Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Healthy Knees

Worried about your achy, cranky kness? Yoga can help strengthen and stabilize the body in ways that help keep knees happy. Done incorrectly, though, yoga can also exacerbate issues in these tender joints.

Here's a good article by yoga teacher Doug Keller that explains the basics of healthy knee alignment, as well as strategies for promoting knee health while practicing yoga. And here's another good article by yoga teacher Julie Gudmestad from Yoga Journal.

Roger Cole always offers a wealth of information and inspiration, and this article on the knees is no exception. And if you still haven't had your fill, here's one last article by Catherine Guthrie. (I'm a particular fan of her advice to ease cranky knees by wedging a rolled-up washcloth into the crooks of the knees when they are deeply flexed, as in child's pose,)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

In-The-Moment Stress-Management Strategies


Wise teachers from many spiritual traditions tell us that while we don't always have a control over how life unfolds, we do have control over how we manage it. We are in charge of the spirit with which we face our life and the attitude with which we live it.

In other words, we don't always have a choice about the cards we are dealt in this life, but we do have a choice about how we play them.

Remembering this isn't always easy, especially when we are facing difficulty and feeling stressed. Fortunately, wise teachers from many different traditions have cultivated a range of practices and strategies that can help us manage our lives as gracefully and as happily as possible.

Some of these practices are simple and can be done any time and any where. My favorite on-the-spot and in-the-moment stress management strategies - ones that can be practiced in an office, in a car, at the doctor's office, or even walking down the street - follow.

1. Exhale

When we are stressed, we tend to hold the breath or half-breathe, panting like a dog in a fast and shallow manner. My first survival strategy when I'm facing stress is to exhale. Not only does this help relax the body, but it invites the nervous system to settle into a more restful state.

It's simple. Follow the breath for a few rounds. When you're ready, simply lengthen an exhalation a little more than usual. When you think you've reached the end of your out-breath, exhale just a little bit more. Imagine that you have just one last candle on your birthday cake that you're trying to extinguish. At the end of this one out-breath, let go of all control over the breath, inhaling and exhaling freely and naturally for a three or four easy breaths.

After a few moments, again consciously lengthen a single exhalation. Sometimes it helps to purse the lips as you exhale fully, as if you were breathing out through a straw. Sometimes it even helps to accompany the out-breath with a long sigh.

Repeat this pattern - breathing naturally and freely for several breaths, and then consciously lengthening a single exhalation - for as long as you like. If it helps, keep doing it. When in doubt, breathe out!


2. Practice Mindfulness

Much of the anxiety we create in our lives is generated by thoughts about the past or future. Even as our minds are spinning out in fear and stress, the very moment before us is usually manageable, and is often even beautiful. Future-thinking and past-spinning deny us the opportunity to experience the life and love right before our very eyes.

Life is lived in moments. And at the very least, each present moment often offers the opportunity to live fully and to express our love. The trick is to keep the mind in the present moment - the only place life can be truly lived. This is what mindfulness is all about.

When you feel your mind spinning out of control, spend a few moments focusing completely on the experience of the present. Notice the sounds around you, the colors you see, the quality of the breath, the feelings in your body. Be with the moment, with as much of a spirit of openness and ease as possible.

When you catch your mind spinning into the future or reeling into the past, gently lure it back to raw ingredients of the present. If you need help getting started with mindfulness, finish this sentence: "Right now, in the here-and-now, I am aware of..."

The more you can embrace each passing moment with tenderness and openness - even if you don't particularly like the moment - the less stress your body will carry. And quite possibly, your calm and abiding mindfulness of the present will help calm and center those around you, too.


3. Move Gently
As a longtime student and teacher of yoga, I am keenly aware of how deeply we hold our emotions in our bodies. I am also convinced that by consciously relaxing and mindfully moving the body, we can discharge much of the stress we carry, and move and breathe in more supportive and tender ways.

There are lots of ways to consciously move the body - yoga, running, swimming, tai-chi, walking down the road and back - that release bound-up energy in the body and keep the body strong and vital.

These aren't exactly do-anywhere, on-the-spot practices, though. Fortunately, it is still possible to relax through movement when you're sitting at a computer, waiting at the doctor's office, standing in line at the grocery, or even lying in bed. It is possible in just about any situation to quietly do a gentle twist, or to arch and round the back, to nestle the chin toward the chest, or to roll the shoulders forward, up, back and down. These gentle moments can help relax the body, free the breath, and settle you into the moment.

