments of peace, and within the controlled experiment of our yoga practice, we can work to build, and continually reinforce, a fortress of wisdom and stillness within. The mat is the perfect place to learn to calm ourselves. Backbends and inversions teach us how to move through fear. Deep lunges show us we can survive, and even relax into, discomfort. As we work towards challenging poses, we learn that we can do hard things, and reach our goals by working carefully and methodically. And our favorite asanas can teach us the lesson of fortitude. These are the poses that feel great…at least during the honeymoon phase. Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) can feel wonderful at first…the lengthening of tight hamstrings, the unfurling of the spine. It’s easy to relax when it feels good. But if we can continue to stay and breath deeply when our arms begin to shake and our shoulders begin to burn, then we slowly expand the boundaries of our comfort zones. In meditation we learn to identify our habitual thoughts, emotional patterns, and hidden resistances, and discover how to investigate and release them without being triggered or hijacked. As we grow more familiar with our tendencies and more adept at relaxing into discomfort, we shore ourselves up to withstand any future turmoil (inner and outer) that may threaten to throw us off center. We learn to assess a situation, take a deep breath, and respond instead of react. The more we practice inhabiting our inner stillness, the more proficient we become at accessing it…until, eventually, we live there fulltime. My teacher likes to say, “There is very little worth losing your peace of mind over.” As we continue to practice surrender and release, we recognize that while we may not be able to control everything that happens in our lives, we hold the key to an inner refuge. From the safety of this sanctuary we can meet each challenge with grace and clarity.  

So, even as this year continues to challenge us, please keep practicing…whatever that looks like for you right now. Grab onto moments of quiet when you find them. Be willing to put yourself in uncomfortable positions. Let go of the myth of perfection and do the best you can on any given day. Invite your fears, worries, and sorrows to come a little closer so you can get a good look at them. And them thank them for coming and show them the door. All hurricanes pass eventually. When the sun comes back out, assess the damage, clean up the debris, and fortify the foundation….so the next time the weather turns, you are calm, prepared, and ready to withstand whatever comes your way.

My Christmas wish is that we all learn to live in the eye of the hurricane. To stand still, serene, and self-contained as the howling winds of our ceaseless thoughts and the driving rain of outer circumstances rage around us. May we all stay safe and calm and warm and dry inside the peaceful shelter of our hearts.

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