Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: Moving Toward Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga with Rodney Yee

Establishing a home practice is one of the most important things a new yogi can do for themselves. Yes, studio classes are great and important, but most of us can't afford to go to a studio class every single day. My situation is definitely not the norm: not only is there an amazing yoga studio with an amazing teacher just 15 minutes from my house, but it's unbelievably affordable.

But probably one of the most important things that someone can learn from yoga is that you MUST take the time for yourself every day to practice, even if it's just for fifteen minutes. And if you're like me, you've discovered that developing and maintaining a home practice can be really, really hard.

So, I was thrilled to bits to get a wonderful surprise in the mail a couple of weeks ago from a friend in Arizona - a copy of Moving Toward Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga with Rodney Yee.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I opened this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. When I first started practicing yoga, it was at home, from videos. Two of the original three yoga videos I started with were by Rodney Yee, so in a way, it felt like I was coming full circle in my yoga practice.

What you can expect from this book is a clearly outlined, illustrated, and photographed program for anyone to create their own home practice. For yogis of all levels, there are three variations on all the poses, along with detailed information about the anatomy of each pose: which muscle groups are being used, which muscle groups are relaxing, and where your breath should be in each pose.

There are eight weeks of unique daily practices (five per week, plus one day of meditation/breath awareness practice), all clearly photographed and laid out in two pages so that you can lay the book flat in front of you and practice from it. (It would have been nicer if the book had been a spiral-bound, like my Ashtanga practice manual, but, okay, I just use a weight to keep it flat while I practice.)

More than just the practices, this book is full of essential information like how to get started with a home practice, equipment and props, methods for motivation, and my favorite chapter, Creating a Personal Practice.

For complete beginners, this is an easy way to start developing your own home yoga practice. For more advanced yogis or for those of us who have no idea what to do when we roll out the mat at home, this book is not just a fabulous refresher course, but also a guide for moving your practice forward when you can't be at the studio every day.

The bottom line: I love this book. If you're a beginner, this is the perfect guide for you to get started in your poses and practice. For more advanced practitioners, read it with an open mind and see what else you can learn about anatomy and flow.

And make sure you check out the blog of my wonderful friend, SaraBeth Cullinan, who sent me this book! Namaste.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Yoga Teacher Training

Some of you know that for a while now, I've been interested in pursuing a yoga teacher training course. Not because I want to quit my job and become a full-time yoga teacher, but because I'm interested in learning more about my practice, more about yoga, and more about myself. A bead artist friend of mine recently completed her yoga teacher training and inspired me to do the same.

Now, there are a few things you should know about yoga teacher training programs. Yoga Alliance (YA), a non-profit organization that represents yoga teachers, studios, and schools throughout the United States, has created a set of minimum standards for educating yoga teachers. Pretty much every yoga teacher training program you'll find in the U.S. mentions Yoga Alliance and this set of standards.

Of course, once you finish your YA-approved teacher training program, you can register as a certified yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance for a $25 application fee, and a $55 annual registration fee. To maintain your credentials, you need to complete 45 hours of teaching and 30 hours of continuing education (CE) every year, just like any professional organization.

A general search of yoga teacher training programs reveals that most of them are prohibitive to everyone except Trust Fund Kids: they require on-site attendance of classes for up to 6 weeks, plus housing fees, hanging out in the $4,000-6,000 range.

For those of us with budgets and jobs and families, it may sound nice to take off a whole month of your life to do nothing but immerse yourself in yoga, but, really - is that practical? Plus, the cost. Yeesh. Short of taking out a second mortgage, I have no idea how long it would take me to save up $4,000 (plus living expenses for a month) to pay for this kind of program.

A little more digging around revealed some do-it-at-home teacher training programs, and a couple of yoga teacher training-in-a-box programs, but neither of them were recognized by YA. Not that recognition by YA is the be all and end all for yoga teachers: I'm sure there are many, many talented yoga teachers out there who are NOT registered with YA.

While I've always considered myself a do-it-yourselfer and pretty good at the whole distance education thing (I did complete half a Master's degree through distance education at University of Colorado before I decided that I hated my chosen field), there's something about yoga that just tells me I need to learn from someone else. From someone REAL. My experiences with Robin and my first yoga teacher, Emily, have taught me that.

I remembered something my son's preschool teacher said to me about starting in your own backyard. So, okay, Vermont - there must be some kind of teacher training in Vermont, right? I found a few, mostly in Burlington, a couple further south down near Stowe, and they are weekend programs, but again - the traveling time and the cost of staying overnight and leaving my husband alone with our five-year old every weekend just seemed wrong for me.

This morning, after discovering yet another North Country yoga studio up in Malone around the corner from one of our favorite clothing stores, I decided to look at the website of True North Yoga down in Schroon Lake. Schroon Lake is only about 90 minutes from here, and I've been meaning to check it out.

And what do you know? They have a 200 hour yoga teacher training program.

It seems perfect for me, for my lifestyle: very affordable (payments spread out over the 6 months of the course), one weekend a month, plus one weekend workshop/class per month, and the next program starts in October.

So, I don't have to wait a year to get in on the next program. It's a style of yoga that I love. It's affordable. And since it's so close to home, there are no overnight stays required.

Mailed off my registration form. We'll see what happens next!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ebb and Flow

Just like anything else in life, your yoga practice will ebb and flow.

