Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

July Teacher Training Weekend: Saturday (and a little Tuesday) July 20, 2011

Filed under: teacher training,yoga,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:19 pm
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At Saturday’s teacher training session, we spent lunch and a little class time on one-on-ones, so J & N could meet with each trainee individually to see how we’re doing. The one-on-ones lasted longer than planned, so some of us had to wait and do ours during the week. (I had mine last night, Tuesday, after class, and got to enjoy a really good conversation with N that helped me clarify that, yes, I’m on the right track; yes, I’m doing the best I can right now and once things calm down in my life my practice is going to take off; and yes, I should talk more in class; and yes, my papers are really good, but you all knew that part already because you’re basically reading my papers all month long. N also says she needs to see me teach more, which I totally understand, and that I am to thwack her in the head and remind her next time I’m in one of her classes so that I can teach a pose. I told her about my practice class at the pond and she was really glad to hear that I’d done that. Again, I’ll be trying to bank some teaching practice at home once we’re more settled in to our new house. Can’t fit more than one yogi on the porch right now since there’s still a queen-sized box spring sitting on it. Which reminds me, does anyone need a queen-sized box spring?)

Our actual class lecture on Saturday was Intro to the Bhagavad Gita. We talked about the four paths of yoga:

  • Karma Yoga: the path of action
  • Raja Yoga: the path of meditation
  • Jnana Yoga: the path of wisdom/knowledge
  • Bhakti Yoga: the path of love/devotion

We also discussed the three gunas. Guna means “strand or quality”; the gunas are three moods or influences or qualities that affect pretty much everything that happens:

  • Sattva: peacefulness, calm, contentment
  • Rajas: activity, sensuality; full of desires, attachments, and enjoyments
  • Tamas: confusion, laziness, lethargy, ignorance

The four paths and the three gunas are discussed in depth in the Bhagavad Gita, which is our reading assignment for this month. You can probably all predict that you’ll be hearing a lot more about these things later this month. We also talked about karma and about the four duties of a yogi, which I’ll describe further in a later post too.

My homework for this month is to read the Bhagavad Gita and write a reflection paper on which yogic path seems to suit my personality the best, including why I think that, what about that path resonates for me, and what evidence in my life leads me to this conclusion. We’re also doing two posture write-ups this month on twists (any ol’ twist: seated, standing, or reclining). It seems like a light homework month, but I think the intention is really for us to focus on the Gita and the four paths and to think carefully about it.

I already owned a copy of the Bhagavad Gita: Stephen Mitchell’s translation. The rest of the class is reading Eknath Easwaran’s translation. At first I figured, I already have the book, I don’t need to buy another copy, but now I’m reconsidering. First, I absolutely loved Easwaran’s Passage Meditation, so I would be very interested to see his take on the Gita. Also, given that we’re being provided the time to do some real hard work on this, I think it might benefit me to read the thing twice. I’ve already started on the Mitchell translation (just finished chapter 3, I think), and I’m a fast reader, so I’ve got plenty of time. It seems like, of all the books on yoga and spirituality out there, the Bhagavad Gita is one that it might be nice to own two translations of.

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Pose of the Month: Cobra Pose July 17, 2011

Filed under: Pose of the Month,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 2:14 pm
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Pose Name:

Cobra Pose

Sanskrit Name:

Bhujangasana

Steps:

Cobra pose is frequently practiced as part of the classic sun salutation sequence. If you are practicing cobra during sun salutation, you’d move through the sequence until you come to plank pose, then gently lower your belly down to the floor. Cobra can also be practiced independently: begin by lying on the floor on your belly.

  1. Place the hands lightly on the floor, palm down, under the shoulders. Hug the elbows against the body. Legs are active but relaxed, with the tops of the feet resting on the floor.
  2. Press the legs firmly into the floor. Using only your back and abdominal muscles, lift your head and shoulders off the floor.
  3. Press your shoulders back, opening your chest. Check on your elbows, making sure they are tucked back, keeping your forearms parallel to each other. Close the eyes or gaze at an unmoving point on the floor in front of you.
  4. All the effort of the pose should be in the back, not the arms – you should be able to lift the hands up off the floor.
  5. For a deeper variation, press through the hands, begin to straighten the arms, and lift yourself into a deeper backbend. Extend the neck and stretch the crown of your head toward the ceiling.
  6. Breathe deeply, extending further into the pose on each inhalation.
  7. To exit the pose, gently lower yourself down to rest fully on the ground. If you’re practicing sun salutations, exhale and press back to downward-facing dog.

