Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Yoga Mob in Times Square June 22, 2011

Filed under: Miscellaneous,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:17 pm
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I’m postponing my previously scheduled pranayama post to bring you this: Yoga Mob Celebrates Summer Solstice in Times Square. What an amazing crowd! Here’s another longer story about the event.

Yoga Mob in Times Square

(Photo by sjunat55, courtesy of CNN iReport.)

 

Pranayama Round-up, part 1 June 21, 2011

Filed under: breath,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 9:01 pm
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This month, my homework was to practice pranayama exercises (diaphragmatic breathing, three-part breathing, and alternate-nostril breathing) every day, and to keep a journal of my reflections and observances. Overall I felt like this was pretty difficult for me, because I still have trouble observing myself internally without altering the behavior I’m observing. In terms of pranayama, that meant that while I was sitting there breathing, I’d be wondering if I’m doing the breathing technique correctly, wondering if I should be feeling calmer right now, and wondering if I’ve felt more calm over the past few weeks. I know that pranayama practice and meditation are supposed to be two different things, but for me right now they sure look and feel the same: I’m sitting quietly on the floor paying attention to my breathing and trying not to get distracted.

So. The stats for my breathing. I can do stats. Since the last teacher training weekend, I neglected to practice breathing on 4 days, but I did practice on 26 days. I may not have been really engaged every time I practiced, and my practice sessions may have been shorter or longer in duration, but I did some sort of pranayama practice on 26 of the past 30 days. I feel proud that I accomplished this.

I’ll talk about each pranayama technique in order. I did try to practice them in this order in each session, but there were times when I skipped one or another technique, and at bedtime, it seemed to make more sense to practice them in the opposite order (alternate nostril first, then three-part, then diaphragmatic). Also, I strove to practice ujjayi breathing during all the pranayama techniques; this seemed to help me get a deeper stronger inhale, and it also helped me to inhale at all through a clogged nostril during alternate nostril breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing: I struggled with this during the course of the month. I kept thinking that I wasn’t doing the technique correctly; diaphragmatic breath is supposed to be a deep lung-filling breath, but as I experienced it, using just the diaphragm to breathe and not the chest didn’t fill me up enough. I often found myself yawning or sighing with relief after a round of diaphragmatic breath. I did discover that diaphragmatic breath seemed easier and more comfortable when I was lying on my back, and so it was pleasant to practice it at bedtime. After continued practice, I do think I’ve improved in my practice of this technique, and my seated practice has become more comfortable and satisfying, but even up until a few days ago I was still experiencing shortness of breath after practicing. I think I need more work on this.

Three-part breathing: By far this was my favorite technique to practice. This technique combines the deep diaphragmatic breath with chest and clavicular action to really fill up the whole lung. I found it really satisfying and calming as well, and I often practiced this technique on its own (for example, between emails at work, or on the train). At the beginning of the month, I sometimes felt dizzy or light-headed after 10-15 three-part breaths, but that feeling faded. I do sometimes feel the need for a yawn or deep sigh after practicing this technique, but not nearly as often as with diaphragmatic breath. I found that this technique was not comfortable to practice while lying down (this is why it made more sense to me to work in backwards order at bedtime – I did the seated practices first, then laid down for diaphragmatic breath).

In part 2: my experiences with alternate nostril breathing (the technique I felt most conflicted about) and my feelings about how the pranayama practice affected my life and my attitudes over the past month (because I think it did)!

 

yama/niyama redux / I-should-be-better syndrome June 20, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about the yamas and niyamas lately. Remember those? My first big assignment as part of my yoga teacher training was to read and think about the yamas, a set of five practices of self-restraint, and the niyamas, a set of five observances. After spending March and April reflecting on these things, I thought they’d be pretty ingrained in me. I was hoping I’d naturally remind myself to practice them throughout the day, and that I’d start to see my thought patterns changing.

Well, as you all know, I’ve done a lot of stuff during the past month or so, but consciously practicing the yamas and niyamas has not exactly been up there on the list. I think I still work on ahimsa pretty consciously (and I figure, if I’m only doing one of them, that’s the right one), but paying attention to and trying to improve my thoughts and my behavior is important for every single day, not just days when I’m supposed to be studying it. This is kind of the yogic equivalent of the ten commandments here. Don’t harm others, be truthful and generous, be moderate and balanced; be pure and simple, content, and disciplined; study hard and well, practice devotion. Be mindful. If I’m not paying attention, how can I say I’m being mindful?