For the last two weeks, my practice has been in sort of an ebb - we had a sick doggie to deal with one week, and then I spent three days last week traveling to and from Ohio where I taped a couple of segments for the PBS jewelry-making show Beads, Baubles, and Jewels. (Of course, I took my yoga mat with me, but more on that, later.)

And even though my practice took a little break from me, I am happy to say that I stepped back on the mat last night for the Sunday afternoon community class at Yoga Tree, and it felt like I had never left.

My practice is most definitely evolving - I can feel it every day. Things are changing.

On that note, my trip to Kripalu this weekend fell through, due to a lack of affordable accommodations. Robin said, and I agreed, that it just wasn't meant to be, and now I know better for next time I want to register for a retreat there.

Meanwhile, lots of things going on, and things I want to share with you all about yoga and life in general. Namaste!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Practice Log: Just Where Is This Practice Going, Anyway?

I went to my Monday night Hour Of Power class (Lawd, I hope she doesn't axe that class for the summer schedule, I LOVE it!), feeling a little different. And not just because for some reason, my allergies decided to act up today and I was walking around with a sinus full of stuff all day.

I wobbled a little in class, I was tired, I even yawned a little bit at the beginning, but I got into it. I felt strong again.

We practiced Surya Namaskara A and B, and I felt good. More confident.

We tried a new variation of king dancer, and I didn't like it, but I got it.

I felt a little different in class, because I made a big decision today. I decided to go down to Kripalu in the Berkshires for a weekend retreat, Deepen Your Practice: A Weekend Yoga Retreat. The idea of the retreat is to explore your practice in a supportive and creative environment.

Because, really, I'm starting to feel like after six months of pretty regular yoga practice, I'm trying to figure out where this will all fit in with my life. Sometimes, I get home from yoga, and it feels like everybody around me is stressed out and miserable, and what's the point of doing yoga, anyway? So, for me, this will be a weekend to just be with my practice, stay with it, like Robin says, and see just where it's going.

There were a million reasons why I thought I couldn't go. It's the weekend after I get back from my whirlwind trip to Cleveland for work. It's expensive. Tom doesn't have any more vacation time to watch Colden while I'm gone. I might have an anxiety attack while I'm there, or on the way down. It's too far away.

So, I looked into it a little more, and was surprised to find that it was actually quite doable. Since Kripalu is only about a 3 hour drive from here, I can leave at 11 a.m. and be down there in plenty of time for check-in at 2:15. The program is over on Sunday at lunchtime, so I should be home well before dinner on Sunday night. Tom's not working that weekend, either. The program fees and accommodations were surprisingly affordable.

As for the anxiety attack, my attitude now is just sort of, so what? It's not like I've never had an anxiety attack in public before. I've had them in the car. I've had them in restaurants. I've had them at my acupuncture appointments. And if I have one at Kripalu, it'll pass, just like all the rest.

Am I little nervous about this? Yeah. Am I excited to go and see just where this practice is going? Oh, hell, yeah.


The very first time I took an Ashtanga-inspired yoga class, I was slightly freaked out. Ashtanga is also known as "Power Yoga", done with vinyasa, or connecting your movement to your breath. It's one of the more athletic types of yoga, where your focus is mainly on your breath and how you transition from one pose to the next, instead of focusing solely on alignment like in the Hatha and Iyengar styles of yoga.

Ashtanga yoga was developed by a yogi named K. Pattabhi Jois, who learned this style of yoga from his teacher, Krishnamacharya. Jois now runs the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India, and has passed down the teachings of Ashtanga to thousands of other teachers throughout the world.

So, this whole time, I've been going to yoga class and thinking in the back of my head, boy, I don't know if I'd ever be able to do Ashtanga. I'm not powerful enough. I don't have enough muscles. I'm not strong enough.

Then, Robin made the mistake of showing me her textbook: Ashtanga Yoga, The Practice Manual: An Illustrated Guide to Personal Practice by David Swenson, who happens to be HER teacher.

One of the things that I've noticed about the anxiety is that when I feel it creeping up on me, it always helps to drop and do a number of Sun Salutations, or Surya Namaskara. The flow, the breath, the movement - they all seem to stop the anxiety dead in its tracks (most of the time), and when I'm feeling a little sluggish, boy is that ever a way to energize.

So, I order a copy of this book, and BAM!, right in front, the whole sequence of Surya Namaskara B, fully illustrated with detailed written directions.

The first night I had the book, I tried to get through 15 of them during my home practice. Of course, I felt my mind wandering during this particular part of the practice, but I muscled through them. When I finished, my heart was pounding like I'd just run a marathon.

So, here I am this whole time thinking, man, there's no way I could do Ashtanga, I'd better stick to Iyengar with it's focus on alignment and the yin (holding still) of poses, or Hatha, because Ashtanga - just the name - scares the pants off of me.

And what do you know?

I've actually been doing Ashtanga this whole time!

Even in my home practice, I try to be fluid between the poses. I try to include a vinyasa (sun salutation) during transitions from floor to standing to sitting.

Now, of course, this isn't true Ashtanga. To be true Ashtanga, I would need to be mentored by someone who was mentored by someone else, etc. And true, I still can't do all of the poses perfectly all of the time. I still need to do my modifications. (Thankfully, there are many modifications illustrated in Swenson's book, which makes me feel more comfortable when I need to do them.)

