What I learned from an old lady with a tattoo….

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ImageI have loved this journey that I have been placed on.  It’s not always been easy, and it’s definitely not always been pretty, but it has taught me much along the way. Much about myself, and about those I encounter.  It is important to know a little more than the woman with the tattoo.  It is important to know a little about why she inspired me so much.

I grew up in a house that contained disease.  A member of my family was riddled with a terrible disease that attacked often without notice and with no consistency.  Everything could be fine for months, even years, and boom, they couldn’t walk, or speech was slurred, or eyesight was affected.  We never knew when, or what would be next.  This caused much anxiety for my loved one.  There were times when this person would avoid social settings because of fear that strangers would make inaccurate judgments.  There was often the question hovering above of, “what will people think, or say?”.  It made me sad that this person I loved was so tortured by other people’s perceptions that she elected to avoid putting herself in situations where there was a chance someone might think something.  It made me sad, because I knew that a life like this lacked joy and intimacy.  To my best efforts though, I heard myself years later saying, “People might think….” to my own kids.  Some of that rubbed off on me, in spite of my best efforts, I too was worried about what others thought and said about me.

Then I encountered my senior culture of clients.  I admired them.  Here is an age group of people who have let go of the need to impress anyone.  They live life to enjoy it.  At least where my clients are concerned, I found this to be true.  I often say that I worry least about my senior clients because they have nothing to prove to me.  I rarely have a senior work beyond their limits.  I spend more time worrying about the safety of my younger clients who still care how they look, and who is judging them.  They are the ones who get hurt most often.  I know because I hurt myself by pushing beyond my own limits while I was still young enough to care how other people perceived me.

One particular client stands out prominently in my mind.  Her name was Joan.  She was about 80 at the time I started working with her in a class setting.  She was a doll.  At first her body was stiff from years of emotional baggage and stress.  She was always kind to herself though.  As time went by, and her body began to open, she was thrilled.  She would come to class so excited to share with me something she hadn’t been able to do in years.  It was like she was a child discovering her body for the first time.  So much excitement and enthusiasm came with her experience.  I grew to really love Joan as I watched her unfold.  During the 4 years I worked with her, I was witness to an amazing woman.  She cared for her dying husband of 50+ years and bid him farewell.  She loved deeply, she knew the value of living, and was full of life no matter her situation.  She influenced me as I was going through one of the most difficult times in my adult life to date.  She inspired me to stay joyful in spite of my own situation.  She inspired me to be curious and enthusiastic.

One day when the class went into deep relaxation.  I looked across the floor to see a group of beautiful vibrant senior women relaxing, and low and behold I spied a NEW tattoo.  Joan was wearing shorts that day, and what I saw was a fresh, new butterfly on her inner thigh.

That’s the kind of woman I aspire to be.  The kind of woman who, at nearly 80, would walk into a tattoo shop and get my first tattoo on my inner thigh.  Joan was living for her own well-being, her own happiness, her own self-esteem.  She knew that she could not control anyone else’s thoughts or reactions to her, and she did not care.  She was an amazing and beautiful woman who I will always be thankful for having in my class.  Joan, I learned so much from you.  Thank you for showing me your tattoo.

Self-Discipline….

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Image Yoga is a disciplined spiritual practice.  The word discipline often evokes the connotation of punishment.  As children the word discipline often meant some sort of punishment for wrong behavior.  As adults, our minds still associate the word punishment with discipline.  However, when it comes to self care, discipline is more devotion than punishment.  When we practice the philosophies of yoga, we are practicing devotion toward our creator.  Think about it.  When we care about something, we take care of it.  It is our devotion to the thing we created that keeps it vibrant right?  Taking care of your body and mind is an act of devotion toward that which created you.  You are honoring, or dishonoring, the creator and the creation through your daily lifestyle.  Through your diligence to make choices that uplift you, that nourish your body and mind, you are honoring.  This is what self-discipline is.  It is a practice of devotion toward your creator and that which was created.

