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A Day 20 Treat January 30, 2011

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 21-Day Challenge, 40-Day Challenge, Changing Perspectives, Fitness, Health, Love, Mantra, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Texas, Twin Cities, Yoga.
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Day 20

Two days of Jason Crandell in a row is a full mind-body-spirit treat. On some level, I knew it was coming. (My housemate and I had discussed it.) But, I wasn’t really prepared for how the continuity and integrity of the practice would leave me feeling…sated, satisfied, seriously relaxed.

I started the day with my 5 minute silent meditation and a condensed version of the practice I was going to lead at the Y. I’ll admit that the way my body (not to mention my mind and spirit) felt after these last few days encouraged me to get a little carried away on the mat. I wanted to do everything, put together bits and pieces from the previous day’s practice – and the previous weeks. I had to keep reminding myself that on we were getting ready for a in addition to “letting the love flow” I was headed towards a peak pose: Pincha Mayurasana.

By the time I made it downtown, I was more than a little distracted by some family news. Part of me really wanted to cancel class. Part of me really wanted to go home. But, I was in one of those situations where canceling class, and even going “home,” weren’t going to solve anything. I needed to breathe, and slow down. Turns out, reminding myself of the love all around helped too. The class was fun and, I think, illuminating for some. Even though a forearm stand is a pretty advanced inversion, doing it with a wall and props – or even sticking to one of the modifications, like Dolphin Dog – is accessible to almost anyone.

After class, I stayed in the studio and completed the 18 Minute So Hum meditation. My body felt good and my mind was fairly focused. Ultimately, it was very soothing for my spirit.

Saturday was a busy day leading up to a busy evening. My housemate says we all have cabin fever, and maybe that’s true. I just know it felt good, at the end of the day, to just sit still for a minute before rushing back into the fray. Eventually, I got around to finishing out my daily practice. I practiced the 30-Minute Tension Release Side Bends with Jason Crandell in the late afternoon/early evening. This was a perfect unwinding sequence. The poses were simply, easy to follow (even though some versions were a little unusual), and intense. In fact, the intensity of the stretches kind of surprised me given how “little” we seemed to be doing. I could easily see doing this sequence just before bed or combining it with another video, or two, for a more energetic practice. About midway through, I couldn’t help but wonder how this sequence would feel as a way to open the body up for Visvamitrasana.

Hmmm, something to look forward to doing in week 4. Smile.


Day 19 Gets Us Closer To The Other Side January 29, 2011

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 21-Day Challenge, Changing Perspectives, Donate, Fitness, Health, Karma, Karma Yoga, Mantra, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Peace, Philosophy, Science, Texas, Twin Cities, Volunteer, Writing, Yoga.
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Day 19

There are only two types of people in a kayak – those who just got wet, and those who’re about to get wet.” – Bob Patman

I learned perseverance is a quality I do not fully comprehend the depths of, but that to ever have a chance at comprehension requires a decision to explore.” – Chris Scotch

I have no doubt you can muscle through…the question is do you have the courage to practice a little peace, to breath your way into a deeper expression.” – me, paraphrasing Mairead Corrigan Maguire

Everybody hits the wall sometime. It’s just a matter of time if you’re putting your endurance to the test. And, it doesn’t matter if you are a professional athlete; a weekend warrior running/walking/rolling/biking for a good cause; or a yogi(ni) taking Yoga Journal’s 21-Day Challenge, at some point you face the fear that it was all for not and you’re not going to make it.

Week 3 of this challenge has, quite possibly, been the most amazing – but it’s also been the most challenging. Even as I got up and got on the mat every day, even as I loved the moments and the awakenings, I started to doubt that I was going to get through it. I started to fear that I was going to oversleep – or fall asleep – or just plan give out. I was hitting the wall.

The funny thing is, I realized that (in this case) the wall was partially of my own making. From the very beginning, I knew that part of my challenge was going to be this blog. I wanted to get some momentum going and get back to writing. I wanted to get past the idea that every entry had to be perfect and erudite. I had to get past the feeling that I didn’t have time – and couldn’t make time. All of this I knew from the beginning. I also knew that it was going to be my little secret. It was going to be the “other stuff” I alluded to on Day 1. And, if I missed a day here or there, no one would be the wiser. So, even though I knew my intention – I didn’t really put it out there. I didn’t mention the blog to anyone I knew until Week 2, and I didn’t encourage anyone to read it until Week 3. Naturally, the minute I opened my big mouth about what I was doing, it became harder to do. I started building the wall.

I could blame the wall on lack of sleep; it’s a common malady. But, every morning I managed to get up and do something. Including this morning, when I felt like staying in bed and chilling out with a good book. Don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t a depressing “I don’t wanna get up, I’m a Toys’RUs kid….” kind of morning. This was a righteous “Wow, I feel so good all tucked in!” kind of morning. I hit the snooze once, maybe twice, and then I got up and sat for 5 minutes. Once my head was clear, I checked my e-mail, reviewed the events of the day, and thought about what I’d led in class earlier in the week and last Friday.

Sometimes I plan out my classes weeks in advance, sometimes mere days; but sometimes I wake up in the morning, toss the plan out, and start anew. This was one of those start anew mornings; I felt compelled to practice a little peace. So, I futzed around with a playlist, a sequence, and a theme I used this time last year. Then I considered how I wanted it to work given how I felt and what I’ve learned over the last year. All of this was in my head, but once I got on the mat I let the breath take over. I let the breath become the wall – and suddenly, I was going over the wall. I was having fun, feeling good, and more or less ready for my day.