Ashtanga sort of snuck up on me, I think. I may not look terribly graceful some days on the mat, and I may not have quite the physical endurance that I need to get through all of the poses in the Primary and Intermediary Ashtanga series, but...I think I'm off to a pretty good start.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Practice Log: Community Yoga Class

Sunday afternoons from 4 to 5 is the community yoga class at Yoga Tree. This is the class that I first started going to back in November when I hurt my back and wanted to try to do something to strengthen my core and try to relieve some of the leftover pain from the injury.

Since it's a wonderful mixed-level-everyone-is-welcome kind of class, there are always a few giggles and some lovely conversation afterwards. Today, the next-door neighbor decided to start running his lawnmower just as we pushed back into our first downward dog. Robin laughed and said that this was good practice for us in keeping our focus, and I bust out laughing at that one. How true! Instead of an annoyance, look at it from the perspective of what we can learn from it!

One of the things I love about this class is that I'm at the point now with my own practice that I can do just about the entire class with my eyes closed. And I like it that way.

I noticed a couple of things in class tonight: for starters, when we began, my heart was pounding rapidly in my chest. Almost like I was about to have an anxiety attack. It very often feels that way at the beginning of class - my heart pounds, I feel weak, my breathing is shallow, and maybe I'm even a little dizzy - but then once we're into it, those feelings go away, and my heart starts pounding because I'm making demands on my muscles to move into and out of the poses gracefully.

Next, I noticed that when I'm at home, there are certain poses that I can do with no problems, but that I struggle with in class. This doesn't always happen - obviously, every day on the mat is different. But I've noticed with consistency that there are just some poses that I shake and struggle with in class at the studio, but at home, I can glide through them with ease. What's up with THAT?

Finally, at the end of tonight's class, instead of laying down in savasana, I sat up and did a little bit of meditation. It was lovely, and I felt a pleasant vibration in my forehead. It wasn't until I heard Robin's voice gently bringing me back did I realize just how deep into meditation I had gone.

After class, I also talked to Robin a bit about some of the things I'm practicing at home - Surya Namaskara B, in particular. It's still a bit of a challenge for me...but that's a blog for another day. Namaste.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Practice Log: Home Practice

My local yoga studio, The Yoga Tree, offers yoga classes five days a week, from Sunday through Thursday, with up to 3 classes per day. So on Fridays and Saturdays, I either take a rest from yoga, or I do a home practice session of about 45-60 minutes.

Practicing at home is way different than practicing in a studio, for many reasons, and it takes a little extra effort to develop a home practice.

First of all, we live in a tiny house. I mean, tiny. Five rooms plus a small bathroom, all in about 1,000 square feet. The ceilings are low, too, which is great in the winter when we have to heat the place, but it's a far cry from the high, airy ceilings at the studio.

There's a little bit of room in the living room for me to throw down my mat, and before I do, I always roll up the large braided rug and sweep the floor. (I think my husband is secretly most pleased about my yoga practice because the living room floor hasn't been this clean since we moved in 10 years ago.)

Our living room has a stone fireplace with a large mantel where I light a few candles and maybe a stick of incense on a day when I can open the windows and door.

But there's a ceiling fan right in the center of the ceiling - and if I'm directly under it, my fingertips brush the blades when I'm standing in mountain pose. (To get an idea of how low the ceilings are, I'm about 5' 3". So imagine a short person standing with her arms raised high above her head, and that's about where the blades of the ceiling fan come to. We tried putting a ceiling fan in our dining room once, with the same low ceilings, and it was a disaster. My husband, a sturdy 6' 3", nearly re-enacted the helicopter fight scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, so we decided to just buy a box fan to put in the dining room when it gets hot in the summer.)

In addition to the ceiling fan, we have a couch on one side of the room, and a large protective screen around the wood stove on the other. If I don't put my mat exactly in the center of the room, when I lay down and stretch my arms out, my fingers are either touching the screen around the wood stove or the bottom of the couch.

So, I don't exactly have the same space to spread out as I do in the studio. Even during a packed class - and I've seen that studio PACKED - I still feel like I have more space than in my itty bitty matchbox-sized living room.

Second, there are a lot more distractions at home than there are at the studio. Even when I'm surrounded by other students at the studio, I still feel like I can focus better at the studio than I can at home. At home, there are dishes to be washed, laundry to be washed and hung and folded, meals to be cooked, work to be done (my office is in one corner of our living room), dogs, kids, chickens, visitors, telephones... You get the idea.

I felt bad yesterday when Colden sat in my office chair to watch me practice, but he wouldn't stop asking me questions. He's five, after all, and he was on some kind of energy buzz yesterday. It was just question after question after question after question, until I finally told him that it was time to be quiet. He didn't want to be quiet, though, and he stomped off outside to wait with Daddy for the firewood delivery.

 One way that I try to re-create the ambiance of the studio is by lighting a stick of incense and dimming all the lights. (Which is another difference, since we have bright, open windows everywhere in this house, and since the studio is in a converted garage, the lighting is much more subdued.) My teacher was also kind enough to lend me her iPod so that I could buy my own copies of the music she has on there that she plays during class.