The Yoga of Order

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Orderliness has been the theme of this past week.  Funny enough, my own disorderliness in the chaos of the Holiday season had already shown itself before the week began.  The entire plan for the year’s 52 themed weeks had almost derailed in the very first week.  Lucky enough for me, I actually checked my notes sometime on Tuesday, January 2.  This saved the first week from being a total and complete wash.

Sequential Asana practice is an orderly way to move through our physical practice. When we practice a set sequence in our yoga practice, we can let go of the “what’s happening next” and be present to what’s happening now.   Simple, order clears our energy and allows us freedom to be expressive.  When our space is orderly, we do not waste precious moments looking for lost items, thus freeing up time.  It also reduces our anxiety to be in an orderly space.  Order creates an amount of simplicity that calms our minds, and opens us up.  When we have our time managed in an orderly way, we can make time for activities and relationships that are important.  When we are orderly with our responsibilities we avoid having to pay late fees and all of our obligations can be met more efficiently.  Order is foundation of life management.  Everything has order, even Yoga.  

Patanjali was explicit about the order in which our Yoga practice needs to be followed in order to achieve ultimate enlightenment.  First we must practice behavior modifications, then cleanse and prepare our bodies, then practice energy management and control, then meditation, concentration, and absorption into the divine.  We cannot skip steps and get to enlightenment any more than we can omit ingredients in our favorite recipe.  If something is missing, if it isn’t added at the right time, the end result will not be as desired. 

For me, Orderliness is a constant practice that I have yet to reach an amount of satisfactory proficiency.  It’s not easy building a business, finishing up a college education, homeschooling teenagers, and making time to nurture my own well-being.  I make my priorities, but often my time management gets away from me.  My environmental management skills could use a little improving as well, but I am consciously practicing, and that is what is most important.  I am dedicating energy to improving my order making and keeping skills with confidence that my diligence will result in improvement.  Life is practice, not perfection.  I know that as long as I work toward my goal, my mistakes will be minimized and my successes will be maximized.

So as we begin this new year, let us get the end results we desire for ourselves by creating a sense of order.  What steps need to be taken to fulfill your goal(s) for this year?  How can you create order now that will help you achieve that which you desire?  Let’s get to work Yogis and Yoginis.

What kind of Order will you be working toward in your practice?

Yoga’s dirty little ego….

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As a Yoga Teacher, I have many friends who are serious practitioners and teachers.  We all share a common love for the practice.  I have noticed a trend on the internet lately that is starting to increase my concern that Yoga is losing its Yoga.  Yoga selfies, you know all those pictures of beautiful people contorting their bodies into amazing expressions of Yogic art.  I call this art because it is a visual representation, not reality.  The poses themselves have very little to do with Yoga other than that they are the more tangible, visual aspect of the practice.  The poses are a starting point.  They are a place for us to meet up with resistance in our bodies and to retrain our nervous system to react to exterior stimuli in a more balanced way.   It doesn’t matter if we look amazing in a pose.  It doesn’t matter how we look in the pose at all, as long as we are safe from injury.  What’s important is what is happening on the inside.  What emotions are being released?  What thoughts are coming up?  What muscles are helping that don’t need to?  What is happening with breath?  These are the important things.  The way the pose looks is no reflection as to how well the Yogi/Yogini is progressing along the path.

The images that are showing up on our social media sites of Yogic Art can look intimidating, and suggest that how the poses look are an indication of mastery.  Those of us who post these pictures are proud of how we look.  We get a charge out of showing off our expertise, and we use it to market our skills as teachers.  That isn’t Yoga.  It’s artistic expression.  It’s a shallow representation of something much deeper and intangible.  Yoga is connection to all.  It is a process of transformation.  It is something that cannot be represented in photographic art, but rather in the joyful eyes of the practitioner.

