Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

The Parakarmas, part 1: friendliness and compassion August 31, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:19 pm
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The parakarmas, discussed in Sutra I.33, are four attitudes that, if we practice them, will help us in our relationships with other people. Swami Satchidananda says that if you’re going to remember just one of the yoga sutras, it should be this one, for the power it has to help us keep a serene mind.

The sutra reads as follows:

By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed calmness. (page 54)

Nischala Devi translates it just a little differently, with a little less judgment on the “wicked”:

To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes: kindness to those who are happy, compassion for those who are less fortunate, honor for those who embody noble qualities, and equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values. (page 77)

Let’s take a look at each attitude in turn.

  • Friendliness/kindness toward the happy

Why wouldn’t we be happy to see other people being happy? Maybe the other person has something we don’t have and we’re jealous, or maybe we’ve just had a bad day and the happy person’s good spirits get on our nerves. But feeling jealous or annoyed won’t do anything to the other person – all it does it disturb you. You can’t have a calm mind or a peaceful heart when you’re full of jealousy. For your own sake, then, when you see a happy person, cultivate a feeling of friendliness towards him or her. Even if you’re having a bad day, don’t get annoyed; think to yourself, “I’ve been happy like that before, and I will be again.”

  • Compassion for the unhappy/those who are less fortunate

I don’t like to talk about politics, but I feel like this is a very hot topic in the USA right now. Many, many people in our country are suffering under a poor economy, have lost their jobs, can’t find work, can’t afford their homes, can’t support their families, can’t afford medical care. And yet with so many suffering, our political leaders talk about how not enough Americans are paying income tax and how we should raise taxes on those people while preserving tax cuts for the very rich. This is more than wrong-headed thinking; it’s not compassionate. I found Warren Buffett’s recent article in the New York Times to be a really interesting example of compassion.

Swami Satchidananda points out that there’s often an impulse to blame the suffering person: he must have done something to deserve this. If you’re homeless, just get a job! That girl shouldn’t have been having sex, so of course she’s in trouble now that she has a baby. But if we are truly practicing yoga, we must live in the present moment. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past; this person is suffering now and deserves our compassion. As yogis, we must also strive to understand others, to truly put ourselves in their shoes. There may be all kind of circumstances that prevent someone from finding a job (including a bad economy!), and without knowing that specific person’s story, we can’t judge. Imagine how you yourself would feel in that situation and how you would want to be treated. All we can do is to treat people compassionately, with mercy, and work to help and serve as best we can.

Swami Satchidananda also reminds us that the purpose of these attitudes, these parakarmas, is to preserve your own serenity. Being cruel to others hurts you too! But if you know that you were compassionate, that you tried to help, your own mind is set at ease. If nothing else, living with compassion eases your own heart.

Tomorrow: the other two parakarmas!

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Dealing with ups and downs August 30, 2011

I’ve been trying for a while to wrap my head around a concept mentioned in Eknath Easwaran’s book Passage Meditation, and I think I’ve finally figured it out. Mr. Easwaran  talks about excitement and emotional ups and downs, and how a true yogi will work to eliminate these. Of course we all want to get rid of the lows we experience in our moods, but getting rid of the highs too will help us to be more balanced, calm, and peaceful. Mr. Easwaran explains it as follows:

You will find excitement played up everywhere today… and everywhere today you will find depressed people. Hardly anyone sees a connection. Hardly anyone realizes that the old truth “What goes up must come down” applies to the mind too…. In other words, excitement makes us vulnerable to depression. When I say this, you may think that I am trying to wrap a wet blanket around you. But actually, when we reduce the pendulum swings of the mind, we enter a calm state of awareness that allows us to enjoy the present moment most fully…. Learn to prevent low moods altogether by repeating your mantram when you first feel yourself becoming excited…. bring yourself back to the present moment so you can avoid disappointment if future events take an unexpected turn…. free yourself from the tyranny of strong likes and dislikes – all those preferences, aversions, fixed opinions, and habits that make us soar when things go our way and crash when they do not.” (86-87)

That was a long quote, condensed down from a much longer passage, but I thought Mr. Easwaran explains his point well. Also, thinking about strong attachments and aversions is part of our assignment this month, so this passage is interesting in that light as well. I read this passage probably two months ago now, but set it aside at the time because we were busy moving. It’s been in the back of my mind since then.

