Monday, July 29, 2013

False Summits and Forward Bends #365Yoga

The view from one of Noonmark's false summits
Some of our favorite mountains in the Adirondacks High Peaks region, like Baxter, Rooster Comb and Noonmark, tease us with false summits. They appear when we've been walking for what seems like forever, drawing us hopefully on with glimpses of blue sky through thinning trees. There's relief, satisfaction and, often, a beautiful view, all ending abruptly when one of us notices the trail marker beckoning us back into the trees to continue up the trail.

I thought of false summits while leading a yoga class through a series of forward bends. We were working on moving to the edge of the stretch, lengthening our spines when we inhaled, releasing further forward with our exhales. The edge is uncomfortable and, like a false summit, makes you think you've gone as far as you can. Unless you give yourself time and muster up the fortitude to continue on, you'll never know what the view looks like from the top.

For the false summits of our forward bends, we can thank musculotendinous sensory receptors called Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). Through their reflexive actions, the GTOs help to regulate muscle stiffness. Low-force, long-duration static stretching, felt in the hamstrings during Paschimottanasana, brings on a temporary increase in tension as the muscles lengthen, the first "edge" we discover. Don't give up there because, after seven to 10 seconds of holding and breathing, your GTOs activate and the muscle tension temporarily releases. Another exhale and you'll find yourself deeper into the bend.

The muscle quickly reestablishes its stretch threshold and a new edge is reached. You may work through a few before you reach your true edge, provided you can stay patient, focused and breathing smoothly throughout the process. After practicing consistently for a period of weeks or months, the muscles will lengthen more or less permanently, so you'll be able to go further forward before reaching the first edge. As a result, the true summit of your yoga pose keeps getting further away.

The true summits of the Adirondack mountains keep getting further away, too. The Adirondack mountains are still growing, at a rate of about one millimeter per year. Some days, when it seems like we've been walking forever, I'm sure the mountain has gone through a recent growth spurt. Climbing these mountains requires patience, focus and lots of breath.
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Seeking Eagles #365Yoga

Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo.
Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Taped to the wall behind the yoga studio's reception desk is a snapshot of a bald eagle, captured by one of our yoga teacher training graduates. Bald eagles are native to the Adirondacks, although they had to be reintroduced in the 1980s after DDT use in the 1960s all but wiped them out. Now they are spotted throughout the Adirondacks, but, unfortunately, never by me.

I enjoy practicing and teaching Garudasana, known in English as eagle pose. In deference to the presence of America's bird, it seems fitting to wrap arms and legs into the look of a perched eagle at our Adirondack studio. Exclusive to North America, the bald eagle could not have been the intended reference in the Sanskrit name. There are Indian spotted eagles and short-toed eagles, but it is generally agreed that the name honors Vishnu's mount Garuda, a massive half-man, half-eagle known for devouring serpents.

Here in the Adirondack mountains, surrounded by so much of the natural world including the elusive, at least to me, bald eagle, I can't help but bring the spirit of that beautiful bird into my practice of eagle pose, despite its Indian origins. As a shamanic totem, the eagle represents access to higher planes of consciousness. Borrowing the eagle's strong wings and courage, you are free to fly to great spiritual heights.

Being birds, the eagle is associated with air, but they have sturdy legs to walk on the earth and hunt over water, and thus are grounded while seeking spirit and also carry the cleansing energy of water. This is very balanced energy, fitting the balance of eagle pose. Whether on my mat or on a rock, I embrace Adirondack bald eagle energy in Garudasana. Perhaps, after enough practice, I'll finally get to see one.
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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Calling Ganesha: Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha #365Yoga

Ganesha (Photo credit: bandarji)
Last week, my meditation practice morphed into a mantra practice. I didn't sit with the intention of chanting "So Hum" the whole time I was meditating. It just happened. 

Afterward, it felt like it had been the right thing to do. I repeated it the following day, and the days after that.

Last Saturday, Lisa Devi, during a visit to the Adirondacks, led our New Moon Circle. She welcomed Ganesha, the Hindu elephant-headed god, with the chant "Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha." Ganesha is called at the beginnings of things, perfect for the new moon, to clear obstacles from the path ahead.

Yesterday, instead of "So Hum," my chant was "Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha." Again, I didn't intend it. It just came out. And, again, it felt right, so I repeated the chant today.