You can even move "secretly" by practicing progressive relaxation. Draw your attention to a specific part of the body, tense the muscles in that area for a few seconds, and then release as much as you possibly can. Repeat this a few times, and when you're ready move on to another body part.

You might move to the places in the body where you feel the most tension. Or you could start at the bottom of the body and work your way to the top. You could draw your attention to the feet, scrunching up the toes and flexing the ankles for a breath or two, and then softening them completely. And then tense and relax the lower legs, the upper legs, the hips, the belly, the shoulders, the hands, the arms, the neck, the jaw, and the face.


4. Practice Love
Each moment, no matter how anxious, offers us the opportunity to practice love. We can do this in obvious ways, like telling people how much we care for them, for example, or helping them in some tangible way.

We can also do this quietly, secretly, through loving-kindness practice. All it requires is that we silently offer wishes of goodwill and happiness to those around us. Sometimes we offer this unconditional friendliness toward one specific loved one. Sometimes we offer this tenderness toward ourselves. Sometimes we offer send out wishes for love and peace to everyone, every where.

Some spiritual traditions offer specific words or prayers or mantras that can help this. Buddhist meditators, for example, sometimes use some variation of the following words: "May we be filled with loving-kindness. May we be well. May we be peaceful and at ease. May we be happy."

When my mind is on the verge of meltdown - and when all of the strategies I've already offered here fail me - I remember to "rest the fearful mind in the cradle of loving-kindness." I send wishes of love and tenderness to myself, a creature doing her best to live and love in happiness and clarity, and to help others do the same. This never fails to soften me.

From there, I often offer silent wishes for love and kindness toward someone in my life who may be suffering. Usually I begin with the traditional loving-kindness phrases, but then often I add my own, tailoring my words to the person I am holding in my heart. "May you be safe. May you be strong. May you know how deeply you are loved. May you be happy. May you know peace. May you shine."

Depending on the moment, I may offer up my well-wishing to people around me - family members, friends, even strangers near and far. And then, I cut right to the chase: offering my sincere wishes for happiness and peace to everyone, everywhere.

I like this practice of silently spreading kindness because it gives the body and my mind something positive and helpful to do, especially when the moment feels helpless. I like it because it doesn't offer false promises or pretend that things are different from the way they are, but still it allows us express our heartfelt kindness and care. And most of all it reminds us that even when all else fails, even when we are stressed, there is always love.

***
I have written about these practices in more detail in the past, and have gathered up a few links if you are moved to read more. To learn about softening the breath and remembering to breathe like a baby, click here. To read a little more about mindfulness in daily life, look here or try this essay. To read about how yoga and movement can promote happiness, read this. To read one exploration of one difficult moment saved by loving-kindness, look here. Enjoy!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Roots of Love


Our problem is that we swim at the surface of life.
The plans, the food, the chores.
The schedules, the running just to keep up.

The secret though, lies beneath.
In the depths.
Dive to the bottom of the ocean.
Trace your life back to its beginning.

Do you see what I see?
The ocean is made of love.
And so is your life.

Your life is made of love.
A wish for happiness, for love,
is the root and the cause
of everything you do.

Hold fast to those roots of your life.
Your life is made of love.

~ C. C. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Metta on the Trail


We're vacationing in the Virgin Islands, and my older son is finally big enough for some real adventure. I reluctantly agree to take him down the Cinnamon Bay Trail, which starts high up on the island of St. John and winds precipitously downward through the forest to the ocean below. I'm wary of the sharp rocks and scorpions, but I'm doing my best to model faith and fearlessness for my son, who is far hardier than I am when it comes to the natural world.

He dashes ahead down the path like a baby mountain goat, stumbling but staying upright. I lag behind, calling out reminders to be careful, to slow down, to watch his step, to steer clear of wasps and webs. My mind is filled with phantoms and fears, wondering what we'll do if he stumbles and breaks his arm, or if trip and sprain an ankle, or if we're bitten by bugs or get lost or wilt from heat and exhaustion.

I'm a yoga teacher and so I offer myself the first instructions I give my students when they're anxious: breathe, relax, soften into the moment. I've already tipped too far toward panic, though, for these words to do much good. I try telling myself that everything will be just fine, and though I know that's likely, I can't be one hundred percent sure it will be true. I rummage through my brain, looking for some deep wisdom to carry us to the trailhead below.