For me, that music is a big deal. I've always been a sensory kinda gal (I am a Taurus, after all), and having some of those same songs playing during my home practice sessions make a huge difference for me. When I hear those songs, I can travel in my mind back to the studio for a few seconds. It really helps me get into that yoga-inward-frame-of-mind that I need at the beginning of a practice.

Lastly, I always try to practice at around the same time of day - before dinner, or before bedtime. It sort of lets me know, okay, now's the time to slow everything down, relax, focus on my breath for a little while.

Other ways to improve your home yoga practice:

1. Try to practice at the same time, every day. Some days, I can get up before everyone else and do a few sun salutations on the back porch (if it's warm) or in front of the wood stove (if it's cold). Then I'll do a longer practice while dinner is cooking or just before bedtime, when everyone else in the house is quiet and asleep.

2. Try to re-create some of the same rituals that you do in the studio. Do the same warm-ups, lay down on your mat for a few minutes and practice pranayama, light some candles, and maybe burn a stick of incense. Music helps, too.

3. Try to practice in the same places consistently. Stick with the living room, or the back porch, or the den, or wherever you start. For me, anyway, consistency is key.

4. Turn off the phone, cell phone, doorbell, etc. Don't have the t.v. on, unless you're watching a yoga video to practice with.

5. And speaking of yoga videos... Sometimes it can be overwhelming to practice all on your own. At least, it is for me, unless I have a set plan of moves in mind that I want to do. This is where having a great yoga video at your disposal can come in handy. I like Tara Stiles' This Is Yoga series (even if she does move a little faster than I'm used to), anything by Sara Ivanhoe (Sara was the one who introduced me to yoga home practice 10+ years ago), or get a membership to My Yoga Online and browse hundreds of yoga videos in all levels, all styles, and numerous wonderful teachers to get you inspired! (I'll have a review of My Yoga Online in a few days, it's one of my favorite online resources for unlimited yoga videos.)

You don't necessarily have to have taken classes at a studio before you start up a home practice. Using a good yoga video (there are loads of free videos on places like YouTube and Hulu, too) can help you get started in practicing your yoga at home!

Do you have a tip for starting a home practice? How do you make a sacred space in your home for yoga or meditation?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Thinking About Teaching

Right now, Robin tells me that I'm "like a sponge" when it comes to yoga. I'm just soaking it all up, every last bit of it, processing it, trying to figure out what it all means and where I fit into the whole thing.

She's asked me more than once when I'm going to start teaching, but I've always thought, no, I need to save up enough money to afford a teacher training and take a month off from work to attend the training and figure out how my husband and son will function with me gone for five weeks.

Pretty tall order.

And yet...and yet...

Now I dream of taking a month off for myself and spending it experiencing a 200-hour yoga teacher training course at a place like Kripalu or Omega or even someplace exotic, like, say, Los Angeles.

But, how?

I thought about doing some distance education teacher training, but none of those were recognized by Yoga Alliance (which is still up in the air as to whether recognition by YA is important for a yoga teacher), and anyway, I'm really afraid of spending $300 or $400 on a training program and getting ripped off, when I could take that money and spend a weekend intensive at Omega or Kripalu.

If I want to be completely honest, my husband is terrified that if I take a yoga teacher training course, I'm going to quit my job and become a full-time (and poorly paid) yoga instructor. I think it makes me seem like I'm just being some kind of flightly bitch again, unable to keep my focus on one thing for more than thirty seconds.

And yet...

I've always been a big fan of distance, or self-guided, education. I've been doing a lot of reading about yoga instructors and yoga teacher training, and I've come to the conclusion that I don't necessarily have to complete a YA-approved teacher training, at least, not right now.

My son's preschool teacher has asked me if I'd be interested in leading some sun salutations at her June 21 Summer Solstice gathering, and I've made up my mind to do that.

I've also started reading everything I can get my hands on about yoga anatomy, physiology (which I have a smattering of experience with from my bio/pre-veterinary studies way back when), the yoga sutras, yoga philosophy, the different branches of yoga, yoga gurus like Iyengar and Kripalu and  Bikram (the last one of whom I am not a huge fan), and listening to just about anything anyone has to tell me about yoga.

I'm trying Qi Gong classes and Kundalini yoga. I'm working out how I can travel to other nearby yoga studios in Vermont and downstate to experience other teachers.

Maybe one day I'll get to go to a month-long 200 hour Yoga Alliance recognized teacher training. But for right now, I'm going to teach the best way I know how: by teaching myself, experiencing, and writing it all down for someone else to read.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Practice Log: Sunshine and Enlightenment. Not.

So, just in case you think that every yoga class ends with bliss, sunshine, and enlightenment, let me assure you that some do not.

Like tonight's vinyasa class.

I was really ready for it. I had a mild anxiety attack this afternoon, which I have to wonder was something that was released by the restorative yoga session this morning. I found myself sitting in front of the computer, crying into the keyboard as I finished a blog for work, for no apparent reason.

Lunch gave me horrific heartburn, also for no apparent reason. When I thought I was about to completely freak out over the burning and burping, I remembered the poses in the Iyengar book from the library that were recommended for indigestion. So I rolled out my mat and did some extended triangle pose and some extended side angle pose. That felt better, and I sat back down to work, counting the minutes until vinyasa class tonight.

