Checking in

For the past month or so, I’ve been hosting a weekly yoga class. My intention was to gain teaching experience while helping my friends better cope with the challenges of the difficult times that we’re living in.

I’ve realized that the real value of the weekly sessions are to connect and check-in. While I usually just teach impromptu without much of a plan, I can find a groove based on the general mood of the group to quickly decide what is most needed.

As a heavy consumer of media, I’ve been reminded many times since March to reach out and check in with folks. Yoga gives me an opportunity to not just ask how they’re doing, but sense how they’re doing based on body language and their requests.

Most people are feeling exhausted and drained, particularly in the evenings. Even though social isolation seems to make time slow down, the days and weeks seem to be passing quickly. It is difficult to truly process all that is happening in the world right now, leaving a deep emotional imprint that we each carry with us.

So, what about the check-ins? Reaching out to friends to ask how they’re doing generally results in an avalanche of complaints, gripes and long venting sessions. All understandable, but my takeaway is usually that they are irritated but not truly struggling. Because truly struggling generally results in silence and introspection, followed by (hopefully) strength and courage.

Yet irritation demands attention, like a gnat that just won’t go away until we attend to it. I believe that venting and complaining are avoidance strategies, but not true coping mechanisms that will ultimately serve to resolve issues, rather they only perpetuate and spread them.

And if we don’t attend to minor irritations, we tend to get bigger challenges until we finally relent and acknowledge the struggle, which is the beginning of coming to terms with it.

When the pandemic started, I recalled all the conversations I had with my spiritual mentors at Yogaville who believe that difficult circumstances are a Kali Yuga, or a time of upheaval that can ultimately be transformative.

While it is easy to fall into the trap of reacting, awareness and patience an turn a bad situation into a potential lesson and opportunity for growth.

Easy to say, yet hard to do. In Emerson’s words, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.”

While I have managed to commit to teaching yoga once a week, I have neglected to write because it requires honesty and authenticity and right now, it is hard just to get through my day. Creativity remains largely elusive for me. I haven’t painted in months. I feel numb and overwhelmed most of the time.

The majority of my efforts in life to connect with people have fallen flat and while I know how important connection is, mostly I just want to disconnect. Social isolation has made me want to isolate permanently and I have less agitation in my life when I don’t attempt to connect to new people.

I look forward to weekly yoga classes all week, and checking in even if I hear so much irritation. While I don’t usually share my own irritations because I try to focus on widening the lens more than anything else, it is comforting to know that I am not alone in having them.

I hope that the great changes in the world and in the struggles and tragedies that we all face only lead to positive outcomes achieved through awareness and patience. I hope that these times lead to profound growth and greater connection.

My hope for all yogis is a deeper understanding of the minor irritations that can lead to a greater self-concept and more serious commitment to the journey of growth and experience.

Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

 

Progress may be a stretch

I am a firm believer in habits, good or bad… they work. So, if we get to choose good habits and choose bad habits, we should do so carefully.

This was the theme of my January. I kicked the month of strong – Aiming to meditate just 10 minutes each day. Up to this point, I had only participated in very long meditation sessions (up to 90 minutes) but I had never had a regular meditation practice.

I quickly shifted from 10 minute sessions to 20 minute sessions because I thoroughly enjoyed the silence. But then I got sick, and everything went out the window. Then I got better and failed to find my way back to my meditation habit.

February started off strong by adding in a 10-minute yoga session each night. This lasted about a week before I got busy, got distracted, got brain numb.

Occasionally, I will meditate… and occasionally I will do 10-minutes of yoga before bed. Several times a week, I have a regular yoga practice but it’s the before bed part that I am struggling with…

Despite the minimal progress, I wanted to focus on a challenge each month to consider why it’s so hard to form habits and what can be done to turn it around because I know these habits would be life-transforming.

Here is what I have learned so far:

  • The weight of the January challenge has sufficiently convinced me to take more quiet moments during the day, and work with a mantra while I run so that it becomes a moving meditation. Lord knows I spend a lot of time running, so this has essentially become found time for meditation. And it is working as I am becoming more contemplative and better able to slow my thoughts and focus.
  • The weight of the February challenge has convinced me to connect movement to pleasure, so when I wake up in the morning I am instantly moving and stretching. (I am learning this from my dog!) While this is not what I intended, I do consider it a solid 10-minutes of am yoga. As for bed time, I am doing more long deep stretches (yin) and twists, which are excellent for improving my sleep.