A few breaths pass. And then up from the depths of my belly I hear a voice whispering words I heard long ago: "Rest the fearful mind in the cradle of loving-kindness."

I sigh and I soften. Yes. Of course. I can do that!

I offer loving-kindness toward myself, a mother filled with love but rocked by fear. "May I be safe and protected from harm," I whisper. "May I be peaceful and at ease." I realize this hike may be manageable after all.

I can't guarantee my son will be free of pain and suffering - on this trail or in the life that lies ahead - but I can send him my love and my wishes for wellbeing. "May you be well," I whisper, sending my thoughts toward his skinny body still bounding down the trail. "May you be happy."

My feet grow steadier still, and words and wishes spill from my brain in tune with my steps. May I be brave. May you be strong. May our lives be filled with beauty and adventure. May we manage with grace whatever we find ahead.

We round a corner and the trail tumbles steeply before us. Hikers appear, heading in the opposite direction. They look tired and sweaty. I send goodwill their way, too. May your legs be strong, I offer. May your breath be steady. May your lives, too, unfold with ease.

And so our hike passes without trauma - no slips and no scorpions. Step after step, my son chirps his happy thoughts and I whisper my loving wishes. By the time we near the end of the trail. I am happy, I realize, despite my fears.

I am so happy, in fact, that by last few steps of our hike I send out wishes for peace and safety not just for us and our fellow hikers, but to everyone and everything around us. I even send goodwill toward the trees and the rocks and, yes, even the scary, scuttling creatures that have thankfully left us alone.

I smile when I realize that without intending to, I've worked my way through all of the traditional phases of Buddhist metta - or lovingkindness -  meditation. Somehow on that rocky trail downward - filled with fears that never materialized in the end - I remembered that even when all else fails, there is always love.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Resources for Beginning Yoga Students

MY VERY FAVORITE YOGA BOOKS
With its beautiful imagery and description, Awakening the Spine by Vanda Scaravelli is my all-time favorite yoga book. Rather than describing details about yoga poses, this book offers a poetic exploration of how yoga relates to life, nature, art and joy. Yoga: Mastering the Basics by Sandra Anderson and Rolf Sovik is my favorite introductory text, offering a comprehensive overview of the philosophy and practice of yoga along with beautiful photos of many fundamental postures. Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann, one of my favorite yoga teachers, offers a beautiful explanation of both the art and science of yoga and meditation. Light on Yoga by BKS Iyangar, considered the bible for those who study Iyengar yoga, offers photos and descriptions of hundreds of classic postures. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by TKV Desikachar offers a mix of philosophy and practice as seen through the eyes of one of the foremost yogis of the century.

INTRODUCTORY YOGA BOOKS
In addition to the Yoga: Mastering the Basics (see above), my favorite picks for beginners are Yoga: The Iyengar Way by Silva Mehta, which offers clear, step-by-step instructions for a range of beginning postures, Yoga: Mind, Body and Spirit by Donna Farhi and 30 Essential Yoga Poses by Judith Lasater.

DVDs
Although I'm not a big fan of practicing in front of a screen, I highly recommend Yoga Journal’s first DVDs taught by Patricia Walden, especially Yoga for Beginners and Yoga for Relaxation. I also  recommend the Bodywisdom Media DVDs featuring Barbara Benagh, one of my all-time favorite teachers, starting with Yoga for Beginners and Yoga for Stress  Relief. And I also recommend to documentaries about the teachings of two innovative yoga teachers: Vanda Scaravelli: On Yoga and The Feminine Unfolding: An Exploration of Yoga with Angela Farmer (which I helped Angela create).

YOGA FOR SPECIAL INTERESTS
Relax and Renew by Judith Lasater is devoted exclusively to restorative poses that quiet the mind and body. I highly recommend it to anyone who especially likes the quiet, supported poses we do in class. Back Care Basics by Mary Pullig Schatz provides detailed advice for those seeking to understand and ease chronic back pain. The Women's Book of Yoga and Health by Linda Sparrowe and Patricia Walden offers an excellent and comprehensive approach to yoga for women of all ages. Conscious Breathing by Gay Hendricks and The Breathing Book by Donna Farhi are indispensable resources for those who want to learn more about healthy, natural breathing. Yoga for Children by Mary Stewart and The Mindful Child by Susan Kaiser Greenland are my favorite books about yoga and meditation for children.