I tend to get excited easily, about big things and silly things both. I just like things. Getting excited about stuff seems like a part of who I am. Do I need to give that up to make spiritual progress? I can see Mr. Easwaran’s point about the high highs making us vulnerable to the low lows – I definitely have my low lows, probably more than a more stoic person might have. For example, my husband is much more even keeled than I am – he plugs along pretty contentedly while I bounce around, up and down. That’s not to say he doesn’t have low moments like anyone else, but it takes a lot to shake him up, whereas I can go from the heights of joy to the depths of self-loathing in the space of ten minutes. I’ve worked really hard to get a semblance of control over that, but maybe if I work on controlling my up times too, I’ll be more balanced overall. But when I think about this, something in me gets upset – I like liking things, and I like who I am. Swami Satchidananda would say that “who I am” is just a construct built by my ego and I should let go of it anyway, but still, I wasn’t sure how to feel about this or what to do.

However, I think that, from Mr. Easwaran’s perspective, he would acknowledge a difference between “excitement” and “enthusiasm”. Excitement gets you all juiced up for something that could never come close to what you’ve built it up to be, so you feel let down afterwards. Then you go seeking more and bigger things to get excited about, but none of them ever truly fulfill you. Enthusiasm, I think, is different. When you’re enthusiastic about something, you know what it is and what you’ll get from it, so you can feel happy and pumped up about it without feeling let down afterwards. I think that what I am is (for the most part, anyway) enthusiastic, not excitable.

Here’s a classic example. I love using my EZ Pass to go through toll plazas on the highway. I’ve had my EZ Pass for at least five years, yet I still yell “Go EZ Pass!” as I coast past the toll booth. It never fails to delight me. And that’s not the sort of excitement Mr. Easwaran is talking about, that’s taking genuine joy in my world. I get excited when I go out for a nice dinner with my husband, but afterwards I don’t feel sad that it’s over; instead I spend the train ride home talking about what a nice time we had and how good the food was and how happy I am. I dance to the theme song for Doctor Who every time the credits roll (every. single. time.) because I always love that show no matter what happens. If we go out for a walk in the park, I get all excited like a puppy and start chanting “The park the park the park!” but I’m still happy the whole way home afterwards. I even get excited when it rains because it means I get to wear my yellow raincoat.

These are all things I feel genuinely enthusiastic and happy about. They’re not going to disappoint me later; they are experiences that I find satisfying in my everyday life. I could certainly do a better job of controlling mood swings, and doing so would help not just me but my husband and family. But I don’t think I need to change my core, my enthusiastic personality. Part of the point of yoga is being fully present in the moment, and if I’m doing the Doctor Who dance or singing about my EZ Pass, I can pretty much guarantee that I’m right there in the present moment.

 

Home Yoga Class # 2 August 26, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 2:25 pm
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On Wednesday I got some rather shocking news at work: my boss, who’s been with the company for 20 years, is leaving for a new position. My coworkers and I spent the afternoon in haze; although we’re happy for her to have a great new opportunity, the announcement was a huge surprise and an injection of uncertainty into our work lives. On the way home that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to focus my attention on my yoga class. It turned out, though, that teaching yoga that night was the best thing for me.

We had five people in the class again this week. Starting class at 6:30 definitely helped everyone’s commute, so that all my students were present and ready to go on time. This week I was more proactive about arranging people in the room and we came up with a good layout for five mats in the space. I put one of the more experienced students up front, since I wouldn’t be demonstrating poses myself, so that the beginners would have someone to look to. During class, I moved around the room more, made more adjustments, talked more confidently, and felt more confident. I think I did a better job of teaching this week.

Some notes: I had meant to teach Chair pose but totally forgot. I’m now considering this to be not a failing on my part but an unplanned gift to one of my students, who was evacuated from the 23rd floor of an office building after the earthquake on Tuesday and whose thighs were still sore from climbing all those stairs. He will be very happy to read that I forgot to teach Chair pose! Next week I’m definitely planning to teach it (I’m not sure why I want to teach Chair so much but I’m just going to go with it). We tried half moon pose and it was hard, but people seemed to like the challenge. That’s how I feel about half moon myself so I think I’ll definitely be teaching this one again. At the end of class, I did a guided relaxation again, but chose a tense-and-release relaxation rather than just the awareness one I did last week. Not sure what I’ll do next week.