The Sanskrit phrase "Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha" means, basically, "Salutations to the remover of obstacles." "Ganapatayei" is another name for the widely-worshipped Ganesha. In addition to removing obstacles, Ganesha is known as a patron of the arts and sciences, and as the deity of intellect and wisdom. 

Why do I feel compelled to ask Ganesha to help me past the obstacles in my life? Perhaps this is part of the letting go I've been doing lately. I'm in the habit of doing too many things, taking on too much, and never asking for help because that felt like weakness. Putting those things that are holding me back into the hands of a deity with four arms and an elephant's head is a small step towards allowing myself some weakness, towards admitting I can't do everything myself. Giving your problems to God, to Ganesha, to the universe, or to whatever your sense of the divine, is the first step in twelve-step programs for good reason. It's very freeing to put obstacles in the hands of a higher power.

I'll send salutations to Ganesha until a new mantra arises or silence returns to my meditation practice. Meanwhile, thanks to Ganesha moving roadblocks from my path.
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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Exploring Snake Energy: Cobra Pose #365Yoga

English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Fa...
English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Family, one of India's venomous snakes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

For a good part of my life I echoed Indiana Jones whenever I encountered snakes. My less-than-friendly feelings toward snakes started in ninth grade, when a classmate presented an oral report on their care and feeding, including a demonstration involving his pet snake and a live (for a short time) white mouse. After I crawled out from under my desk, I decided I was very fond of rodents and not at all fond of snakes. I also decided I no longer had a crush on the young man who did the presentation.

Twenty years later, when my daughter held a snake at a petting zoo, I decided it was time to get over my distrust of snakes. I've taken time to learn about snakes and have new respect both for their place in our eco-system and their symbolism. I still jump when one startles me on the trail, but I no longer dislike snakes.

Snakes represent transformation and healing. They are re-created each time they shed their skin. By tapping into snake's energy you can shed the past and emerge into a fresh, new life. Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, carried a caduceus, a staff with two snakes wrapped around it. The caduceus has become the symbol of modern physicians. If a snake appears in your dream, be on the lookout for new wisdom, healing and changes ahead.

In yoga, snakes represent Kundalini, a Sanskrit word for the sleeping feminine energy thought to be coiled at the base of the spine, waiting to be awakened through asana and meditation. When aroused, Kundalini rises up through the major chakras until it reaches the head, completely transforming the individual along the way.

Practice Bhujangasana, or Cobra pose, to explore the transformative energy of snakes. Lie face down and stretch your legs back, feet hip-width apart, and press the tops of your feet into the floor. Place your hands under your shoulders, fingers spread, and hug your elbows to your sides. Keeping your pelvis pressed into the floor and straightening your arms as you make space to do so, lift your heart. Relax your shoulder blades down your back, draw your lower belly slightly off the floor and lift the top of your sternum. Draw your ears away from your shoulders, lengthening your neck.

You can hold Cobra for a number of breaths or experience snake's movement by rising with each inhale and lowering with each exhale. When the pose feels complete, rest your head on your hands for a few breaths before moving on to a twist.

For the record, although I have made peace with snakes, there are no pet snakes in my house. I'll stick to my bug-eating lizard, and let the cat deal with the rodents.
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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Let Freedom Ring

English: Fireworks on the Fourth of July
English: Fireworks on the Fourth of July (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bo·he·mi·an  [boh-hee-mee-uhn]  noun

1. a person, as an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices.
2. a Gypsy

I suppose it's appropriate on July 4th in the United States to reflect on one of my core values, independence. What does independence mean to me, and how do I cultivate the spirit of independence without packing my hemp backpack and wandering around the lesser populated parts of the country? I've been feeling the pull to wander for a few months, while at the same time treasuring the time I can spend at home. Perhaps, like the day lily that appeared in a previously un-lily-ed part of the garden, my own roots are so firmly planted I am ready to risk spreading out.

I am lucky to have a wonderful life coach to guide me through turbulent times and to remind me to dig deep under the feelings to discover the value I have been living out-of-sync with. That's where the "ah-ha" moments happen. After sitting with hiding under my covers and trying to ignore what seems like such a conflict, followed by a minor meltdown, I began to see how much making space in my life for both home and wandering was going to be necessary.