I taught 3 classes today and although they were all centered around the “Peace People” theme and sequence, they were very different classes. The first was the most physically challenging (and, oddly, the smallest group class); the second was a private class with an emphasis on the therapeutic and restorative benefits of the practice; and the third class (which was, oddly, the largest) was another group class made challenging because it was by candlelight. Inevitably, the evening classes are a little slower and, every once in a while, I simplify the transitions or modify the balancing sequences to accommodate the darkness. While they resembled each other, and my own personal practice, none of these classes resembled the practice I did last year to celebrate Mairead Corrigan Maguire’s birthday.

Last year’s sequence was intended to be physically exhausting. I wanted people to struggle. I wanted them to find that place where they had to make a decision: muscle through and not enjoy the practice, or breathe their way into a smile.

This year, I wanted a challenging sequence that would leave everyone with a peaceful feeling. The emphasis was on hip opening and side stretching. I wanted to get at those pesky hamstrings and IT bands, but I also wanted to get in some core work and some arm balancing. During my personal practice, I felt challenged but relaxed – peaceful yet engaged. During the morning class, however, I wondered if the class was a little lighter than people expected (or wanted). Maybe for some it was, but midway through, I looked up and saw sweat sprinkled on one member’s t-shirt while several other members strategically inserted Child’s Pose into their vinyasa. “We are,” I thought, “exactly where we need to be.”

After class, I used one of the battery operated candles for my 18-Minute So Hum Meditation. I felt good, relaxed, steady, and peaceful. I could have easily ended my day here, but I still needed to fulfill the rest of my challenge. So, I headed home to practice the 30-Minute Peak Pose Sequence featuring Wheel Pose with Jason Crandell.

For the record, Crandell rocks my world again and again. I’d like to call him a teacher’s teacher, which he most definitely is, but (to be fair) he’s also an “Everyman’s Teacher.” He systematically opens up the body and fires up muscles even I forgot I had. I modified some of the arm movements just to relieve some tension in my shoulder. Half way through the Sun Salutations, I felt myself drop over the other side of the wall. Somewhere between Bridge Pose and the second or third Wheel Pose, I had not only forgotten about the wall, I had forgotten the fact that I was nursing some tenderness in my shoulder. I can’t say I was ready for a fourth Wheel Pose, which would have been my fifth (or sixth) one of the day, but I did foresee myself going into an expression I’ve only dreamed of taking. Seriously, last week, I had an 8-year old (I think) in my class doing this extended Wheel. Her parents and I joked that we wouldn’t be doing that version anytime soon. Today, however, I could feel myself being ready to do it sooner rather than later.

It was a great feeling. And with that great feeling came an even better reminder: Everybody hits the wall sometime. Just like everyone who spends any significant time in a kayak flips it over. But, it’s nothing to fear. Getting wet is half the fun – it proves you were out there and you were doing it. And once you get back in the boat, you’re on your way; you’re past that moment.

Hitting the wall is the same thing. It’s bound to happen, but it’s nothing to fear. Because, regardless of who you are or what you’re doing, there’s a second wind waiting for you on the other side of that wall. There’s a deeper experience – a deeper expression, one you’ve only imagined in your dreams. One you can only experience if you make the decision to explore.

So, take a deep breath, get wet, persevere, and and get yourself (peacefully) to the other side.

Bob Patman is usually in Texas and Mairead Corrigan Maguire resides in Ireland.

Which begs the question: Where's Chris Scotch?

Well, on Monday, January 31st, Chris will be in International Falls, Minnesota racing in the Arrowhead 270. Send him warm thoughts, big smiles, and, if you're so inclined, help him send some cold hard cash to St. Jude Children's Hospital.

~ Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanthi Om ~

A Day (18) of Surprises January 28, 2011

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 21-Day Challenge, Books, Changing Perspectives, Fitness, Food, Health, Mantra, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Philosophy, Texas, Twin Cities, Yoga.
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Day 18

“Be prepared.” – Motto for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America

“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” – Oscar Wilde

Ask almost any red-blooded American and they can tell you the motto for the Boy Scouts of America: Be Prepared – or, always be prepared. Ask for the Girl Scouts motto and even former Girl Scouts like me draw a blank. We have to look it up. Turns out the scouting organizations share the same motto. And, while I may not have remembered the motto as being part of my scouting days, it is something I take to heart. Scouts have their trusty pocket knives and can make a tourniquet out of a belt or sash. I have a backpack I refer to as my portable office. People say even the “small” one is bigger than me. I try to carry everything I might need during the course of a day; but,  even I’m not prepared for everything (not even close). There are things (and times) for which you can only prepare for by being open to whatever comes: expect the unexpected.

Today was one of those days when I could have probably (undoubtedly) left the pack at home. I was planning to sub a class that is usually taught without music, and I planned to open it up for requests – which I rarely ever do. After lunch with a fellow Texan, I planned to meet with Cynthia Rae Levine, another yoga instructor, and then take her prenatal class so that I could sub for her in the future. Somewhere along the way, I planned to practice the sequence featured for Day 18 of Yoga Journal’s 21-Day Challenge and practice one or both of my meditations.

This should have been a big purse or a pocket-full-of-stuff day, but I wasn’t prepared to go out without my full arsenal, so I swung on my “small” pack. Just in case.

Rewinding just a bit, I should mention that the unexpected happened before I ever left the house. My alarm was acting funny and I ended up getting out of bed a little later than I planned. Normally I plan to arrive where ever I’m teaching at least 30 minutes early; that way, if there’s a delay, I’m usually covered. Sometimes when I’m subbing I give myself even more grace time, but sometimes I give myself less. Even though I woke up later than usual, the class was later than when I usually teach and I figured I had time to fit in some aspects of my daily routine.