Thinking back, I can say that even without being fully cognizant of the yamas and niyamas, I think I did a pretty good job of following them. I think I’ve been better about practicing non-violence in my words and in my thoughts. I’ve had the opportunity to be generous with my time and my support, and I think I’ve done a good job of that. I’ve studied hard and worked hard in my yoga practice. I’ve been very accepting and content with where I am in my life right now (although admittedly my life is pretty spectacular at present).

My husband F, with his usual impeccable sense of timing, sent me this great link the other day: Six Ways to Deal With I-Should-Be-Better Syndrome. This fits right in with thinking about the yamas and niyamas.

I’ve actually posted about my own experiences with I-Should-Be-Better Syndrome before, and I already try to do many of the things Amy Johnson recommends in her blog post: striving to be honest and truthful (practicing satya) and breathing (which, I’ve learned this month, is something we could all benefit from being more aware of). I also like her awareness that this is a universal issue – in Buddhism and in yoga, you work to feel compassion for everybody, every living creature, even that nasty parking attendant, even yourself, and if we understand that everyone is striving to be better, that it’s not just us, then that helps us to love everybody a little bit more, including ourselves.

I like Johnson’s practical, no-nonsense approach to this very emotional and personal issue. It’s hard to admit that you think you should be better, because really, you don’t want anyone to notice that you’re not already super-great. We feel shame when we get into I-Should-Be-Better mode, and it’s natural to try to hide shame. But being honest with yourself about these feelings is the first step to moving past them and feeling more content, more satisfied, and more peaceful, and that’s what the yamas and niyamas are all about.

 

Some Personal Reflections June 16, 2011

Filed under: reflections — R. H. Ward @ 6:41 pm
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“Buddhist training offers an alternative approach to experiencing life from an essentially fear-based perspective of survival in favor of experiencing it as a parade of odd and wonderful events.” – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living, page 81

Dear readers, here at the yoga blog I try to keep the focus on what you’re here for: the yoga. But lately I’ve been taking stock of where I’m at and what else is going on in my life, and I thought you might indulge me in some personal reflections.

One year ago next week, I married an amazing man. Afterwards we crashed out for a while, then got started planning a spectacular (and yogaful!) honeymoon in Belize. With those milestones over, I thought 2011 would be a year to get back to some old projects and start on new ones. I had no idea how much sheer stuff was going to happen in 2011. I had some vague goals in mind: make progress with yoga and maybe look for a teacher training program; get back to my writing and try to make some progress towards starting a freelance editing business; and on a personal level, think about maybe buying a house. Here’s what’s actually happened so far this year:

  • I found a teacher training program, signed up, and made a lot of progress. This, you know in detail already.
  • On the writing and editing front, I attended a writing conference in February, reconnecting with old friends and making valuable new connections. I started this blog, which has been in different ways both easier and more difficult than I expected. I wrote my first professional book review and sent it out to a number of magazines, I had three poems accepted at literary journals, I did a proofreading job for a small press I like a lot, and biggest news of all, I found out that my chapbook manuscript won the editor’s prize in a contest and will be published next year.
  • F and I found a realtor, started house hunting, fell in love with a house, made an offer, got turned down, made another offer, got accepted, had a home inspection and a termite inspection and a radon inspection and a sewer inspection, applied for a mortgage, got an appraisal, and settlement is scheduled for June 27, god willing and the creek don’t rise.
  • A bunch of unexpected things also happened, some good, some less good. I won a big award at my current job. F got some welcome recognition at his job. F and I traveled to Arizona for a great vacation and a wonderful wedding. We had a getaway weekend in Rhode Island with fabulous friends. I took an eight-week African dance class, we saw an amazing play in NYC (twice), I became a member at a museum I love and went to a bunch of really interesting lectures. I had a business trip that involved my presence in Chicago for less than 24 hours. I had an extremely minor surgery, F fell down some stairs and fractured his shoulder, and we got rear-ended on the highway (we’re both fine, but the damages on the car are estimated in the thousands of dollars). None of those things except for attending the wedding were things I could have planned in advance.

And 2011 is only half over! Look at how many things I’ve done and how many things have happened already. On the horizon, I know that we’re going to get our car fixed, spend all our savings on a house, and pack all our stuff and move into said house; I know that F is going to attend a two-week writing conference that will be good for his career (but lonely for his loving wife), and I’ll finish my teacher training and become a registered yoga teacher (again, god willing and the creek don’t rise). I know that we have these things planned now, but I don’t know how the details are going to unfold. I don’t know what wonderful surprises the rest of 2011 has in store for us.

So, happy early-anniversary to my wonderful F. I assume we’ll still be married, not only on our actual anniversary on Monday, but for many more wild, enchanting, surprising, amazing years. I know that no matter what the rest of 2011 has in store for us, we’ll handle it awesomely together.