Benefits:

Cobra pose is a backbend and chest opener. It keeps the spine healthy and expands the chest.

Counterindications:

Those with lower back problems should be very gentle with this pose, practicing only the basic pose and not pressing with the arms. Those with wrist problems may want to practice a different backbend like sphinx that puts less pressure on the wrists.

My Experience of Cobra Pose:

The vinyasa yoga classes I attended in the past emphasized practicing upward-facing dog during sun salutations, so I rarely practiced either sphinx or cobra before coming to East Eagle Yoga, and never really understood before that these poses could substitute for upward dog in a sun salutation. Since beginning my practice at East Eagle, I’ve really enjoyed playing with these poses, especially because upward dog tends to make my back hurt if I hold it too long. At first I felt like I was taking a step backward by choosing cobra over up dog, but now cobra pose has become a really good alternative for me – as a gentler backbend, it allows me to work my back muscles without my arms forcing me into an uncomfortable posture. Also, practicing cobra at the beginning of my practice warms my back up and prepares it for more intensive stretches later on. I like the feeling of opening in my chest that I get when I do cobra pose. Even more, I like the feeling that I’m protecting and strengthening my spine.

Cobra Pose

 

Meditation Round-Up July 15, 2011

Filed under: checking in,meditation — R. H. Ward @ 1:32 pm
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This month has been incredibly challenging on a personal level. Two days after our last teacher training weekend ended, my husband and I bought our first house, and since then, we’ve either been packing, moving, arranging for repairs, spending hours looking for tools we never needed before at Lowe’s, learning how to do yard work, and just plain settling in. I haven’t had any time for reading other than when I’m on the train to and from the office, and my personal yoga practice has suffered too. Add to that the fact that this was a short yoga month with just three weeks between teacher training weekend sessions, so it’s been difficult for me to complete all my homework this month, and with all the chaos, difficult to see whether the meditation was having any effect in my life.

However, I do feel like I’ve made some progress with meditation this month. I have meditated every single day: even if I was just sitting down for four minutes in a room full of boxes, I still did it. Most days, I was able to do a little yoga or basic stretching before meditation, and every day I’ve done some sort of pranayama before meditation. I feel really glad that I’ve been able to make this a priority.

During this month, I’ve practiced either counting meditation or passage meditation. When I know I only have a few minutes, counting meditation has been a good option because it only takes a few minutes to count down from fifty; it’s like a built-in timer. For the most part, I have been able to keep my mind relatively on track during counting meditation; I’ve had some distractions, but never so much that I lose my place in the count. I’ve become amazed by how many thoughts I’m able to have between exhales! Staying focused on the breath and the count is difficult, especially with so many tasks on my mind this month, but I’ve mostly been able to stick with it.

I’ve also practiced passage meditation. With so little time available to read spiritual books or to meditate at all, I chose a line from a Rumi poem as my passage and have just stuck with that – it’s short enough that I feel like I can get somewhere with it in the few minutes I have available to meditate, but long enough that there’s good spiritual content to get somewhere with. Meditating on the passage has been interesting in different ways. Occasionally I’ve caught myself daydreaming in the background while the words of the passage float on the surface; once I found myself getting sleepy and substituting in other words and images that weren’t part of the passage. Overall, though, I find the passage technique to be really helpful for me in relaxing my mind and having something to focus on. The passage technique has also led me to consider different interpretations of my passage. For example, it occurred to me that one phrase that I had thought was about worship could just as easily be about service; I realized that another phrase that I’d thought was about natural physical beauty could also be interpreted as being about kindness. These realizations have carried beyond my meditation practice and led me to consider how I practice service and kindness in my life.

I’ve also found myself thinking about more spiritual topics this month. Usually when I’m moving, I get very caught up in the physical tasks that need to be done, and I have been caught up in those things, but I’ve also been thinking about more spiritual concepts. For example, I reflected on patience: how slowing down is mentioned in almost every text we’ve read, and how slowing down and being patient can help us in our daily lives. I also did some thinking about striving for excellence, and reflecting on how teacher training has influenced my thoughts, opinions, and actions in this realm. My reading in the yoga sutras this month has also affected my spiritual reflections. I’ve also been thinking a lot about practicing non-attachment (especially as I pack all my worldly possessions into boxes and carry them around).