I sat for 5 minutes, which became 10 before I realized I had incorrectly set the alarm. I still had time to do the Day 18 video, a 30-Minute Aligning and Refining Forward Bends Practice with Elise Lorimer. But it was going to be tight. I almost skipped the video, just so I wouldn’t have to rush and (to be honest) I wasn’t sure I’d had enough sleep to keep up with one of Lorimer’s sequences. I ultimately decided to do the video, but I set the alarm to keep myself on schedule. (And yes, I double checked the alarm.)

I liked this sequence a lot more than the “Fun Flow.” It was still intense on the hips and I can see some people saying parts are cued a little fast, but it felt really good. I didn’t feel like I was opening up for forward bending – or that I was refining my forward bends – but I get where she was going. I also felt like it was fun and could be challenging for a variety of different fitness and experience levels. I especially liked the IT band stretch based on Ardha Hanumanasana. I haven’t been doing a lot of Eka Pada Rajakopatasana I (One Legged King Pigeon I) in my classes, because I feel like a lot of attention needs to be given to the proper alignment. So, I was a little surprised to find it in this mix. However, going into it, and Cow Face pose (legs only), gave me an opportunity to notice how my hips have changed over the last few months. Also, because I felt like the sequence lacked forward bending, I paid particular attention to the King Pigeon feels and works as a forward bend. I was a little disappointed in the way the block and blanket were used. A fully supported Standing Forward Fold or a fully supported Pascimottanasana would have been appreciated during this sequence. I’m pretty sure Lorimer was going for the latter at the end of the sequence, but I felt like it would have been more effective with the blanket on top of the legs and the block on top of that. The video seemed to go over 30-minutes, so I didn’t get the extended Savasana for which my body was begging. It would have been really nice after this sequence. Overall, I felt really good – good enough to meditate – but I didn’t have time.

I missed my bus and had to take the train, which was delayed a little bit. Honestly, I was gratefully for the slight delay because it enabled me to catch the “earlier” train. Then I discovered that the slight delay was probably a direct result of a power line falling on the train tracks and disrupting service to downtown.

Hmm, nothing in my backpack was going to help with this situation. All I could do was take a deep breath; get on the bus acting as the train; reassure a business man he wouldn’t be far from his hotel; and call my supervisor to say I would probably be a minute or two late.

I was 2 minutes late. After running through Macy’s and the skyway, I climbed up the stairs to the 6th floor studio – only to discover another teacher was teaching the class. I quietly, and as unobtrusively as possible, closed the door and headed back down the stairs. I was relieved that the class had started on time, but I was unprepared to discover there had been some scheduling confusion and the other teacher had showed up expecting to teach all along. Again, I was relieved and – again – there was nothing in my pack to help with the fact that we might encounter the same confusion on Monday. I took a deep breath and left the other teacher a message, hoping we could clear up in confusion in the morning.

My Texas friend and I met for lunch a little earlier than we had planned. Then we explored a cafe/bakery/deli/baltic import shop across the street from where we had lunch. We had a great time, as we always do, and our little retail adventure was an unexpected pleasure. (My backpack finally came in handy, because my friend brought me a package from home, which I handily slipped into my pack, but this was neither unexpected or absolutely necessary.)

Eventually, I made it over to the coffee shop near the studio to meet with Cynthia. Both of us were running late – nothing major, and nothing in my pack that would have made a big difference. We had tea and then moved over to the studio for class. I pulled some of my yoga goodies out of my pack; but, seriously folks, I could have foregone the goodies or carried them in a large purse.

At the beginning of class, Cynthia has everyone introduce themselves and give some information about their pregnancy. She also has a question for each of the “mamas” to answer. Tonight’s question was “What word are you currently associating with your pregnancy?”

Well, since I’m not pregnant, I went with an obvious one: Miraculous. One of the women said, “Surprising.” Either of those words could apply to my feelings during and after the class. Plainly put, Cynthia led an amazing class that was three parts inspiration, one part exertion, and two parts relaxation. Plus, it was a super fun combination of hip openers, core engagement, breathing, balance, and forward bending. When we moved into Savasana I felt, in a nutshell, so phenomenal and so utterly relaxed, I wished I was pregnant just so I would have an excuse to come back next week.

Nothing in my back pack prepared me for that.

At the end of the day, as I sat down to do my 18-Minute So Hum Meditation, I couldn’t help but think about how the day started and all the little things that happened along the way. Then I thought of something Cynthia repeated throughout our conversations during tea, and during the introduction to her class: “Life is life.” To me, that summed up my day, my week, and this whole 21-day yoga challenge, Life is unexpected, surprising, and miraculous – it is full of the unexpected. And, it doesn’t matter how many gadgets are on your Swiss Army knife or in your backpack, the only way you can really be prepared for everything is if you are prepared to breath through anything.

Cynthia Rae Levine teaches prenatal classes at Nokomis Yoga and at Blooma. If you're looking for a prenatal class or a doula in the Twin Cities, check her out!


Day 17, What A Blur January 27, 2011

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 21-Day Challenge, Changing Perspectives, Fitness, Food, Health, Mantra, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Texas, Twin Cities, Yoga.
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Day 17

Wednesday, the 17th day in Yoga Journal’s 21-Day Challenge was a total blur. I barely slept. Then I had to get up early, sit for 5 minutes, and work out my teaching sequence for the day. Then I practiced the 45-minute sequence.