If I can count lessons as progress, then I am making progress. If reaching my goal was all that mattered, then progress may be a stretch.

Perhaps most importantly – and I hope others find this valuable – what I have taken away from the process of trying to create habits is that I have become a habit-creating machine.

The discipline has moved to other areas of my life, including nutrition and hydration… I’ve made many minor changes that are paying off. I would not have this natural inclination to start up new healthy habits unless I had already been in habit-forming mode.

As I have learned from running, I am choosing to let go of my failures and shortcomings because holding on to them does not serve me. Instead, I am going to focus on the positive changes that I have made and will continue to make.

The destination isn’t the journey for me, the journey is the journey.

Jai. (Victory!)

adventures with headstand

Full disclosure right upfront – I am terrible at headstand. Yet I love it. It’s an issue for me as a yoga teacher but there it is.

The issue is I can’t really teach it since I nearly always use a wall as a prop and flail my legs because I can get some serious stretches in while upside down. I don’t advise practicing this at home and not even sure if it’s helpful, but it feels natural and gosh darn good so I do it.

I love doing headstand at the gym most of all. Primarily because I can watch people walk by when I’m inverted. It’s highly entertaining – probably a lot like watching aliens walk on the moon. Sometimes I even wonder if the person just has a really bizarre gait or if it just looks that way since I’m upside down.

I’ve gotten used to the 3-minute timeframe, which is how long it takes for the blood to circulate throughout the entire body. And sometimes I’m even diligent enough to do fish pose afterwards for my counter-pose treat.

Now here is what I would advise for headstand if I were a teacher who could practice what I preach:

  • Wake up every morning and do headstand right away (after a few sun salutations, of course). Since you get a rush from inversions, it’s a good way to quickly get up and get going with the brightest feeling deep inside.
  • I was taught by the masters at Yogaville (check it out) who advised setting up your tripod (on forearms and upper forehead) and (with straight legs) gently moving the tip toes toward the body until they are close enough to your elbows that they float upwards with little effort. (Incidentally, if you have tight hips this may be nearly as difficult as pulling your bottom lip over the top of your head.)
  • Once in headstand, adding a lotus by moving your legs into the shape of a pretzel can further open the hips.
  • Post-headstand, staying in child’s pose for a few breaths can be helpful (I can do this!). Then fish or camel pose to loosen up any tightness that may have built up in the shoulders or upper back. Counterposes are important for restoring balance in the body, particularly after more challenging poses such as headstand (sirsasana in sanskrit).

If you do only one yoga pose, go for this one as it can change your perspective. Best done in the morning as an energizer. If you start against the wall, it will quickly get easier and intuitive to kick the legs up the wall. Over time, start to move away to work on balance. (Ok, I cheat a lot… but still enjoy a good headstand without a wall when I’m feeling balance-curious.)

Sirsasana is especially helpful for runners for faster recovery times. In fact, I’ve fantasized about doing headstand at aid stations, not sure if it would be altogether helpful but certainly sounds like a good idea worth checking out. Just need to figure out how to avoid getting dirt in my hair, not that details like that ever stopped me. Maybe handstand?!?

Seriously, try it out as it will change your perspective (obviously… you are upside down). Tune in to the energizing feeling in the body and dive in deep to all the amazing loveliness of this one.

Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

 

 

 

Dude-asana

The Big Lebowski is one of my all-time favorite movies. But it had been years since I watched it and recently found myself wanting to check out of reality and clicking on the Dude.

Since I had last seen it, I have spent hundreds of hours on the mat and another 200 hours or so getting certified. So, imagine my surprise when I noticed all the references to yoga philosophy.

The most obvious, and therefore perhaps least compelling, is near the beginning of the movie. Jeff Bridges who plays the Dude actually does a rather inspired yoga move before bowling in which he arches his head back and splays his arms out and seems to have a moment of quiet contemplation. (I’m definitely using this, calling it the Dude-asana.)

But the over-arching theme of the movie is the most relevant – throughout the movie he struggles to find peace from the crazy characters who relentlessly try to disturb his sense of calm.