I also taught shoulderstand for the first time, which was difficult. N & J have cautioned us to be careful teaching shoulderstand, because it’s possible to injure your neck if you do it incorrectly. I found it hard to remember all the little details that I wanted to mention about alignment in the pose, and my beginning students weren’t able to do the pose at all, which distracted me from describing it well to the others. I helped lift one person into the pose, and now she understands where it’s going, but she couldn’t hold the pose on her own and seemed a bit downcast that she wasn’t able to do it. I think this weekend I’m going to experiment with doing shoulderstand on a blanket for extra support, and also with doing shoulderstand at the wall, which will give me more options for teaching it. I’m thinking that next week I may leave a little extra time at the end of class just to play with inversions. We don’t have a ton of wall space in our yoga area, so doing legs-up-the-wall or using the wall for support in a harder pose won’t be an option for everyone; what I’d like to do is give my students a good foundation so I can tell them to go ahead and do whatever inversion they like, and then some people will work on shoulderstand or bridge and some can use the wall. Doing a bit of an inversion intensive next week may help with that, so people know what options they have.

Next week I think I want to teach ujjayi breathing. F told me that he thought he could use more reminders to breathe during class, so if I teach ujjayi breathing that will give me a concrete way to do that (rather than just saying, “don’t forget to breathe” repeatedly). I’m also considering some themed classes – breath is an obvious theme, and I’d start that class with crocodile pose instead of child’s pose and then try to work on the breath more throughout class. Another theme I thought of is surrendering/letting go. At least one of my students is very much an on-the-go person, very in charge, and practicing letting go might be good for this person, a benefit of yoga beyond the physical. Not that I want to plot out my classes weeks in advance, but I am happy that I’m getting excited about the things I might teach.

 

Nine Obstacles to Mental Clarity August 24, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:25 pm
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Today we’ll talk about the nine obstacles to mental clarity. These are also obstacles to practicing yoga or to succeeding in anything else that requires hard work and practice. The nine obstacles are:

  1. Lack of effort
  2. Fatigue or disease
  3. Dullness, inertia (tamas)
  4. Doubt
  5. Carelessness
  6. Laziness
  7. Inability to turn the mind inward
  8. Distorted thinking
  9. Lack of perseverance

The first and last obstacles are of particular interest. Lack of effort is in many ways the most powerful obstacle and the key to all of them: if you don’t put any effort into your practice, you can’t possibly make progress. In addition, a lack of effort opens the door for the other obstacles to come in: if you’re working hard, you’ll be focused on your work, but if you’re not putting in any effort, you’re more likely to become lazy and careless. If you can avoid experiencing a lack of effort – if you strive to put your best effort into all you do – it will be easier to avoid the other obstacles as well.

The last obstacle, lack of perseverance, is also important. J defined “perseverance” as “practicing for an extended period of time without break”. While this concept can be applied to an individual practice or yoga class (powering through a full hour instead of copping out after 20 minutes), it shouldn’t be understood to mean practicing for hours and hours on end, day after day, which wouldn’t be healthy. Instead think about perseverance as the willpower to go do the work regularly, to do it without break, every day if you can. Practicing yoga once a month at random won’t help you very much, but if you practice every Tuesday or twice a week or every morning, you’ll see yourself making progress. Lack of perseverance goes hand in hand with lack of effort: to get anything accomplished you need to show up and try!

Another of the obstacles I want to talk about is laziness. In our lecture J gave us a definition for laziness that’s stuck with me: “laziness” is “the inability to take action even though there’s a longing for action in the mind”. Most of us have experienced this. You know you should go clean the bathroom but you think you’ll just sit down for a minute, and oh, Pawn Stars is on and you haven’t seen this one. Or it’s some movie, like Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, that you’ve seen a dozen times and don’t really care about seeing again, but you get sucked in and you stay on the couch even through the commercials and there goes your whole Saturday afternoon. You know you don’t really care about the movie, and that if you did care you could rent it or get it on Netflix with no commercials, but you sit there anyway. In class, we asked J, how do you fight laziness? And he said, um, get up. So even the big sage guy doesn’t have a magical answer. You know you need to get up, so turn off the TV, let Ferris go about his crazy day, and get back to your own life.

To me, the thing that seems so insidious about the nine obstacles is the way they feed on each other. Say you’re feeling lazy, so you shorten your yoga practice or do it carelessly, maybe you skip it entirely – there’s lack of effort and lack of perseverance. Let it go and a pattern develops: the longer you sit around, the easier it is to keep sitting around, and inertia sets in. Soon you begin to doubt your purpose, whether there’s any point to this yoga stuff, even though you know you feel better and stronger when you do yoga. And without your regular practice you lose the ability you’d been building to focus and turn the mind inward, becoming even more distracted by what’s on TV. The nine obstacles draw you in, drag you down, and keep you there.

That’s an overblown worst-case scenario, but we all deal with these obstacles every day, not just in yoga but in our jobs and other work, and over time they can keep us from achieving our goals. However, by identifying the obstacles and knowing their tricks, we can fight against them. The next time I’m tempted to watch just one more episode of Pawn Stars, I’ll remember: this is laziness! I don’t want to be lazy! And I’ll turn off the TV.