Fast forward to me rushing to work. I missed the bus; caught the train; taught two classes and, somewhere along the way, I ate two really yummy meals. Then I took a nap.

Yes, the Texas Queen of Hibernation (a self appointed title if ever there was one) took a mid-night nap – which some folks might consider “going to sleep,” except for the fact that the nap was shorter than the previous night’s sleep. Plus, and this is a very important factor when it comes to napping, I woke up so I could finish out my day.

After my mid-night nap, I practiced the 20-Minute Core Focus with Rebecca Urban and then completed my 18-Minute So Hum Meditation. The core sequence definitely helped prepare my body for the seated meditation. And, maybe being sleep deprived helped my overall focus during the meditation – but I wouldn’t recommend it as a practice.

~ Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanthi Om ~

Day 16’s Two For One Special January 26, 2011

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 21-Day Challenge, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Daoism, Fitness, Health, Mantra, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Movies, Music, Philosophy, Science, Taoism, Texas, Twin Cities, Yoga.
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Day 16

Who knows whether it is bad luck or good luck,” says the Taoist farmer.

Is that so?” asks the Zen monk.

Everything…is the best,” says the Zen shopkeeper.

Gam zu l’tovah,” says Nachum Ish Gamzu.

In the modern world, especially here in the West, we tend to view things as they come. We are quick to assume that what we have, here and now, is the whole story. And, we are quick to judge accordingly. We define a situation – or another person – as good, bad, or irrelevant depending on how it measures up to our current goals and desires. We suffer, because we react to what’s happening in a moment that is nothing more, nothing less, than the middle of a chapter. Even if (you think) this chapter is the end of your life, it is hardly ever where your story ends.

In fact, even if you’re right, and this is the last chapter of your living life, there’s still another chapter in your story – it just involves other people. If you’re wrong, and this is not the last chapter in your living life, then the next chapter is all about how your attitude about a current situation affected your future situations.

I’ve seen people recover from tragedy because they had a positive attitude. I’ve also seen people who seem to age dramatically because they can’t get past a calamity. Personally, I believe we have an infinity capacity for joy and love, but that we are only given the grief we can handle. Call me a romantic optimist. I still recognize the problem with this philosophy is that sometimes things happen which make us doubt our ability to handle the situation. We fall into the trap of believing it is the end of the story. We become disappointed, irritated, angry – and those emotions begin to supersede the joy, the hope, the love.

My Day 16 story is mostly about molehills that could have turned into mountains. Although, there is a funny celebrity moment and a really dramatic moment (which isn’t mine). The stories behind the teachings quoted above, are a little deeper. Take a moment to consider one or both of the sections below. Consider your answers to the questions which appear after the teachings. Then, see where those answers lead you.

Be open to the possibility that you don’t have the whole story. See if you can Be receptive to the inevitable joy that comes from recognizing everything is for the good.

My Day 16 Molehills

The Stories Behind The Teachings

~ Be open, be receptive. ~

27 Days Away From The Answer To Everything (Day 15 of Yoga Journal’s 21-Day Challenge) January 25, 2011

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Day 15

“Neti, neti!”
– Ajatsatru describing the nature of the divine and telling Gargya how not to meditate. Often translated as, “Not this, not this.” (The Brihadaranyaka Upanishads)

My housemate and I have discussed the wisdom and reasoning behind which videos have been repeated during Yoga Journal’s 21-Day Challenge. I think I understand the reasoning, and I even appreciate the wisdom. Neither one of us, however, has been very interested in repeating the “Fun Flow” which appears on the first day of each week. Last night I went to bed thinking I would get up early and combine the Elise Lorimer video with another video. Or two. I even thought, since I was off, I would catch up on the audio streaming meditations featured during the challenge. Monday, however, turned out to be a good day to pay the piper.

As I mentioned yesterday, all the late nights and running around comes at a cost. Today was cold (yes, I know, that’s Minnesota in the winter) and since I had a day off I decided to catch up on some much needed sleep. I know plenty of people who wake up like clock work, even on their day off, and view a midday nap as a mortal sin. These people also tend to think of waking up at 9:30 AM as sleeping in. I am not one of these people. So, when I woke up this morning I thought nothing of putting off my very ambitious plans for the day and staying in bed to finish reading a book. I have no shame; I’ll even admit to taking a nap. In fact, I barely got out of bed to eat. I probably would have switched from pajamas to yoga gear and back again if a friend hadn’t asked me to go out for dinner. Like I said, today was the day to pay the piper – and the piper was very well paid.

Once I finally came out of hibernation mode, I sat for 5 minutes and then decided I wanted to complete a video practice and the 18-Minute So Hum Meditation before I left the house. I didn’t have the time or the inclination to do the 45-minute video sequence, which I also skipped last week. I used the 15-Minute Morning Sequence as my substitution. Granted, it was no longer morning – not by a long shot – but Kate Holcombe says this sequence could be done in the afternoon if you need a little energy. All in all, it’s a very light practice and it does a good job of clearing the cobwebs that linger in the brain after sleeping. Or napping. You could also do all or part of this sequence in your office instead of grabbing that fourth cup of coffee. Or that second doughnut. Think of it as continuing the momentum of a good habit.