When we take up the practice, we struggle.  We confront parts of ourselves that aren’t pretty.  Parts that do not show up in these pictures.  Fears, anxieties, past traumas all surface and get released.  It is not always an easy process, but it is a worthy process.  The physical practice is only 1/8 of a complete yoga practice.  When practiced seriously and completely, without regard to outward appearances, yoga gives us freedom.  Yoga gives us freedom.  Freedom from the sense of separation.  We feel confident, secure, happy, joyful, energetic, and we emanate that in our outward appearance.  One cannot see all of those things in the photos.  The poses don’t matter.  What happens to us as a result of complete practice is what matters.

Practitioners be mindful about whether your postings are to represent the practice or to stroke your own ego.  Practitioners, and non-practitioners, go ahead and admire the beautiful artistic expression, but remember, this is not what Yoga is all about. It doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes, or backward bend like a pro.  It matters that you show up and have the courage to explore your own experience of mind, body and spirit.

Frustrated because your knees don’t touch the floor?

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boundangle Countless times over the years I have been asked, “What can I do to get my knees closer to the floor?” with regards to Bound Angle, Seated Easy Pose, Half Lotus, and Lotus… The answer is always the same.  The cold hard truth is that not everyone’s knees will touch the floor in these poses.  It’s not because of lack of flexibility in hips, or lack of effort.  It’s just one of those crazy misconceptions when it comes to yoga.  We might have all the same bones, muscles, tissues, etc., but they are not all exactly alike.  The unique shape of your bones, muscles, and tissue will determine how far you can go in many yoga poses.  This is the primary reason Yoga Teachers stress not comparing yourself to others.  You are unique.  When physical blockage is met by the inability for a bone and/or muscle to move beyond another bone and/or muscle, it is called compression.  We all have different points of compression.  When that point of compression is met, there is no place left to go.  No amount of stretching will change it.    Some people find compression further into a joint than others.  It’s not because they are better yogis or yoginis, it’s just the way their bodies were made.  This is why Susie who’s been practicing yoga daily for 10 years may never look like double-jointed Joe who just picked up the practice last month.  He may be able to get his heals to the floor in Down-ward Facing Dog and feel like he is the cat’s meow as he looks around the room.  Whereas, Susie, may feel a little frustrated or self-conscious because she has invested so much into her physical practice and yet she cannot.   For either of them, the emotional response to how well they perceive themselves performing the pose is more important than how they look.  Both may be comparing, getting feedback to their brain based on what they see externally instead of examining what’s happening internally.   The practice is to let go of those perceptions and just  be in the pose.  It doesn’t matter what the other people in the room look like, it matters how each one of us feel about ourselves.  It matters what thoughts and emotions bubble up.  It matters how present you are in your own body.  Who cares if your knees touch the floor?  The teacher doesn’t.  The teacher is ecstatic that you showed up.  The other people in the room don’t care what you look like in the pose.  The only person who cares is you.  The question is, why is it so important?  Why does it matter to you?  The next time you feel inadequate while practicing a yoga pose, be curious about the feeling of inadequacy.  Ask yourself those questions.  That’s when the real yoga happens.

What is Pranayama?

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Standard Yoga practice will traditionally include breathing practices into a physical practice.  These breathing practices are referred to as Pranayama.  This isn’t all of what pranayama is though.  It is much more, and it is a practice for off the mat as well as on.  Prana means life force energy, and Yama means discipline.  Pranayama is the practice of awareness and use of Life Force Energy.  When we learn to expand our limited definitions of things, we start to see the bigger picture.  Everything is prana.  Thoughts, emotions, words, sounds, food, relationships all have energy exchange and all are considered prana.  The practice of pranayama is not just learning how to control your breathing, but learning how to control energy exchange.  We have the power to enhance our own Life Force Energy by practicing this discipline.  We are able to practice reverence, awareness, and discernment of all exchanges.   We have the choice to decide whether we want to exchange positive energy or negative energy in all of these forms. This is pranayama.  This is Yoga.