And, dear readers, happy blogiversary. We’ve been together for three months now, and it’s been pretty cool, I think. Here’s to experiencing life not as something to survive, but as a parade of odd and wonderful events. Here’s to embracing whatever comes.

 

Thoughts from Last Night’s Class June 15, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 7:06 pm
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A few miscellaneous thoughts on last night’s yoga class:

  • N’s classes are a pretty amazing workout. I feel challenged in a completely different way than I do in J’s class. It’s kind of humbling, actually, because I think it’s not hard for me to get puffed up about my yoga practice, and N’s class brings me right back down to earth where I belong. It doesn’t matter how bendy or strong you are – what matters is the intention behind the practice – but really, I am not so bendy or strong as I think I am.
  • N’s class also serves to make me feel old. Last night, my back hurt, the backs of my knees hurt, my standing leg hurt all through the balance poses, and my arms hurt and wobbled all over the place. The arms are a strength thing, and clearly I’m working on that just by showing up, but the back and the knees could be age-related. N’s classes, while inspiring me to do more, work harder, and get stronger, also remind me to be careful, be mindful, and not hurt myself.
  • Speaking of the standing leg in balance poses, N had us do another balance sequence that kicked my butt again. I think the issue for me is that we’re going from balance poses where we bent forward (like ardha chandrasana) into balance poses where we’re upright (like crane and tree). Plus, putting that much pressure on the standing leg for several poses in a row without a break is really rough, and N doesn’t give us time to shake it out after we come down. (I say “without a break” but I gave myself several breaks last night, and it was still really tough.) This looks to be just one more area where I need to practice ahimsa and be gentle with myself.
  • When I find myself hurting in yoga class, or unable for whatever reason to keep up and do the pose as everyone else is doing it, I have a tendency to get angry. How long have we been holding this?!, I’ll think to myself, or Down-dog twist again? We’ve done it five times now! Last night it was really hard for me to practice tapas and work through the burn, and really hard to practice ahimsa and counter those negative thoughts with positive ones. Again, I have to turn my brain around and see this as an opportunity: a difficult yoga class is frustrating, but it’s going to make me stronger, and my negative thoughts are natural, but they give me a chance to practice some loving-kindness towards myself. If I need to rest, it’s okay to rest.
  • I hate ardha chandrasana. I really, really do. I’m practicing it more this month and I’m improving, but still. It is just Not Fun.
  • And speaking of Not Fun, someone near me in last night’s class was experiencing a gas problem. Now, I have nothing but sympathy for whoever it was – I’ve been that person before, we’ve all been that person – but it just makes the whole “deep even breathing” thing a little more difficult. Grabbing my lavender-filled eye pillow for savasana was a big relief, let me tell you.
 

Ayurveda: what’s it all about? June 14, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:49 pm
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One of my assignments this month was to complete an ayurvedic questionnaire and explore the results. My first response was, wait, back up, what’s ayurveda?

Ayurveda is an alternative form of medicine traditional in India, with a history going back thousands of years. It’s a system of healthful, mindful living based on the concept of balancing three elemental energies called doshas: vata (air/wind), pitta (fire/water), and kapha (water/earth). Ayurveda holds that each person has different levels of these three doshas, and poor health comes from an imbalance in the doshas. Balancing the doshas, in a unique way for each individual, will lead to better health. This balance can be accomplished by focusing on diet (to improve metabolic system, digestion, and excretion), exercise, yoga, meditation, and even massage. In balancing the doshas and living in moderation, it’s thought that the body, mind, and spirit will also come into balance, improving the health of the whole person.

Each person has a unique distribution of the three doshas. Each person has some of each, but often one or two doshas are more abundant; by examining your physical attributes and personality (for example, in a quiz like this one), you can find out which is your dominant dosha. Your dosha levels can fluctuate, affecting mood and health, which is why it can be helpful to bring them back into alignment and balance! I took N’s ayurvedic questionnaire and came up almost equal in vata and pitta, with a very low level of kapha by comparison.

Vata, the air or wind element, is characterized physically by a thin, delicate body type with low body fat. A vata person is sensitive, jumpy or unable to sit still, easily overwhelmed, flighty, often runs late, easily confused. A vata dominant person who is well-balanced will demonstrate the most positive traits of this type: sharp, quick thinking, creative, while an unbalanced vata person could experience gas, bloating, lack of focus, spaciness, dry skin, nervousness, sleeplessness, and worry. A vata should avoid low-fat, raw, or cold foods in favor of warm, heavier foods.