Am I packing my bag? No. The work I've done around the house lately has made it feel more open, and I feel less trapped. I've made time in my schedule to wander in the woods at least one day a week. I've also taken a deep breath, reminded myself that teaching yoga was never supposed to be a full-time occupation, and accepted that my little yoga studio in our little town will never make me financially independent, leaving me free to stop striving and to focus on serving those whose loyalty keeps the studio sustainable. That is, after all, why I wanted to teach.

Yesterday I finished reading Marianne Elliott's Zen Under Fire. In it, Marianne talks about learning to slow down and drop the high standards she had set for herself, and about finding peace while working as a human rights worker in dangerous, post-U.S.-invasion Afghanistan. As I read her account of her morning yoga practice and how that ritual supported her work, I realized I have neglected my own practice. My yoga practice makes me whole, and when I step into the yoga studio as a whole person I can better serve those who come to me to guide their own practices.

So, if I have been skipping networking events and neglecting to update the studio's website, it is because I have redefined "enough" to give myself freedom to wander my little corner of the earth and explore my own spirit, so that I may serve you well. And, although I haven't packed it yet, I do own a hemp backpack and may someday take off on a bohemian adventure. But only if my house is clean.
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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Connect with Fire: Candle Gazing Meditation #365Yoga

English: This picture shows the motion of a ca...
English: This picture shows the motion of a candle flame. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In honor of the summer solstice, we rebuilt and improved our backyard fire pit, then lit a big bonfire to honor the sun at its peak. Gazing into the fire, watching the flames dance and jump, reminded me of this simple candle-gazing meditation, which can be done anywhere you can safely stand a candle holder.

Find a place where you can sit undisturbed for a few minutes, either on a cushion or blanket on the floor or in a sturdy chair with your feet on the floor. Using a table or other props (yoga blocks or a stack of hardcover books work nicely) position a lit taper or pillar candle in a holder so the flame will be at eye level. You'll want to use a holder which will support the base of the candle and catch any dripping wax, but which won't block your view of the flame.

Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes for a few moments. Bring your awareness to your breath. Breathe through your nose and lengthen your breath. Notice your thoughts, then let them float away. Notice when you feel centered and present to the flow of your breath.

Gently open your eyes and gaze at the candle flame. Focus your awareness fully on the flame, letting other thoughts drop away. If your attention wavers, bring it back without judgment. Begin to notice all the qualities of the candle flame. Notice the colors. Notice the movement. Become fully absorbed in watching the flame. Blink whenever it is necessary.

With your awareness steady on the flame, notice the thoughts flickering in your mind. Acknowledge any thoughts or feelings that arise, then let them go as you bring your attention back to the flame. Sit with the flame for five minutes, or as long as you are comfortable. Enjoy your connection to the flame.

When your meditation is complete, blink a couple of times, then close your eyes and notice your breath. Take four or five slow, deep breaths, then allow your awareness to return to the room. Open your eyes and return to your day. Be sure to blow out your candle!
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Monday, July 1, 2013

A Clean Sweep

Tadley Broom
Tadley Broom (Photo credit: Flicktone)
This morning I grabbed my broom and swept my front porch, ridding it of slippery, wet leaves deposited by the daily rains we've been enjoying here in the Adirondack rain forest.

I like to sweep. For efficiency's sake I usually opt for the vacuum, but there's nothing like a good sweeping session to clear both dirt and my mind.

Brooms have a long history as instruments both of dust moving and energetic clearing. A twig or straw broom called a "besom" (pronounced "beezum") was used to sweep a space clean before a ritual. Often that sweeping was done without the bristles even touching the ground, to sweep away negative energy. Ancient handfasting rites (the precursor to weddings) might conclude with the bride and groom jumping over a broomstick, which represented hearth and home, to signify the start of their new life as a couple.

This morning's broom was not a besom; rather it was an ordinary broom meant for real dirt. That doesn't mean, however, that my sweeping experience was ordinary. There's something about the act of sweeping that centers me. The rhythmic "fwisk, fwisk" sound quiets my mind, like a repeating mantra or the ocean sound of ujjayi pranayama. By being present, even the act of sweeping the front porch becomes meditative.

Any household chore done mindfully can be grounding and meditative, but I think sweeping beats scrubbing the toilet for the opportunity to turn inward. Folding laundry is second, but the effect is ruined when I have to match socks.

I sadly retreated into the house this morning after I reached the bottom of the porch stairs. I do enjoy a good, clean sweep. As it's raining AGAIN, I'm sure I'll be out there again soon.
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