The Stranger, played by Sam Elliott, mysteriously appears at the bar in the bowling alley twice during the movie to explain to viewers the point of the story. The line that he highlights – the Dude abides – is actually a reference to Ecclesiastes 1:4. “One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the Earth abides forever.”

This refers to how the Dude, like the Earth, can remain the same in spite of any changes or chaotic stirrings.

In yoga terms, these fluctuations are referred to as “citta” (prounced chee-tah) or mind stuff or stirrings that threaten to disturb our peace. One of my teachers at Sun and Moon described it as similar to a washing machine mixing up our thoughts and our clarity.

These stirrings come in many forms – from thugs urinating on our rugs, to unpredictable and bold best friends who rip the rug out from under us just when we think we have it all figured out, to green toenail polish-wearing seductresses who appear to be an angel before we realize that they are the devil in disguise.

Two terms that can be helpful for understanding how best to overcome fluctuations of the mind are parusha (supreme knowledge) and prakriti (experience of life). When faced with challenges, recognizing these experiences as such – prakriti – to help overcome any disturbance to knowledge of the higher self – parusha – can be helpful in returning us to peace.

A question that is often posed for further consideration is whether or not we are spiritual beings having a human experience, or human beings having a spiritual experience. Each of us must answer this question in our own unique way.

The Dude answers this question by using the word ‘man’ exactly 147 times during the movie, or approximately one and a half times per minute. This seems to be his way of level-setting, in addition to drinking many white Russians.

Here’s a bit of real-life commentary based on the movie, Metallica is referenced in the movie as the Dude says that he was once a roadie for the band, but called them a bunch of “ass holes”. Apparently, members of Metallica appreciated being mentioned in the movie and loved it. BUT, Glen Frey did not like the fact that the Dude did not like the Eagles and even told the Coen brothers when he crossed paths with them at a party.

Finally, for anyone familiar with the band Kraftwerk – they had a single called Autobahn… and in the movie there are a few cameo appearances from the fictitious although based on a real-band band (Autobahn), which coincidentally included Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Dude is an inspiration and I’ll enjoy his unique asana… and I don’t think I’m alone. Whether or not it works is the subject of many miracles to be realized and those that will never come to fruition either through yoga or on the big screen but are great fodder for endless commentary.

Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

 

Balance as Breakthrough

A lot can be learned from a good tree. Vrksasana helps to improve balance and the ability to center and focus, which can be very helpful for running as it helps prevent injury and improve overall performance.

There are many ways to approach tree, from resting the bottom of your foot on the opposite ankle while using the wall for stability to placing the bottom of your foot on your opposite inner thigh with arms outstretched and eyes closed.

Moving gradually through the variations of this pose provides an opportunity to explore limitations and capabilities. At any point, if you feel challenged then tune in to identify what is happening in your body that may need special attention.

What I love best about this pose is that it quiets the mind and encourages inward gazing to pinpoint where there may be imbalances or weaknesses that need to be addressed. Runners can learn a lot from these slow quiet practices of drawing inward and strengthening the mind’s ability to identify what is happening in the body.

Don’t under-estimate the power of this pose to prepare you for miles on your feet, the subtle shifts require attention and care.

Tree can also be fun with friends, simply touch the tips of your fingers together in a circle while in the pose. The subtle shifts can represent a strengthening connection and build trust and a stronger bond. Also, experiment with swaying tree by moving your arms gently overhead for an added challenge.

Since there is no such thing as mastering tree pose, you can keep this asana in your repertoire of movements and come back to it again and again, each time experiencing slightly different sensations in the body.

Enjoy. OM.

 

Go with the flow

flowThis book – Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – was on my reading list for as long as I can remember and it did not disappoint. It is a book about yoga… it is a book about running… it is a book about life and how to find happiness.

Not the superficial kind of happiness that leaves you feeling hollow but the deep-down rock-your-world happiness. In one word – flow… it’s all about flow.

Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’ (Sound familiar, ultra running friends??)

He cautions that problems can arise when people are so fixated on what they are trying to achieve that they don’t derive pleasure from the present moment (the golden present!). Here he starts to uncover the secret to contentment in life…

Many beautiful concepts in this book center on the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. Again, meaning of life stuff and reminiscent of many foundational yogic philosophies that connect state-of-mind and perspective with inward bliss.