So what do the nine obstacles look like in your life? Which one is hardest for you, and what do you do to fight it?

 

So You Want to Try Yoga, Part 5: How Often Should I Do Yoga? August 23, 2011

Filed under: yoga — R. H. Ward @ 2:22 pm
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As an addendum to my series on tips for new yoga students (see the full series here), I thought I’d comment on not just the technical aspects of finding a yoga class and what to bring to it, but how often to practice. Last week in my teacher training session, J mentioned that this question, “How often should I do yoga?”, is one of the most frequent questions he gets. The answer, of course, is different for every person (much to the dismay of J’s questioners, who all wanted a specific answer!).

How often should you practice yoga? It mostly depends on what you hope to get from your yoga practice, and on your other commitments and responsibilities as well. If you want to make real changes in your physical health or in your spirituality, you should practice as often as possible. Physically, yoga can have real benefits on the body, such as increased strength, flexibility, and stamina, but you have to practice regularly to reap those benefits. Similarly, if you’re using yoga as a part of your spiritual practice, perhaps with meditation, you should also try to practice as often as possible – you’re training your mind to be calmer and more focused, the same way you’re training your body to be more flexible, and the results will only come with continued practice and work.

If you really want to make progress with yoga, you’ll find a way to practice yoga every day – with daily practice you’ll see results much more quickly. For those of us with busy schedules (for example, me, and pretty much everyone else), this can be really hard to do. If you want to make yoga a part of your life, it’s important to make room in your day to do it; on the flip side, practicing yoga all the time and letting your other obligations slide is no good either. Personally, I don’t try to force myself into a full hour-long yoga practice every day (although it would be wonderful if I could – when I do practice yoga more frequently, I feel stronger and more energetic). Instead, I try to balance my yoga practice with the rest of my life. Some days I can fit in a big practice, some days I manage 25 minutes, some days I do a few quick sun salutations, and other days I’m proud I can squeeze in a five-minute meditation. What’s important is deciding to stick with it and then making some room for yoga somewhere!

In the past, when I was practicing yoga more casually, I attended vinyasa yoga classes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for a good two years. During that time I definitely did notice that my flexibility and strength were improving, as was my technical ability to do the physical poses. Twice or three times a week seems like it could probably be a good compromise for beginning yoga students. Then, later on, you might choose to deepen your practice.

If you’re truly busy (and I’ve been there this year!), you want to try to get to yoga class once a week. Say to yourself, “Monday! Monday is yoga night!”, and then build a little wall around Mondays in your schedule. Make it a big defensive wall with a moat, even. If you’re that swamped, you need that little sliver of time to yourself, and if you don’t defend it, nobody will and you’ll lose it. Set your alarm to remind you to practice, schedule the time in Outlook and set up email reminders so you’ll leave the house on time – whatever you need to do to make it happen. Remember that this is for yourself, to keep you healthy so you can keep on giving to all the people you love. At this point, maybe yoga becomes less a fitness thing than a sanity thing, or a social “the one night I see my friends” thing, and that’s okay. Just keep it going, and keep it regular. If you have that sliver of regular practice in your life, it will be easier to expand that into a larger practice later on when things calm down.

The last answer, the answer that people don’t want to hear, is that if you don’t keep a regular practice, you won’t make progress with yoga. Period. It’s just like lifting weights or kicking soccer balls or practicing ballet dancing or even going to Bible study: if you want to make progress, to deepen your skill and knowledge, you have to practice. Maybe right now your life is so hectic that you can’t think about a regular yoga practice; maybe you’re moving to a new city and now isn’t the time for you. Heck, since starting to practice yoga eight years ago, I’ve moved six times, and three of those moves were interstate. I feel you. But if it’s important to you, find the time. Make the time for yourself. The longer you let your practice go, the harder it will be to pick it back up and get back into a regular rhythm.

When you ask, “How often should I do yoga?”, the answer should be, “As often as is practical for you.” Think through your commitments and your schedule and find a time that you can dedicate to your yoga practice, and then stick with it!

Here’s another yoga teacher’s viewpoint on how often to practice.

 

Pose of the Month: Kneeling Twist / Thread-the-Needle August 22, 2011

Filed under: Pose of the Month,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 2:12 pm
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Thread the Needle 1 - Side StretchPose Name:

Kneeling Twist / Thread-the-Needle

Sanskrit Name:

I can’t find a specific Sanskrit name for this one.