Everything started out okay, but then when we got to the lunges, I just collapsed..

My back legs were not strong. My front thighs burned. I couldn't hold the pose. I felt weak. I was having more of that gnawing pain under my right rib, the "gallbladder" pain that they diagnosed 2 years ago because they couldn't find anything else.

And I was so. frustrated.

There I was, on my brand new mat, and I felt like I couldn't even enjoy it. I was pissed. I was frustrated. I finally gave up and dropped my knee during the lunges just so that I wouldn't fall over. During pigeon pose, I just let it all go and started to cry again. There I was, bent over my knee and my hip, feeling like everything was just coming down on me all at once.

In final savasana, I laid there and my mind would not rest. It kept traveling to that area under my right ribs. I got so frustrated, I imagined taking a knife to whatever green and gunked up crap was in there and just cutting it all out, shoveling it out with a rusty, sharp spoon, and throwing it away.

That whole santosha thing? Not happening tonight.

I cried on the way home.

Where was all the strength and power that I've been cultivating these last six months? Where was my ability to be still, to calm my mind?

Completely out the window, apparently.

On the way home, my monkey mind said to me, "This yoga stuff isn't working. Quit. Quit now."

But of course, I can't quit. I won't.

My rational mind says, you only want to quit because you're afraid - you're afraid that it's working. You're actually a little bit afraid of getting your life back. But there's no payoff in staying stuck. You're probably about to discover something really big, and you're just really afraid of that.

So, I won't quit.

What I'll probably do is let myself feel like crap tonight. Maybe I'll even have a cookie after Colden goes to bed. Then I'll stay up and either download a new book on the Kindle or I'll go back and flip through my Iyengar book or my yoga sutras book.

Then, tomorrow, after I drop Colden off at his grandparents' house and I meet the last of my deadlines, I will light some incense, turn on some gentle music, roll up the rug in the living room, and throw my mat down.

Hell, I'll probably throw my mat down before breakfast.

But for now, where's that damn cookie...

Book Review: Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi by Brian Leaf

So, you know those overly annoying ads in the sidebars on Facebook? One ad in particular kept popping up for me: the cover of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi.

At first, I was like, yeah, no thanks, I don't have time to read anything else right now (being that I'm completely absorbed in two books by Iyengar and an old volume of the Dalai Lama's teachings), but yesterday, something drew me to it, and I followed the link to Amazon. For $8, I could download the Kindle edition.

Feeling like I was just adding one more thing to my growing collection of unread Kindle books, I clicked on the "download now" and almost forgot about it.

As I was waiting for dinner to finish baking in the oven, I opened my Kindle, and before I had finished the first chapter, I knew I had discovered the next book that I would read over and over and over again, until I had practically memorized every line.

This book, much like its author, I suspect, is true, gut-wrenchingly honest, and funny. I mean, laugh-out-loud funny.

Maybe it's because he's a fellow Jerseyite, maybe it's because so many aspects of his own story sounded eerily similar to my own, but this is one yogi who really GETS it.

Brian talks with comedic unease about his struggles with colitis as a teenager, and how, finally tired of the conventional medical treatments and the affects they were having on his body and his mind, decided that yoga was the way to cure his problems. What do you know? It actually worked.

We then get to follow Brian on his physical and spiritual journey across the country after his disillusionment with the Kripalu scandal to discover the secrets to happiness, while seeking the right type of yoga for him.

All of this deep, spiritual seeking is hilariously mixed with thirty-something pop culture references, making his observations of events unfolding even funnier.

While I haven't finished the entire book yet (I'm about 3/4 of the way through), I stayed up well past my bedtime last night, telling myself at the turning of each hour, "Well, I'll only read for another fifteen minutes..."

If you want to find out how a nice, Jewish boy from northern New Jersey gets in touch with his inner yogi and makes his light shine in the world, this is the book for you. Highly recommended, inspirational, and absolutely hilarious. Brian Leaf's Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi will be a cosmically comic inspiration to anyone seeking to walk their own path of spiritual awakening through yoga!

Practice Log: Restorative Session

One of the lovely ladies in our yoga classes just finished a teacher training at Kripalu in restorative yoga, and to get her certificate, she needs to practice on some willing students. Ever since my first experience with restorative yoga at the Burlington Yoga Conference, I've been wanting more, so I took her up on her offer of a one-on-one session of restorative yoga.

We did three poses this morning: supported bound-angle pose, supported legs-up-the-wall pose, and a very supported savasana (final resting) pose.

In supported bound-angle pose, I felt so incredibly relaxed, it felt as though I would just melt away, down into the floor, and vanish. When she first laid the eye pillow across my eyes, my mind just automatically started going through all the things that were worrying me, one after the other tumbling through my thoughts...

Eventually, though, I just put those thoughts aside and focused on what my body was feeling. Which was, essentially, nothing. I felt light, weightless, and after fifteen minutes like that, when Magda came over to remove the eye pillow and help me get up from the pose, I almost wanted to ask her if I could lay there for another ten minutes.

The next pose was a supported legs-up-the-wall pose. I was sort of nervous about doing this in a restorative, or yin, sort of way, because I wondered how it would feel to have my legs straight up against the wall for a full fifteen minutes.