So many profound truths in this book, here are a few:

  • We create ourselves by how we invest our energy
  • Attention shapes the self, and is in turn shaped by it
  • To improve life one must improve the quality of experience
  • The meaning of life is meaning: Whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life

When I read this passage, I put the book down and cried happy tears for a while because it perfectly describes the flow experience that I have had difficulty relating to others who aren’t familiar with or who don’t regularly experience ‘flow’…

Flow helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered. Thoughts, intentions, feelings and all the senses are focused on the same goal. Experience is in harmony. And when the flow episode is over, one feels more “together” than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and to the world in general

And…

The self becomes complex as a result of experiencing flow. Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.

All truly dedicated yogis/yoginis and runners and lovers of life know what this is all about, but it helps to refine our thinking around the flow experience and this book explores every dimension in-depth.

Check it out!

OM

 

 

Why start with OM

Friends, I have a new blog to share yoga practices that can help and support runners and people who are new to yoga. Please visit and sign up to get emails.

Why start with OM? I believe that the greatest benefit of yoga for runners is meditation and pranayama (breathing) practices to build a foundation for developing a stronger mind-body-soul connection. Asanas (poses) flow more freely from this deep connection, and running becomes a moving meditation and celebration of the self.

Starting with OM is a reminder to tune into the golden present. Most yoga classes start with a simple OM chant or a moment of peace through silence. The OM discipline is profound and life-changing, and while I’ve only experienced it briefly in my life… I hope to explore how to instill a greater commitment to OM through practice.

My next exploration will be following the Daily Schedule that is used at Yogaville for one week. So, here it is – The Daily Schedule:

5am – 6:15 Morning Meditation

6:20 – 7:50am Hatha Yoga

Noon meditation (30 minutes)

5pm – 6:30 Hatha Yoga

6:30 – 7pm Meditation

And of course, no alcohol, no caffeine, no sweets and vegetarian or vegan diet. I will be journaling everyday to record my experience. I have followed this schedule at Yogaville, but I’m interested in assessing the effects of the Daily Schedule integrated with my life in Arlington, which is very different than my life at Yogaville.

Looking for others to join, let me know if you are interested! Ooh and sign up for my newsletters, please and thank you!

Hari OM.

The god bone

It was a big weekend with Doug Keller at Sun and Moon, was kicked off with a deep dive into the sacred sacrum or ‘god bone’ as some call it.

So many new things to me, embarrassed to say that at first I thought he was talking about mutation to describe the tip or tilt of the sacrum, but in actuality he was talking about a nutation (the tailbone tips up and lower back arches) and counter-nutation (the tailbone tips down and lower back is in flexion).

We learned to scrub the sacrum – lying on our backs, knees bent and gently dragging the sacrum on the mat upward, feeling the flat portion of the sacrum.

Here’s why it’s important to understand the sacrum and how it works (especially if you are a runner) – it is a point of origin for many injuries (this is my definition, Doug Keller never explicitly said this). If your sacrum is locked and tight, then it causes problems in your hips, spine, knees… you get the drift.

Unlocking it is subtle, quite simply… do yoga. There are many poses that can be helpful in unlocking the sacrum, particularly back bends, cat/cow, twists, etc. But most importantly, draw your awareness to your sacrum by learning to scrub your sacrum and feel your sits bones.

Keller described the sits bones as the little feet in your lower glutes that you feel when you sit up very straight. Movement can help keep the fascia or connective tissue surrounding the sacrum “juicy” (technical term). If it’s juicy, then it can freely move within your pelvis and therefore protect you from injury.

Many running injuries are linked to a chain reaction throughout the body and the key is to find the origin of the injury rather than solely addressing the symptoms. Pay attention to the sacrum and surrounding tissue, fascia or connective tissue throughout the body, and the IT band. While most runners are familiar and aware of the importance of caring for the fascia and IT band, it’s important to include the sacrum for pre-hab and re-hab as well.

Jai Doug Keller!

OM. OM. OM.

right effort

The yamas are the principles of ethical behavior for everyday life in our relationships with others and with ourselves, as written in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras outline the theory and practice of yoga.

Once you become familiar with the yamas, they grow and evolve with you as your life grows and evolves. When I was first exposed to the yamas, the principle that affected me most deeply was that of brahmacharya, or right effort.

Slowly throughout our lives we’re given lessons that guide us toward right effort, although the natural inclination is to cling, grasp and strive for what we want. Right effort speaks to the habit of stepping back, starting with OM, and easing our way through the journey.