Overall, in spite of all the personal challenges in my life this month, I feel good about the time I was able to create in my schedule for meditation practice, and I’m happy about the progress I’ve made. I look forward to continuing the journey.

 

June Teacher Training Weekend: Saturday: pratyahara, meditation, and teaching practice June 29, 2011

In Saturday’s teacher training class, we continued our discussion of relaxation and moved on to pratyahara and meditation.

Pratyahara refers to the drawing-in of the senses. It’s a gateway to higher levels of consciousness, which makes sense when you think about it, because it’s our senses that distract us from meditation and spiritual practice. We want to look out the window, we hear a strange sound, we adjust our clothing or shift around, something smells funny, and it all leads to distraction, whether you’re in a church or on your yoga mat. Our senses exist to protect us and help us to survive, but in the modern day and age, we rarely need to rely on our senses for survival anymore. Drawing in the senses, blocking out the outside world, can help us to focus on our meditation or spiritual practice.

J gave a great talk on meditation as well. Meditation begins with concentration, and we actually start meditation right in the middle of yoga practice as we concentrate on our asana postures. Then we take that concentration and apply it to focusing our minds. This month, I’ll be talking a lot about concentration and meditation as I practice these things every day. Here are this month’s homework projects:

  • Read the book Passage Meditation by Eknath Easwaran
  • Read book II of the Yoga Sutras (we’ve read some of this; just need to finish whatever we haven’t done yet)
  • Practice meditation daily
  • Keep a journal of my meditation practice; write a reflection paper based on the experience
  • Write up a guided relaxation sequence
  • Pose of the Month write-ups: two backbends

When I first heard the homework assignments, I was excited because I’ve wanted to do more with meditation for a long time. Then J began to talk about how important it is to practice meditation every single day, always at the same time and in the same place. This month, F and I are going to be moving to a new home – there won’t be a same time, same place for a while, at least not every day. As J talked, I began to feel discouraged before I even began. I asked J for advice, and he said, “Then practice meditation sitting with your boxes.” He said not to let the situation get in the way of my practice, and to focus on appreciating the boxes – after all, they mean we’re moving to a beautiful new home! I felt so much better and was glad I’d said something.

Saturday’s class was a big help to me because I always feel like I’m doing meditation wrong. I read a lot of books by Buddhist monks and other spiritual authors, and they always say that it’s difficult to calm the mind, but I figured, a Buddhist monk has no experience with the insanity going on in my brain. I thought I must be terrible at meditation because I keep getting so distracted. Now, though, I feel a little more reassured that getting distracted is part of the experience – that’s just what happens, and it happens to everybody. I’m not doing it wrong, and I’m actually doing it not too badly. I have a variety of meditation exercises to try this month, and I’ll share them all with you here.

At the end of Saturday’s class, we did some yoga teaching practice. J told us to pair up, but my pair decided to join with another pair into a group of four. This meant that none of us got quite as much teaching practice – instead of teaching half of the time, we each taught a quarter of the time – but the experience more than made up for this. It was really good to work with my classmates and hear their voices as teachers. We’re all getting much more confident! We also had the freedom this time to teach poses that aren’t necessarily part of J’s or N’s usual repertoire. Sarah gave us some challenging standing poses to do, and I taught some of my favorite seated poses. We’re all getting there! I don’t know if I’ll have time to practice teaching on friends and family this month, but I hope I get the chance soon.

 

Pose of the Month: Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold June 26, 2011

Filed under: Pose of the Month,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:59 pm
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Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold 1

Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold 2

Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold 3

Pose Name:

Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold

Sanskrit Name:

Prasarita Padottanasana

Steps:

  1. Begin in mountain pose (tadasana). Step your right foot back into a wide-legged stance. Your feet should be approximately 3-4 ft. apart – about the length of one of your legs.
  2. Point both feet towards the side wall and face the wall. The feet can be parallel or slightly pigeon-toed, but should not angle outwards.
  3. Placing hands on hips, come into a slight backbend, extending the front line of the body. Then keep your front torso long while bending forward from the hips.
  4. As your torso begins to come parallel to the floor, drop your hands to the floor right below your shoulders. Begin to walk your fingertips back  between your feet. If you have the flexibility, walk your hands back until your forearms are perpendicular to the floor and your upper arms parallel. Be sure to keep the arms parallel and don’t let your elbows wing out to the sides. If it’s comfortable, rest the top of your head on the floor.
  5. For an alternate stretch, you can grab the big toes with the first two fingers and thumb of each hand; wrap hands around ankles; or clasp hands behind your back and lift the arms up.
  6. Press your weight into the whole foot: don’t let the weight rest in the outside edges of the feet but press through the inner foot, and keep your weight balanced between ball and heel. Breathe deeply, continuing to extend and bend deeper, keeping the back flat and the front of the body long.
  7. Bring your hands back to center, right under your shoulders. Slowly walk your feet in until they’re hip-width apart. Bend the knees, clasp your hands around opposite elbows, and relax, shaking your head to release tension in your neck.
  8. Slowly roll up to standing, one vertebrae at a time, keeping knees bent. Your head should be the last thing to come up. Close your eyes and breathe here for a moment before returning to your practice.