The supports were perfect for this one - a blanket under my sacrum, a huge rolled up blanket and a block to help keep my legs up, and then Magda took a yoga strap and wrapped it around my legs, just under the knees, to give me more support.

I was almost in that blissful state of near-sleep when I felt...something. Something big, running from my ankle, straight through the rest of my body, into my chest, and up through my head.

My eyes popped open under the eye pillow, and I felt as though I were a few seconds away from having an anxiety attack.

From across the room, Magda could hear my breathing change, and she came over to see if I was okay. I just knew I had to get down outta that pose, and she helped me down and we talked about what I felt. Strangely enough, legs-up-the-wall is supposed to RELIEVE anxiety, so we have no idea what was going on there.

The last pose for the session was a very supported savasana, laying on my left side to support digestion. There were bolsters along my back, pillows between my knees, and again, I found myself in this state of blissful half-consciousness, just letting my body do its own restful thing.

The eye pillow was so nice that we arranged a barter so I could keep it, and I went home feeling much better than I had when I woke up this morning.

Vinyasa class tonight, and I'm interested to see how I do after this restorative session this morning.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Practice Log: Blissful Hips

Wednesday mornings are the Blissful Hips class at Yoga Tree, although Robin told me this morning that this class may be on the chopping block. Kind of a bummer, because I really like the focus on opening my hips and working on loosening my hamstrings.

Kind of funny this morning, there were only two students - me and someone else - and the other student had her adorable little dog with her. She put the dog outside in the car (don't worry, it's still only like forty degrees in the morning), and for the first ten or fifteen minutes, that little yappy dog yapped and yapped! I just laughed - it was cute.

Still feeling a burn in the opposite thigh when I do some of the lunges, so I'm wondering if I need to be focusing more on strengthening that back leg. Goddess pose was a little challenging today, too - burning in the tops of BOTH thighs, had to take a break and straighten the legs at one point so I didn't fall down.

Left class feeling very fresh and light and ready for the day. Also felt very, very hungry, even though I had my favorite spinach, tomato, cheese, and mushroom omelet for breakfast with a side of potatoes. Is yoga supposed to be an appetite stimulant?

New Yoga Mat in 3...2...1...

Well after 6+ months of daily or near-daily yoga, I decided that it was time for me to upgrade my $12.99 yoga sticky mat to something a little better.

Now, don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with a $12.99 yoga stick mat. I love mine. It got me to where I am today. But I tried out Robin's Jade yoga mat a few times, and I instantly felt the difference.

First of all, it's natural rubber, so the surface is entirely different. My entry-level mat was sticky, but also got kind of slick when my feet and hands would start to sweat in class, and even though it made it easy to kind of slip back and forth during Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara), I'm ready for more of a challenge.

Second of all, when I stood on that mat and tried some of my balancing poses, the thicker mat made balancing more of a challenge. I also noticed that in my standing poses like extended side angle stretch or extended triangle, it was way easier to get lighter in the poses. Picking up my toes was always a challenge on the entry-level mat, but on this Jade yoga mat, I felt strong and comfortable and light. A huge difference!

I couldn't bring myself to pop for the 74-inch Jade Fusion mat, because at $117, it just seemed like too much of an extravagance right now. (After all, we're trying to set aside money for Colden's school tuition in the fall, and I've got four big beading trips between now and the end of October.) Instead, I opted for the $75 Jade Harmony in Tibetan Orange, and thanks to Amazon Prime, got next-day shipping for just $4. I looked at it as buying a Mercedes instead of the Rolls Royce. I also figured that if I loved it and it held up to my daily or twice-daily practice, then next year, or maybe for Christmas, I'll get the Fusion.

I haven't been this eager for a delivery from the UPS lady in a very long time!

When the mat arrived, I noticed that true to the reviews, it was significantly heavier than my entry-level mat. There was a slight odor to it, because it was natural rubber, but I quickly tore off the wrapping and unfurled it on the back porch for an impromptu Sun Salutation.

Well, wow. The Sun Salutations were light, airy, and felt so very different! I felt as though I was aware of every single little muscle in my body as I practiced. Because I was lighter in the toes, I noticed what was happening in my neck, my back, my arms, my fingers!

And then I rolled it up.

Look really hard - you can see the dog fur.
Well, anyone with small kids knows how hard it is to maintain a spotless house. We're no exception. And with our 103-lb. dog, there's usually a fair amount of dog hair around on any given day.

Including all. over. the. mat.

In some ways, the Jade Harmony mat is a lot stickier than my other sticky mat, because, well, it just picked dog hair up off the carpet like nobody's business. And it really gripped it, too. I mean, this mat just wants to hold on to this dog hair like nothing else I've ever seen!


So tonight, I guess I get the fun of washing my mat for the first time.

And obviously, we need to start vacuuming more often.

Oh, and the other thing I love about the Jade yoga mats? For every mat you buy, they plant a tree. Seems like another good excuse to upgrade in a few months if I like this one.

Initial impressions of this yoga mat: it is indeed going to change my entire practice, and I can hardly wait to give it a more thorough testing in the next few days and weeks. Some of the reviews on Amazon talked about the mat falling apart after some intense use, so we'll see if mine holds up.

But I Can't Start a Yoga Practice!

Of course you can't! Doing yoga requires hundreds of dollars' worth of clothing and equipment, right? You just don't have the money. Or the time. Or you're too overweight, or you're out of shape, or you're not flexible, so you can't do yoga. Right?