The pitta element combines fire and water. Physically, a pitta type is medium-framed and well-proportioned; personality traits include being focused, organized, “type A”, workaholic. A pitta person tends to need to eat regularly and gets cranky when she misses a meal. When balanced, pittas are productive, organized, energetic, enthusiastic; unbalanced, pittas become agitated, irritable, and overly competitive and may experience diarrhea, rashes, and perspiration. Pittas should avoid overly spicy foods and red meat, choosing sweeter foods.

Finally, kaphas are earth and water types: physically larger or big-boned, not necessarily overweight but able to gain weight easily, and can be powerful athletes when in shape. Kaphas are grounded, stable, solid, slower moving, sensual. Balanced kaphas are reliable, dependable, calm, even-tempered, and peacemakers, while unbalanced kaphas can be lethargic, depressed, dull and sluggish, congested, and overweight. Kaphas should avoid fatty and heavy foods, dairy, and red meat, and choose lighter grains and proteins.

I think my results are pretty accurate. There were a few questions I could have answered differently, but doing so wouldn’t have changed the overall balance. I have a lot of vata and pitta characteristics. At my best I have the quickness and creativity of vata and the focus, organization, and productivity of the pitta. At my worst, I get the vata’s spaciness, dry skin, nervousness, lack of focus, and worry, and the pitta’s irritability and rashes. I definitely have the pitta need to eat regular meals (as F’s family can attest; I’ve started packing snacks for myself when we visit because they just don’t seem to eat on a schedule!). The food recommendations for vata and pitta are a little contradictory (the above is just a summary) but on both lists I see things that really appeal to me and that I’ve been naturally drawn to: lighter proteins, creamy soups, mashed sweet potatoes (vata), and fresh lime, dark leafy greens, sweet vegetables (pitta). My yoga teacher N is an ayurvedic practitioner, and I’m considering having a session with her to look at these things more closely.

Interestingly, I made F take the questionnaire with me, and he came up almost completely balanced among the three doshas. Looking at the descriptions, F has many characteristics of each dosha: he’s stronger in vata and kapha than pitta, but all three were within four points of each other. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that. Apparently I have a well-balanced husband.

 

Soaring on Two Wings June 13, 2011

Filed under: books,reflections,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:27 pm
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A few months back, I was doing some yoga reading and came across the idea of having “two wings” to support you in your practice. In the February 2011 issue of Yoga Journal, Stacey Mietus writes about re-learning yoga after a serious injury (page 20). Mietus had been practicing yoga in a competitive way, always trying aggressively to improve her postures, but after hurting her neck she had to find a new approach. She quotes as an inspiration B.K.S. Iyengar, who wrote, “A bird cannot fly with one wing. In the same way, we need the two wings of practice and renunciation to soar.” Mietus had been practicing hard, but to keep herself healthy, she had to learn to balance with renunciation: not comparing herself with others, not judging herself when her body needed to rest. Her injury forced her to back off and take a new, gentler approach; now she strives to practice with both wings to stay balanced.

I read Mietus’s story in Yoga Journal while riding the train home from work. Later that same day, I settled down with the book The Joy of Living by Tibetan Buddhist monk Yongey Mingur Rinpoche for a little bedtime reading, and I was surprised to see Rinpoche bring up the very same idea of flying on two wings! He uses the concept in relation to Buddhist practice and study. The teachings of Buddha are often grouped into two categories: teachings on wisdom, and teachings on practice. Rinpoche tells us that Buddha himself compared these two categories to the wings of a bird, because you need both in order to fly.  Without wisdom, you can’t practice properly; without practice, you may be wise but the wisdom does you no good.

Although yoga isn’t a Buddhist practice, Rinpoche’s description of the two wings in Buddhism has much in common with Mietus’s experience with yoga. Rather than putting all her energy into simply practicing hard, she needed to examine her yoga practice and approach it with more wisdom to avoid hurting herself.

Reading about the two wings in two disparate books on the same day really struck me – clearly this is something I ought to be thinking about! I like to practice yoga in a physically challenging way, but unless I am mindful in my practice, my yoga becomes only a workout without satisfying me in a spiritual way. On the other hand, right now my life is so busy that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about yoga but don’t have much time to actually practice yoga on my mat. I crave both the mindfulness and knowledge as well as the physical practice, and I’m happiest when I have these in balance. Similarly, I often read books like Rinpoche’s about Buddhism, but until I sit down and practice meditation, the knowledge I gain from the book won’t do me any good. The practice and the knowledge go hand in hand.

In our busy world, it’s often difficult to strike a balance. What are the two wings that sustain you, and how do you keep them balanced?