Today was a day when I could have easily skipped a physical practice all together. There are a variety of reasons why someone might take a day away from asana. “Ashtang-is” may not practice during certain phases of the moon. Some traditions recommend not practicing at all during menstruation or at least not on a woman’s heavy flow days. Then there’s days, like today, when you’re tired. I firmly believe in listening to the mind-body-spirit. Yes, we have an odd way of communicating with ourselves. The mind-body has a tendency to send messages like, “I’m hungry” when it’s thirsty. Or, it doesn’t commit to doing an inversion because you might fall. In both cases, however, the mind-body is doing it’s job: it’s protecting and nurturing the case that holds the spirit. Sometimes, taking a complete break is a great way to protect and nurture. It creates balance. Sometimes, however, what we need is a little cross training. My overall practice is very active (yang), so occasionally doing a restorative practice (yin) – like the ones presented by Kate Holcombe – can be a nice alternative to not practicing.

Not practicing is not an option when you’re in the middle of a challenge like the Yoga Journal 21-Day Challenge, which creates a new habit or routine through momentum. Having made a commitment to the process, as opposed to a goal, you find a way to make it work, one day at a time.

During January, we see a lot of new faces at the gyms and studios, because people have made New Year’s resolutions. Some of those faces become familiar. Some, however, disappear after a few weeks. Most of the latter group tries committing to a goal, which rarely works. I’m not saying that visualizing the goal can’t be helpful. It can, in fact, be super motivating. You still, however, have to take the first step. And then, you have to take the second step. And so on. It’s easy, after all, to give up on some lofty idea that may never happen. Fitting into a different dress size; not smoking after 20 years; keeping in touch with friends who’ve moved; and spending quality time with our family are all things we’d like to do, but if doing it were so easy, we wouldn’t need the resolution. We’d just do it.

And that’s the key, the answer to everything: just do it. Then keep doing it. Instead of making a resolution, make a sankalpa (determination promise): a commitment to the process that brings you closer to your goal.

One of the goals of doing Yoga Journal’s 21-Day Challenge is to help people develop a home practice. Unfortunately, some people – even people with a regular practice – have to get passed the idea that having a home practice is a lofty goal. This becomes a little like the Upanishads conversation between Gargya and Ajatsatru. A home practice doesn’t have to be a super complicated sequence or even a simple 2-hour one. It doesn’t have to be a series requiring a lot of space and props. It doesn’t even have to be something you do at home, per se. It could be one pose; done every morning before you go to work, every afternoon before lunch, or every evening before bed. It could be a peak pose you do after every class you take at a studio or gym. The important thing is to find something that works, and to keep doing it – to keep practicing.

My housemate and I are not the only people who have expressed preferences about a particular sequence or teacher. We’re human, it happens. But, like so many people, we’ve both made a commitment to the process. So we’re finding ways to make it work. We’re finding what works for us, as individuals – which is a great reminder that, traditionally speaking, a personal practice should be as unique as the individual who practices it. The beauty of this challenge, the sequences, and these teachers is that people have the opportunity to try different styles, at different times, and to really see what’s going to work long term. By focusing on the process, we focus on the practice. Ultimately, the process becomes the goal. That’s the practice.

~ Be well, and be great ~

2 Weeks Down, 1 To Go (Day 14) January 24, 2011

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 21-Day Challenge, Changing Perspectives, Fitness, Health, Mantra, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Philosophy, Science, Texas, Twin Cities, Yoga.
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Day 14

“Practice, practice, practice! All is coming.”

– Sri Pattabhi Jois

We are well into the first month of the new year, and well into Yoga Journal’s 21-Day Yoga Challenge. There’s no turning back the clock. As we close out the second week, I’m guessing that the myriad of thoughts and emotions running through my brain are echoed in other people’s brains:

Wow, this feels really good!
I’m super energized today!
I’m so relaxed!
Wow, I’ve never done that before!

I’m so exhausted.
I can’t wait for things to slow down.
Man, I wish I could do that today.
Wow, I can’t believe it’s almost over.

How am I ever going to keep up this level of practice?

Do I even want to keep up this level of practice?

I wonder what we’re going to do next week?

The thoughts, the emotions, the questions, and (yes, Virginia) even the answers to the questions all come through practice. At one point this week I thought I was interacting with yoga – practicing, teaching, or reading – for almost as much time per week as I did during teacher training. That’s something I never expected to do again. The training, like the challenge, is an intense experience over a limited amount of time. The same thing can be said about life: it is right here, right now. We have to be here, and breathe here; we have to practice right here, now…. Everything else will come – or not. And that last part, the “not” part, is vital, because it reminds us that the most important part of Sri Pattabhi Jois’s advice is the first part, the part he kept repeating: Practice. Practice. Practice.

This busy weekend capped off a busy week. Saturday night was one of many late nights that resulted in very little sleep on my part. I’ve worried about the lack of sleep a little bit, and chastised myself (for the lack, as well as the worry). But, so far, so good. I thought this whole process would help me evolve into a more Aryuvedic schedule. Instead, I find myself settling into a routine I’ve had for most of my life – the schedule of a night owl.

Of course, there is always a bit of a cost to staying up late and having to work in the morning. On Saturday (Day 13), the cost was my own asana practice before teaching. Today seemed like it was going to be a similar situation, but then I decided today was a day I really needed to squeeze in a practice before class. Of course, once I got going I forgot about everything else. In for a penny, in for a pound – or a few more minutes on the mat. I had to rush to catch my bus and make it to class on time, but it was more than worth it. I felt energized, open, joyful, and ready for the surprises the day had in store.

For months, several members at the YMCA have been telling me that they were going to try my class. Usually when I talk to someone new to yoga, I have a pretty good sense of if they’ll really come or if they’ll keep offering reasons why they haven’t come. First thing this morning, two people I never really expected to see in class, showed up. I was blown away by their presence, as well as by their practice. It was a hard class – even for the regulars – and yet these two “unlikely yogis” kept at it. Even better, they kept smiling – which is a big plus in my classes.