Steps:

  1. Begin on hands and knees with a neutral spine. Make sure that the knees are right below the hips and that the wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in a straight line.
  2. Inhaling, life your right arm up to the ceiling. Keeping hips centered, stretch up.
  3. Exhaling, bring the right arm down, under the body, and out under the left arm. Rest the right arm and shoulder and the right temple on the floor.
  4. Rest here, or if you want a deeper stretch, extend the left arm to the ceiling.
  5. Relax into the pose, breathing deeply.
  6. When you’re ready, bring the left arm down and plant the hand on the floor. On an inhale, unwind, lifting the right arm and stretching up toward the ceiling.
  7. Release and return to a neutral tabletop pose. Repeat the twist on the other side.

Benefits:

Twisting poses compress the internal organs, releasing toxins and cleansing the body. Twists are beneficial for abdominal health. This pose also incorporates a side stretch that opens the chest.

Contraindications:

This pose is contraindicated for students with serious back/spine injuries. Pregnant students should be cautious with any twist and may want to consider doing Cat/Cow instead.

My Experience of Kneeling Twist / Thread-the-Needle:

Before coming to my current yoga center, I rarely did this pose, but now I practice it regularly both in class and at home. J often uses this pose as part of his warm-up sequence in class, and so I’ve really come to like the pose. The twisting action and side stretch begin to wake the body up for practice and also calm the mind, readying it for practice as well. The pose is refreshing by itself and makes a good warm-up too.

Thread the Needle 2 - Twist

 

Home Yoga Class # 1 August 19, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 2:10 pm
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This week I taught my first of a regular series of free yoga classes held at my home. Our house has  a nice big enclosed front porch that’s perfect for yoga: we can fit up to six mats lined up two by two, and it’s a tight fit but it works. For the first class I had five students, a good mix – a couple of brand-new beginners and a few more experienced people who hadn’t practiced in a while.

Overall I think the class went well. There were a few logistical problems. We started late because several people had traffic trouble, but that’s easily fixed for next time – we’ll just plan to start 15 minutes later to give people more time to get here after work. One person got stuck in really bad traffic and then got so lost that she missed two-thirds of the class and had to call for directions, which was unfortunate and a little disruptive but wasn’t something we could have foreseen or avoided. Starting later next time will help, and we looked at a map together after class to make sure she knows some alternate routes to get here. I put on music at the beginning of class, but I found it distracting, and my little ipod speakers weren’t loud enough to really project to the whole room, so I won’t use music next time. We’re thinking about getting a new stereo anyway so I’ll just see how I feel about it then.

In terms of my actual teaching, I was definitely nervous. I didn’t walk around the room at all and spent more time than I’d planned demonstrating poses myself, which we didn’t have much room for. On the other hand, one of my beginners was at the front of the room and I wanted to show her what to do. Next week, I think I will arrange people more consciously, both to use the space better and to make sure the beginners have someone they can see (because if we end up with six students instead of five, there will definitely not be room for me to demonstrate poses). I still struggle with timing – how long to leave students in a pose? – but that will improve with time. There were things I neglected to mention in each pose: alignments and cues, and info about what the pose is actually stretching and why that’s good. At the end of class, several students mentioned that they’d like to be adjusted more – I was definitely holding back there, not wanting to do too much and trying to focus more on verbal cues. So adjustment is something to work on in the future, since it’s something my students want more of and something I need to practice doing.

On the positive side (see how I saved this for the end!), I think it was not a bad class at all and would have been passable if it had been taught at a real studio to paying customers. I have my “yoga teacher voice” down, and I feel like everyone could hear me well. I did give good verbal alignment cues on many poses, and I did talk about the benefits of some poses. I mentioned breathing pretty frequently (although I need to walk around more and teach ujjayi breath, because I can’t actually HEAR anyone breathing, which would help me to know that they are in fact doing so). I think I did my best teaching, surprisingly, in savasana relaxation, which is the one part I had not planned at all. I did a guided relaxation, which felt right to do in the moment, and which at least one person commented was helpful. I plan to do this again next week.

The best sign is that my students seemed to enjoy the class and feel positive about it afterwards. One of my beginners said that she really enjoyed the half sun salutes, that it seemed to flow really nicely, so that made me happy (since half salutes are becoming one of my own favorite things to do). Another person is coming to my house (west of Philly) from his office in center city, and after class will be taking the train back to center city and then catching another train home to Trenton, and seemed to judge the long commute for yoga to be abundantly worth his time. I didn’t realize that this person was coming from so far, and his excitement and commitment are really inspiring for me.

So, to sum up: I am already learning a lot from my five students! I’m excited about trying again next week!