Of course you can do yoga. No, you're not going to look like Tara Stiles or Rodney Yee overnight, but that's not important. What is important in yoga, just like in life, is showing up at the mat, and doing what you're capable of, and boo to whatever anybody else thinks.

So if you're curious about starting yoga, here are my suggestions:

1. Buy yourself a yoga set. Or don't. You don't have to spend a small fortune on yoga gear to get started. Pretty much every yoga studio has a supply of loaners - mats, blocks, blankets, bolsters, and straps. All you have to do is show up. If you want to splurge and buy an entry-level yoga kit, check out, where for about $50, you can get a kit that includes a yoga mat, blocks, blanket, strap, and mat bag.

Don't feel like you have to spend a lot of money on your first yoga mat, either. You can just spring for a $20 mat and carrying strap that you can bring to yoga class.

2. Don't spend a fortune on "yoga clothes". I wonder how many thrifty yogis out there are totally turned off by the cost of some yoga clothes. $58 for a tank top? Really? Hey, I get the whole eco/fair trade thing, but I can't remember the last time I paid $58 for any single article of clothing.

If you want to get yourself some decent yoga clothes, think outside the box: check out your local thrift shop or resale shop for gently used workout clothes. Even just a comfortable t-shirt and running shorts are perfect for getting started with yoga.

3. Start slow. If you're one of those people that likes to jump into things headfirst, hey, go for it. I'm the same way. But if you're at all hesitant or nervous about starting a yoga practice, start slow. One class a week is PLENTY, and if you find yourself wanting more, you can either do some home practice, on your own, or with a good yoga video.

4. Read. There are so many great books out there about yoga! To get started, I recommend Yoga For Dummies (it's actually a pretty good book), Yoga Cures by Tara Stiles, or Yoga For Beginners by Mark Ansari and Liz Lark. Most of them can be downloaded for Kindle, too. If you want something a little meatier, try any of the works by Iyengar, or any version of the yoga sutras.

5. Be kind. It takes a long time to build any kind of successful practice, and one of the reasons why I love yoga is that it's all about being happy in just the present moment. Whatever you can do, whatever you can't do, it doesn't matter: just show up at your mat, bring your smile and your sense of humor, and enjoy the feel of your body.

6. Don't put it off. Someone once said to me, "But I can't start going to yoga class until I'm in better shape!" To which I say, pppphhhllllttthhhbbbttt. (Imagine me blowing a giant raspberry at you.) How exactly do you plan on getting in shape? Along with the mental and spiritual benefits, yoga is a fantastic, low-impact way to get your muscles moving and to increase lung capacity, making it easier for you to tackle that treadmill or, heck, just to take a walk around the block without getting out of breath!

Obviously, before you start any routine of physical exercise, make sure that you check with your doctor. Anyone suffering from a medical condition like heart disease, diabetes, or other physical illness should discuss yoga with your doctor. You should also make your instructor aware of any medical condition you have so that they can offer gentle modifications to you during class - you'll still get all the benefits of the asana (pose), but without a lot of physical discomfort.

And remember, always remember, if you get into a pose and feel pain, back off! Yoga is not a competitive sport, nor is it supposed to hurt. In this case, no pain results in a lot of gain. (But that's a blog for another day.)

So, what's stopping you from starting a yoga practice?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Practice Log: Tuesday, June 4, 2013

I'm going to keep a series of practice logs as I progress to note what I do, how I feel, and other things that happen during my yoga practice.

Tonight was the gentle beginner class at Yoga Tree in Keene, New York. I've been practicing there with Robin, the owner and instructor, since she opened it in February. It's an old garage that has been converted into a warm, vibrant, energetic space for practice and healing.

There were three students in tonight's class. One of the many great things about Robin as an instructor is that even if just one person shows up, that one person will have some one-on-one yoga instruction for that class.

None of us were beginners by any means, so we talked at the beginning of class about what we wanted to do. Robin had mentioned that she wanted to do a more meditative class that evening, and I was all for that. My mind had been racing all day, alternating between the lists of things I have to do before I leave in two weeks, worrying about that trip (what if I get sick again? what if I miss my flight? what if they can't use my segments?), and trying to stay awake. (Last night, I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and couldn't fall back asleep until around 6.)

Another thing that Robin says is that even if you want to just lie on the mat and take a nap during class, that's okay by her. And I totally see her point: chances are, if you're there, you're ready to do something. And if that something happens to be taking a nap, okay, at least you're being honest about it!

But tonight, we did some core work and some wonderful restorative yoga.

Core work was hard for me, as it always is. I don't think I've used my core since I had Colden via c-section five years ago. I don't get nearly as sore as I used to six months ago after doing the intense core stuff.

Then we moved on to some restorative work, like fish pose and shoulder stand, and it just felt amazing. Wonderful. Supported by blankets and bolsters and pillows, I could really relax for the first time all day and just let myself (and my worries) melt down into the floor and away.

We did a little bit of what I think was Reiki while we were sitting in square pose. Robin had us rub our hands together really fast until they were nice and hot, and then we held them about 3/4 inch apart. I slowly brought my fingertips together, but felt something in the space between my hands. It felt like a squishy, warm sponge, and I found that I could smoosh it back and forth between my fingers. I really didn't want to let it go, but I did.