After the first class, I again took advantage of the empty studio and practiced the 18-Minute So Hum Meditation. I felt good, but found myself adjusting me seat/asana on more than one occasion. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m really noticing how engaged the back muscles, particularly the upper ones, have to be in order to sustain a comfortable seat. On Saturday, a student told me he was challenged by the brief seated meditation we sometimes do after the longer classes. I suggested he use a block or cushion, and to focus on strengthening those areas during the asana practice. For me, the block helps the upper back a lot. It should also help the hips and lower, but sometimes I feel like I need to adjust my legs more when I’m on the block. During part of today’s meditation I incorporated some bandha engagement to go along with the breathing. Working the bandhas in this way is another thing I’d like to practice more.

I still felt open and alert during the rest of my day. Even though I was a little frustrated that the sequence I taught in the morning was not as balanced as the sequence I had practiced, it was still good and I decide to keep that version as the overall plan for my remaining classes.

One of the members from the candlelight class graciously offered me a ride home. Somewhere along the way, the coziness of the warm vehicle and the comfortable conversation lulled me. When I got home, I sat down to pause and reset before I started the video sequence. The next thing I knew, I had fallen asleep in a weird cross-legged version of Dandasana. I could have easily crawled right into the bed and made myself comfortable for the night. In fact, physically, I might have been more comfortable than I was during the practice. However, I had made the commitment to myself. Plus, we’re so close to the end…and I’d hate to loose the momentum.

Theoretically, I should have practiced the “Fun Flow” from Day 8 (because, on Day 8, I practiced the Evening Sequence from Day 14). The only thing was, I felt too relaxed to do an energetic practice. I was ready to close out the day. So, I repeated the 20-Minute Evening Sequence with Kate Holcombe. Again, I was experienced some technical difficulties and I was a little too cold. However, the sequence was exactly what I needed. Ultimately, that is what the physical practice is all about: doing what your mind-body-spirit need in order to sustain the practice, and to be connected.


Lucky (Day) 13 January 23, 2011

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Day 13

Nothing comes from nothing

Nothing ever could

So, somewhere in my youth, or childhood,

I must have done something good.

– Maria and the Captain in The Sound of Music


Yoga Day USA 2011 was a great day for union. Ironically, I started the day without a physical practice. Sure, I sat for 5 minutes and I thought about asana – and I did demonstrate some poses when I taught in the morning – but I didn’t do what I would consider a significant amount of hatha yoga. Yet and still, when I sat down on a block in the empty studio to do my 18-Minute So Hum Meditation my body felt OK, and my mind and spirit felt open to the possibility of a deep seated meditation. More than anything, however, I felt lucky to be on the mat – even though, literally speaking, I wasn’t.

Part of the reason I felt so lucky, this morning was because I was looking forward to attending the wedding of some very special friends. To end “Union” Day USA with this extra special union seemed incredibly apropos. Another reason I felt so fortunate was that I had just finished guiding a 90-minute class focused on Drishti (sight/gaze/focal point) and it’s connection to Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (union with divine/enlightenment). I did a companion class on this theme twice on Friday. The Saturday morning class was much smaller than the Friday classes, yet I was blown away by the energy and focus of every person in the room. When we got to the guided meditation, I faced expressions ranging from relaxed to ecstatic. Energetically, my body-mind-spirit felt like the room was packed. People seemed to be making the connection…getting it…coming together.

At an earlier point, however, I felt like I made a mistake. During a point of relaxation, when I typically say, “Don’t check out,” and encourage people to tune in to the theme, I made what might be considered a yoga faux pas. As I recited the 8-limbs of yoga and tied together how the practice of Drishti enhances Dharana and Dhyana – which in turn can lead to Samadhi – I said, “If you practice, and you’re lucky, you can reach Samadhi…” Whoops. I considered trying to correct the statement, but I let it stand and moved forward. As it turns out, this may have been my moment of truth.

We often think of luck as chance, a random accident of some kind. First and foremost, however, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines luck as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity” or, as “the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual.” In the philosophy of yoga everything we do or think is karma – an action – which determines how future events proceed. By practicing yoga, we actively and consciously attempt to create events and circumstances that operate for us; we attempt to actively and consciously create our own luck. Hatha Yoga, the physical practice of yoga, literally means “by force union.” It is, accordingly, another form of creating one’s own luck.

So, yes, at the end of Yoga Day USA 2011, I feel lucky to have a yoga practice to call my own and to be a small part of so many wonderful practices. I also feel lucky because today’s video sequence was 20-Minute Tension Release Shoulder Openers with Kate Holcombe. Not only was this a perfect way to end a long day, it was exactly the kind of practice my body needed.

At some point directly after I finished the Day 11 sequence, which featured some shoulder rotation exercises in anticipation of backbending, I became aware of a little soreness around my trapezius muscles. Also, moving my neck in certain directions produced a sound very similar to the sound produced when milk is poured over Rice Krispies. None of this was particularly painful, but it was odd and a little disconcerting. I figured it would all come out in the wash, but I really didn’t do too much to actively help the restoring process along. At least, not until this evening’s practice.

A yoga practice can make you feel like you just had a massage, or it can highlight the areas you need massaged. Holcombe’s practice is restorative by nature and, in this case, really made me aware of the muscles I need to relax in order to get back to what passes for normal. The simple, repetitive motions made me very aware of the imbalances in my shoulder girdle. The best part, however, was Holcombe encouraging the viewer to note the differences on each side and to repeat the sequences accordingly. While not billed as a vinyasa practice, the order of the poses and the emphasis on linking breath to movement fits under the definition of vinyasa.