Benefits:

Prasarita increases strength in legs and feet and stretches inner legs and the backs of the knees. Forward folds are beneficial for digestion and the internal organs, and can help to calm the mind. The pose can also be helpful for mild backaches and headaches.

Counterindications:

Students with lower back problems or knee problems should take care and work very gently with this pose. Pregnant students should be careful in any forward bend. Those with balance problems may want to practice at the wall and should come up slowly; those with low blood pressure should move very slowly into and out of the pose to avoid getting dizzy.

My Experience with Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold:

Prasarita has always been difficult for me – I find it painful on my outer calves and outer ankles, and also on the backs of my knees. Because of this discomfort, I don’t usually practice prasarita at home, so I decided to challenge myself by choosing this pose to work on this month.

I was surprised to find another source of discomfort in this pose that I hadn’t known about: I realized that the pose makes me uncomfortable because my head is so close to the floor. I know that many yogis come into headstand from this posture, and I don’t yet have the confidence to do headstand away from the wall. I think prasarita makes me uncomfortable for this reason, because it brings me close to a pose that makes me nervous.

Practicing prasarita this month more intensively hasn’t caused any great changes in my experience of the pose – I still feel pain in my legs, and I still feel uncomfortable in the pose. However, I think I have a better understanding of my feelings now and can work more mindfully on the pose in the future.

 

books: Moola Bandha: The Master Key, by Swami Buddhananda June 25, 2011

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:58 pm
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Moola Bandha: The Master Key, by Swami BuddhanandaMoola Bandha: The Master Key describes a system of muscle exercises and locks that lead to a release of pranic energy in the body and ultimately to spiritual enlightenment. Swami Buddhananda defines a “bandha” as a bind, restraint, or lock. The idea is that “by locking or contracting certain muscles on the physical level a subtle process of ‘unlocking’ goes on simultaneously on mental and pranic levels” (2). By working with bandhas in conjunction with pranayama breathing exercises, a variety of physical benefits are said to occur, calming the heart rate and blood pressure, harmonizing the function of bodily systems, and creating a sense of relaxation. Bandha practice is also said to improve flow of pranic energy in the body, activating the chakras and leading to the release of kundalini energy and to heightened states of consciousness.

The most important of these muscle locks or bandhas is moola bandha, or perineal contraction, the subject of this book. “Moola” means root or foundation, and moola bandha refers to the contraction of the muscles at the “root” of the spine/trunk at the perineum. The physical contraction of moola bandha is useful in treating problems of the lower abdomen such as digestive or sexual disorders. However, moola bandha also involves a spiritual/psychic contraction of the mooladhara chakra. This has the effect of activating our latent sexual energy and channeling it upward for spiritual awakening.

The first half of the book gives background on bandhas and moola bandha in particular, as well as on mooladhara chakra and kundalini energy; it situates moola bandha in the context of ancient scripture, discusses physical aspects and pranic effects of moola bandha, and describes how moola bandha can be used in a therapeutic context. Thus prepared, the reader can move on to the second half of the book, which details several practices of moola bandha, including specific instructions and illustrations. This provides the real meat of the book – everything that came before is simply building to this point. The section on practices opens with techniques appropriate for any beginner, then moves on to gradually more advanced techniques as the aspirant progresses in her practice. Attention is paid to the anatomic differences between men and women as applied to the practice of moola bandha, making this book a good resource for truly any spiritual seeker.