It is easier said than done, just as all the simple yet profound lessons in life.

If you want to feel this in your body, sit on your mat with your legs stretched out in front of you. You may want to sit on a rolled up blanket if it is easier. On the exhale, slowly fold forward. This is paschimottanasana, seated forward fold. The tendency in this pose is to strain to reach your toes. The tendency is to strive to stretch as far as you can reach.

Yet this is a relaxation pose. In order to best feel this pose, bend your knees and rest your torso against your quads, then slowly straighten your legs and stop just before you begin to feel like you are straining. Now breathe deep and with each breath, you may find a bit more space to straighten your legs a bit more with each exhalation.

Now forget the pose and feel the experience. Let the breath breathe you and let go. Release. Resist the urge to grasp or cling to what you feel your perfect pose may be, just let the pose be whatever the pose is. Let your body be wherever it is today. Let yourself be.

The feelings that we experience in this pose – resisting the urge to strive and adopting the right effort – is a wonderful metaphor for life as conserving our energy and efforts and focusing on ease and finding more space in the body will help us find the true benefits that we are seeking.

Now apply this to your life right now. What are you grasping for? What do you want that you are not getting? What are you striving for? Step back and start with OM. Let go of the need to grasp.

One of my favorite quotes is ‘what we seek, we are’… I believe it’s Rumi. Whatever you seek in the world, you must first find within yourself before you ever find it outside of yourself. In different terms, if you never find love within yourself then you will never find love in the world. If you never find compassion within yourself, then you never find compassion in the world.

Step back and start with OM. Apply the right effort to whatever you are doing and avoid grasping, clinging and striving. This is what we can learn in seated forward fold, to practice right effort. This is brahmacharya.

move

Establishing a regular asana (pose) practice has enormous benefits for building strength, balance and flexibility. Based on your needs and preferences, you will find poses that appeal to you and work for you with experience.

I recommend attending hatha yoga level I classes first to ensure that you are doing the poses correctly working with an experienced teacher. You may want to shop around and try different studios and teachers to find a class that is most helpful to you.

Based on your training schedule, you may want to aim to practice yoga 2-3 times per week, starting slowly and gently. It is important for runners who have a demanding training program to take a very easy relaxed approach to yoga to experience the full effects. Less is more here. Never strain in a yoga class, as overdoing it can set you up for future running injuries. Never do anything different just before a race or big training run, start slow and gradual as you integrate running within your routine.

Once you have a good foundation, you can access yoga classes online at your convenience. I recommend Yoga Anytime, which offers a trial subscription and offers a wide variety of practices with various teachers.

Over time, you may want to develop your own home practice based on the poses that benefit you the most. While there are significant benefits to attending classes in person, you should be aware that there are options that may be helpful for committing to a regular practice.

Generally, you will want to make sure that you are including poses in your practice that can be beneficial for runners. Once you are familiar, consider the following poses that may be particularly helpful for runners based on individual needs:

• Core poses – Pelvic tilt, cat/cow in table position, bird dog from table, plank, side plank

• Lateral strength poses – single leg/double leg raises, scissoring, running legs from supine position, single leg lowering, side angle pose

• Back strengthening – Locust, locust legs, bridge, one-legged bridge

• Balance poses – Rising and lowering on toes, tree pose, stork/holding one knee in front of body, dancer’s pose, warrior three, half moon

• Inversions – Downward dog, legs up the wall, shoulder stand

[Note: If you don’t know any of these terms, ask me!]

You can gradually incorporate select yoga poses based on your individual needs, below are guidelines to use as a starting point for consideration and discussion with me:

• Hill reps or sprints – Static hamstring, quad, glut and hip flexor stretches, such as runner’s lunge, walking dog, thread needle in supine and lateral side bends

• Long road or trail run – Foot stretches, inversions, full body stretches, six directions of the spine, hip mobilizing movements (talk to me!). If you have difficulty falling asleep, try deep breathing, meditation or relaxation exercises

• Light run – Dynamic cool down such as sun salutation, balances such as tree, strong standing postures such as lunging warrior one and goddess pose

• Rest days – Strong flow sequence to build strength as well as in lateral strengthening poses to restore muscle imbalances. Meditation, breathing and relaxation to disconnect from training stressors and reset your frame of mind