I especially appreciated the bits of pranayama included throughout the video. Holcombe has me rethinking my avoidance of Sitali Pranayama, cooling breath control. In the past, I’ve eschewed this type of breath control because (a) the tongue roll seemed prohibitive and (b) I rarely feel the need to cool my body down through breath work. On the rare occasions when I do want to actively use my breath to release some heat, I simply open my mouth and sigh. Sometimes I might even stick out my tongue and roar. I don’t think to do Sitali Pranayama. It’s just not part of my practice.

Holcombe offered a modification, which encouraged me to try the practice. To my surprise, I was able to produce the tongue roll. It wasn’t easy; but, with practice, I bet I could roll right into it. The temperature in my room was a little cool, which may be the reason I was struck by how incredibly cold and dry my tongue felt during the inhales. One thing I didn’t hear was any instruction on pulling the tongue as far back into the mouth as possible (during the exhale) in order to lubricate the tongue. Just closing the mouth over the tongue doesn’t seem to do enough. It’s possible this information was included but I just didn’t hear it. I also didn’t hear any cautions about times or conditions when practicing Sitali Pranayama is contraindicated.

My other a-ha moment with regard to Sitali Pranayama came when I started to realize why B. K. S. Iyengar writes, “This pranayama cools the system.” I’ve read of people cooling their body temperature with this breathing method, but tonight’s experience made me aware of how it calms and soothes the body and the nervous system. I am curious to see, as I continue the practice, if I eventually find it as calming on the parasympathetic nervous system as Nadi Sodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nasal Breathing).

Finally, I should admit that while I love props and understand their value in any practice – including a vinyasa practice – I didn’t practice this sequence in a chair, as demonstrated. Props are not always readily available. I’ve been known to get creative: using Legos and hand weights as blocks, or hardcover books as a foundation. Tonight, however, I just didn’t want take the extra time to find an appropriate chair. So, I got creative. I practiced parts of the video in Sukhasana, Siddhasana, Dandasana, and a modified Virasana. I even tried a Navasana prep position (knees bent, feet on the floor) to create more space for my back to round. Lucky for me, the sequence worked just fine in a comfortable, seated position – directly on my mat.

~ Lokah Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu ~

Day 12 Takes Flight January 22, 2011

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Day 12

It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.

– Winston Churchill, 1939

Crow Pose: People love it, hate it, or dread it. Some folks practice it religiously, while others avoid it at all costs. And, within both groups are the people who are continually mystified by the riddle of the name: Is it Bakasana or Kakasana?**

When it comes to the physical practice of the pose, I fall into the “love it/practice it religiously” category. My love affair with Crow undoubtedly started in Texas, but I became aware of my affinity for the pose when I was going through teacher training. Because of my experiences practicing in Texas, my Crow looked very different from the ones I saw in Minneapolis. My heart was pointed forward (instead of back), my bottom and hips were low to the ground (instead of pointed up in the air), and my back was flat (instead of rounded). Additionally, I couldn’t hold the pose for any significant amount of time, because I couldn’t get past the idea that my arms, legs, and hips were somehow ill-formed for the pose. After a little Q&A session with Kai Trinh, one of the teachers leading the training, I realized I had to trust my practice – and trust that it was right were it needed to be. I also realized three of my big reasons for loving Crow:

    • It’s a pose that illustrates the difference between practicing yoga and just getting some exercise. Sure, you can muscle into this pose, but to stay here, and breath here, requires more than brute strength.
    • Practicing this pose, even when fully modified with both feet on the floor, requires a person to confront doubts and fears – in particular, the literal and figurative fear of “falling on your face.”
    • To do this pose, you have to lead with your heart, get your ego out of the way, and let go of the fears and doubts that hold you down. It can feel like you’re defying gravity when, in fact, you’re just playing with it.

      When I first started teaching, my regulars could count on me throwing Crow Pose into the mix fairly early on, without a whole lot of preliminaries. I’d get the body integrated and warmed up, then I’d start the flying lessons. One of the reasons I did this was for the energetic benefit of an arm balance early in the practice. Another reason I did it is my fourth big reason for loving Crow:

      • There’s some many places you can go! In Light On Yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar suggests that advanced students move into the arm balance** from Salamba Sirsasana II (Supported “Tripod” Headstand). If however, your Tripod is in it’s early stages and you’re still developing the core strength to lift the legs, then a great practice is mindfully moving from Crow into the first stage of Tripod (with knees on the forearms) – and then back again. You can also use Crow as the prep for Crane** and a number of other arm balances. Plus, there’s the ever popular practice of “floating” into Chaturanga.

      Even though one of my favorite teaching moments was guiding a high school football coach into a full expression of Crow, after he’d said he was too heavy to do it, I’ve spent more time focused on the energetic and emotional aspects of getting into the pose than on the physical. Last year, however, I tried out a Rodney Yee video featuring hip openers and arm balances. The video introduced me to some new ways of getting into the pose. It was also a big light bulb moment, that flashed me back to teacher training: legs and hips are as much a part of the key to demystifying this pose as the heart, core, and breath – not to mention the arms.

      Jason Crandell’s 30-Minute Peak Pose Sequence leading to Bakasana (Crow Pose**) beautifully opens up the body on a physical level. A good portion of the video focused on the hips and the leg muscles connected to the hips. There was also a good deal of core and arm engagement, plus some upper back opening. Unfortunately, there were also some technical difficulties – which left my body a little cold and my arms burning (from holding plank poses after a full day teaching them). One thing I will say about this sequence and the way Crandell guides it, however, is that when I was moving through it, I was building heat.