(From a personal standpoint, I realized while reading this book that I won’t be making any forward progress on my spiritual journey, at least not through moola bandha, until I can get over my inner 12-year-old boy. This book is about clenching all the muscles in pelvic region! The author uses words like “heighten”, “sensitivity”, “stimulation”, and “contraction” all on the same page (65). Kundalini energy is depicted as a big snake. The beginner practices instruct one to focus on the genitals – really focus your awareness intensely, breathing into the genitals – and then to contract and relax the genitals rhythmically. After this practice, one is intended to go on to meditation. Meditation! After sitting and focusing intently on the genitals, contracting them rhythmically, who’s going to be in the mood for meditation next? (The short answer here is: probably not me.) On the other hand, improved muscle control in the genital region can’t really ever be a bad thing, so I figure I’ll try out the exercises. Whether it leads me to becoming a calmer, more enlightened person or not, my husband won’t be complaining.)

 

Pose of the Month: Ardha Chandrasana / Half Moon June 24, 2011

Filed under: Pose of the Month,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:42 pm
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Pose Name:

Half Moon Pose

Sanskrit Name:

Ardha Chandrasana

Steps:

  1. Begin in a wide-legged stance, right foot facing toward the front of the room, arms spread wide. (For example, it can flow nicely to go from a wide-legged pose like Warrior 2 or Triangle pose into Half Moon.)
  2. Cartwheel the arms down so that the hands come to the floor on either side of the front right foot. Walk the hands forward a bit, about 6-12 inches in front of the foot.
  3. Press into the hands and the right foot, straighten the right leg, and lift the back foot off the floor. Try to lift the left leg to hip height.
  4. Extend actively through the left foot to keep the left leg raised up strongly, but don’t lock the left knee.
  5. When you feel steady, lift the left hand off the floor. You can bring the hand to your left hip and open the chest; to go deeper, raise the left arm straight into the air.
  6. Now you’re balancing on your right foot and right hand, with your left leg and left arm making the shape of a half moon. Most of your weight should be on the right foot, with your hand just providing balance as you need it.
  7. Breathe here. Focus your gaze on a point in front of you, and use your ujjayi breath to help balance. If you feel steady, you can raise your eyes up to look at your left hand.
  8. Bring the left hand down to the floor, then gently bring the left leg down. You can come back into your wide-legged stance, or you can bring the left foot together with the right foot at the top of the mat.
  9. Come back up to standing, bringing hands to a prayer at your heart.
  10. Complete the pose on the other side.

Benefits:

Ardha Chandrasana is excellent for improving balance. Because it works the standing foot strongly, it’s good for the health of the foot. The pose also benefits the core muscles and improves strength in the raised arm and leg. Half moon pose can also help with conditions like indigestion, constipation, menstrual pain, fatigue, and backache.

Counterindications:

Half moon pose may be quite difficult for someone with balance problems. Such students can try to practice the pose at the wall for added stability. This pose also puts some strain on the standing leg, so those with leg injuries should take care. If you have neck problems, keep the gaze focused on the floor and keep the neck long and even. Low blood pressure is another counterindication for this pose.

My Experience with Half Moon Pose:

I’ve hated half moon pose for years. I tend to dislike all the forward-bending balance poses: half moon, warrior 3, and standing split are all very uncomfortable, so this month I decided to challenge myself and practice half moon regularly. I’ve even been practicing the pose in the kitchen while cooking dinner! In addition to my home practice, I also attended N’s Tuesday night class several times this month, where she had us do a series of balance poses strung together, including half moon. These sequences were really difficult for me – when doing one or two balance poses and then coming down, I can do well, but several all at once without a rest was challenging.

I think that one thing I don’t like about poses like half moon is that the forward bending action makes me feel off-balance. In poses like tree or dancer, I’m standing up tall and can see what’s going on around me, but in a forward-bending balance, I’m relying on just my leg, and if I fall, my head is a lot closer to the ground. I wobble much more in half moon than I do in an upright pose like tree, even though in half moon I have two points of contact with the floor. I think the change in my center of gravity, plus the discomfort of trying to balance while bent over with my head close to the ground, have combined to make me dislike half moon pose and the other poses like it.

Working on half moon pose this month, I feel like I’ve identified why I don’t like the pose as well as the areas where I feel physical discomfort – the pose seems to put a lot of strain on my standing leg, for example. After practicing the pose frequently this month, I do feel stronger and more balanced in it. I want to cultivate a feeling of lightness and ease in the pose. Before this month, I didn’t like the pose so it was never a part of my home practice; from now on, I want to continue to practice the pose regularly and see where it takes me.

(Photo artistry by F. The yoga room is too small for him to fit all of me in one shot, so he took a bunch and collaged me together.)