Robin suggested that we keep the stillness with us as long as we could tonight. So I didn't turn on the radio, didn't check my cell phone, didn't do any of that on the way home.

It's amazing how loopy I get after a session of restorative yoga. It feels like someone has donked me on the head or something.

I came home quite and relaxed. Tom immediately thought that something was wrong, which struck me as strange - am I really usually that chaotic and boisterous?

At any rate, I did manage to keep the stillness for a while, ate some dinner, and am now preparing to try to get some sleep to make up for lost sleep last night.

One more thought I had: I wonder what it would take to start a seasonal yoga teacher training program here in the Adirondacks?

Why Practice Yoga?

The practice of yoga has been around for thousands of years. Some evidence suggests the discipline of yoga goes back as far as 5,000 years, when it was developed as a way to create a permanent state of inner peace.

More recently, yoga has been found through numerous studies to have benefits to both physical and mental health. Yoga has been shown to help stabilize blood pressure, reverse pre-diabetes, and even to alleviate mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, all without the use of prescription drugs.

For me, yoga has been a lifeline - a way back to reclaiming my life after years of mental and physical illness.

Last fall, my anxiety disorder had gotten to the point where just going to the store or going out for a meal at a restaurant or going to have my hair cut would result in nausea, dry heaves, and a full-on anxiety attack involving hysterical crying and the overwhelming feeling that I needed to run away and hide in my bed for several hours. It was not pleasant. I couldn't go anywhere, couldn't do anything, and just the thought of traveling the way I used to was enough to reduce me to tears with worry.

I knew I had to do something. I was an out-of-control hypochondriac, my relationships were suffering, and I felt like my job performance was suffering. I couldn't sleep at night, and when I did manage to fall asleep, I would wake up periodically throughout the night, mostly unable to get back to sleep.

When I threw my back out in November, I was in excruciating pain. It just happened to be the same weekend that my husband was heading out for his annual deer hunting trip downstate with his college buddies, and I couldn't bear the thought of him missing his trip. I asked a yoga teacher friend of mine if she knew of anyone local who was teaching in my area, and she directed me to The Yoga Tree in Keene, and to my current wonderful teacher, Robin.

At first, I thought that getting back into yoga would be a way for me to strengthen my muscles to prevent my back from going out again. But something surprising happened during that first class: I felt an emotional release so strong that I began to cry.

I had to stop going to weekly classes for a few weeks when the anxiety manifested itself in some worrisome cardiac symptoms, but after those were all checked out and I was given the all-clear, I started going back to yoga class every week.

Then, twice a week. I went to a wonderful Sunday afternoon mixed-levels community yoga class, and added a Tuesday night gentle beginner/meditative class.

I started to feel better. So I added a third class, a more challenging moderate Vinyasa class on Thursday evenings.

In most classes, I noticed these feelings of both exhilaration, combined with some kind of emotional release. Encouraged by Robin, I took things slow at my own pace, and when the pose was too much for me, I did the modification.

Most nights, I returned home feeling refreshed and relaxed.

The anxiety continued, but it wasn't quite as bad. I felt like things were coming to the surface after being buried for so long, and while they weren't exactly pleasant, I could deal with them.

I had a few more really bad anxiety attacks - one during an acupuncture session, and one at a yoga class. During the yoga class, I was struggling. Robin noticed and came over to me, gently suggesting that I lay down on my mat for a bit.

So, I did. She always says at the beginning of class that whatever we do during that class is fine - even if we just lay on our mats. Even if we just sit in meditation and watch. No worries, no attachments. We're there, and that's what counts.

During this particular anxiety attack, I was seized with an unusually strong urge to run away. But I laid there, focused on my breathing, and just let it wash over me. Eventually, it went away, and I was able to get up and finish the last minutes of class.

Also during this time, I was seeing a psychiatrist who wanted to put me on amitriptylline for the depression and anxiety. I tried it for a while - it wasn't the first time I'd been on antidepressants - but it was awful. I woke up every morning for ten days with a God-awful headache. I was queasy all the time. I was barely functional on the medication, even worse than when the anxiety had me full-on.

Finally, during a session with my therapist, she asked me to remember a time when I felt strong in my own body. Other than thinking about the times when I was a kid and would tear around town on my bicycle, the first thing that popped into my head was when I was doing yoga.

So I kept going to yoga. And going, and going and going. I noticed that it got easier to deal with the anxiety when it arose. I stopped being afraid of eating. I felt strong, calm, and alive - for probably the first time in over 6 years.

I know there are people who swear by hot yoga, or Bikram, or who just focus on the physical workout part of yoga and approach it as a way to get fit. For me, that's just a bonus: being able to huff it up the hill with my son when we go for a hike, or to be able to walk up and down our hill to the post office without getting winded are both things that I couldn't do before I got into this daily yoga practice routine.

For me, though, yoga is just as much about the training of the mind to be still and calm, and to make some space in between the multi-tasking and the mental list-making and the worries that come every day. It's about being able to recognize my thoughts for what they are, and then let them go and continue to focus on what's in front of me: my work, my son, my husband.

I started this blog as a way to share my experiences and my journey with anyone who's interested in what's to be discovered through the practice of yoga. I hope it's enjoyed by many. Namaste.