      The downside to the downloading issues a lot of people experienced on Day 12 was partially canceled out, in my book, by the fact that I had to keep repeating (and holding!!!) the poses in the first 4 minutes of the video. So, my hip flexors were seriously flexed. This made my legs super ready for the deep seated meditation I did after practicing with the video. Another plus, to the unfortunate technology problems: I found another Yoga Journal video featuring Jason Crandell opening up the hips. Boy am I looking forward to that!

      Day 12 was one of those days when I wished I could have downloaded the video and practiced it away from my computer. Instead, I started the day with my mini-meditation and then practiced the sequence I was going to teach. I was a little hungry and super tired when I arrived home, but it felt really good to do this video sequence. As far as my outer body was concerned, I was ready to rock the 18-Minute Meditation. Internally, however, I was a wreck. This was my worse meditating day yet. Every 5 minutes, or so, I had to remind myself to sit still, sit up, and stop thinking/day dreaming/planning/remembering….Of course, the fact that I kept pulling myself back to the moment and back to the meditation makes it a success in the practice column.


      **NOTE: In vinyasa and many other hatha yoga practices, Crow Pose is an arm balance where the arms are bent, a la Chaturanga, and the knees rest on the forearms (or are tucked into the armpits). This is the pose featured in the Day 12 video. Crane Pose is a similar arm balance where the arms are straight. Bakasana is a Sanskrit word for Crane Pose, but is often used in the West for Crow Pose – which, in Sanskrit, would be Kakasana. Some traditions make the distinction between the two poses, their names, and the birds they resemble. Of course, the more traditions you explore, the more translations you find – and the more poses you find. For example, “Flying Frog” is a modification where the knees/legs are outside the arms, squeezing in. And, even though actual cranes aren’t scientifically related to actual herons (or actual crows), I’ve heard Heron Pose (a seated pose) referred to as Crane Pose.

        ~ NAMASTE ~

      Day 11 Makes It Easy To Be Green January 21, 2011

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      Day 11

      “I am green and it’ll do fine, ’cause it’s beautiful / And I think it’s what I want to be…”

      – Kermit the Frog

      Physically and energetically, Anahata (“Unstruck”) Chakra, the green/heart energy wheel, extends beyond the upper torso and into the arms. So, I like to remind my students that their arms, their hands, and even their fingers are extensions of their heart and breath. Then, I take it further; see if they can extend their heart into their legs and toes, even their heels. I like for them to visualize how that works, energetically. I also like to focus on how leading with the heart can take any pose deeper. And, whenever possible, I encourage my students and myself to find the heart opening experience in poses that are not backbends.

      There’s really no getting around the fact that mine is a heart centered practice. Sometimes this leads to some emotionally overwhelming, and confusing moments – moments we don’t always have the luxury to explore in a gym or studio setting where one class bumps into the next. I don’t believe, however, that we (as a society) can afford to practice (or live) any other way. Just as our heart chakra connects the two hemispheres of our bodies, it connects us to each other. Physiologically, we all have hearts running on electrical impulses – which, in the philosophy of yoga, we view as prana, life force energy. Metaphorically, we associate the heart with love – an emotional manifestation of energy. Metaphysically speaking, we combine the two in yoga every time we say Namaste: the light in me honors and acknowledges the light that is also in you.

      Of course, since there are a lot of traditional backbends to choose from in the physical practice of yoga, I eagerly anticipated which ones Elise Lorimer would do on Day 11’s 30-Minute Aligning and Refining Practice featuring Backbends. I was also curious to see how she would open up the body for these poses. In keeping with my own philosophy, she started by bringing awareness to the breath-heart connection and by warming up the arms and shoulder girdle. She then proceeded through some heat building Sun Salutations and Warrior poses, both of which brought additional awareness to the back-body. Throughout the video, simple backbends appeared and became progressively deeper. All in all, it was a very nice and elegant sequence.

      I only wish it had been longer. Since I wasn’t in a heated studio, and was slightly distracted by some technical difficulties I experienced earlier, my body didn’t feel like it was warming up until we were in the cooling down portion of the practice. The poses selected were simple enough for anyone to do and follow, however, a pose like Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) as it was presented can be unaccessible for some students. This is where I was frustrated by the lack of modifications. Sure, I can do it – even when my body is cold – but what about the person who can’t reach back and grab both feet, let alone both ankles. Honestly, I was surprised Lorimer didn’t comment on the fact that you could do the pose one leg at a time.  I was especially surprised since she had offered other modifications along the way, including using the strap – which could also be utilized here.

      Even though I didn’t feel particularly warm, the sequence whetted my appetite. I wanted more. Not only did I want more to warm me up, I wanted more backbending. This sequence could have easily worked it’s way into Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), not to mention Natarajasana (Dancer Pose) and any number of heart opening arm balances like Wild Thing/Flip Dog, Bound Table, Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), and Kapinjalasana (Chataka Partridge Pose). Of course, there were only 30 minutes, and some of these poses aren’t appropriate for this medium. I’d be curious to know, however, how Lorimer leads this series in a regular class setting and where she goes with it before she gets into the Surrender sequence.

      Because of the aforementioned technical difficulties, I did my 18-Minute seated meditation before the asana practice. Today’s video is yet another one I look forward to experiencing, at some point, as an actual prelude to sitting. Until then, I’ll just keep being green and seeing where my heart will take me.

      ~ NAMASTE ~