EXPERIENTIAL ANATOMY
Interested in exploring the structure and function of the body from inside out? I recommend The Thinking Body by Mabel Todd, BodyStories: A Guide to Experiential Anatomy by Andrea Olsen, Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain, and Dynamic Alignment through Imagery by Eric Franklin. For an introduction to Body-Mind Centering, an innovative system of movement and exploration focused on integration and wellbeing, explore Sensing, Feeling and Action by Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen and Wisdom of the Body Moving by Linda Hartley.

BUDDHISM AND MEDITATION
My favorite down-to-earth introductions to Buddhism and meditation include A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield, Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn) and It’s Easier Than You Think by Sylvia Boorstein). Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron’s books and audiotapes, including Start Where You Are, The Wisdom of No Escape and When Things Fall Apart, are beautiful reminders of the importance of acceptance, kindness and wisdom in our lives. The Posture of Meditation and Aligned, Relaxed and Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness, both by Will Johnson, offer clear and comprehensive information about the relation between posture and mindfulness in sitting meditation.  And the works of Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano, starting with Landscapes of Wonder, offer a poetic vision of the spiritual lessons we can glean through deeper communion with the natural world.

POETRY
The Essential Rumi and The Illuminated Rumi, both by Coleman Barks, are beautiful introductions to the poems of this great Sufi master. The Gift: Poetry of Hafiz by David Landinsky is also a great pick. Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell is pure poetry, offering ages-old wisdom on living simply, from the center, with honesty, acceptance and peace. For modern poetry that speaks to the life of the spirit, I highly recommend anything by poets Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, William Stafford and David Whyte - start with New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, Collected Poems by Wendell Berry, Aimless Love by Billy Collins, Ask Me by William Stafford and The House of Belonging by David Whyte.

SOURCES FOR PROPS
Looking for yoga props online? My favorite resources are barefootyoga.com, huggermugger.com, manduka.com and prana.com.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Auric Egg

Once you learn the rules of the poses, the next logical step is to begin breaking those rules in the name of curiosity, creativity and the exploration of life that flows through you and the universe. When I'm feeling particularly rule-bound and stuck in rigidity, I play the following game: I anchor one part of my body into the earth and challenge the rest of the body to move in as many ways, shapes and directions as possible.

In dog pose, for example, I anchor my feet and hands onto the ground, and then I move the rest of my body as far as I can in all directions. I shift my hips forward and then backward and then from side to side. I drop down onto my knees or come all the way down onto my belly (no one said I couldn't do that!). I move quickly, slowly, or sometimes barely at all. Along the way I find myself rolling through many known yoga poses - child's pose, cobra pose, chatturanga dandasana - and creating hundreds more of my own. 

If I'm on a roll I might shift the rule a bit, committing just three points of contact with the floor instead of four. That frees up a leg or an arm to sweep up and down and over and around, exploring that space in all directions around me. It's a yogic form of the game Twister, I suppose.

This practice helps both my mind and my body get unstuck. It fosters clear breathing and creative thinking. It's the ultimate out-of-the-box (or perhaps out-of-the-pose) exploration. It inspires me and wakes me up. At first the possibilities seem minimal, but soon enough I realize that the possibilities are endless. How rule-bound we so easily become, how stuck in our ways, how flat. It doesn't need to be that way!

This is not traditional yoga, to be sure, but it is true to yoga's aim of clearing and balancing the body and mind in a way that fosters deep communion with all of life. As yoga teacher Angela Farmer once explained, this is where all the yoga poses come from anyway: this pure and unbridled exploration of energy rolling through the body and the cosmos. We're just channels for the energy, and there are endless ways to channel life.

In class I sometimes offer a simple version of this energy exploration that I've nicknamed the Auric Egg because we use our hands to explore the space around us, leaving us cocooned in an egglike shape of awareness.   

The Auric Egg

Stand in tadasana, or mountain pose. Breathe freely and easily, letting your awareness spill out in all directions around you. Root your feet firmly into the ground, and commit to keeping both feet right where they are. 

Now imagine that your hands are paintbrushes and, without uprooting your feet, "paint" all of the space around you. Sweep your hands as far up overhead as you can, and then around to the left and to the right and down to the ground in front of you. Touch your hands into the space very close to your body and then very far away. Don't forget to paint down low by your feet. And don't forget the space behind you. Imagine a child coloring in a shape traced out onto a sheet of paper. Make sure you color in every bit of space. 

Notice how the mind begins to sense into the space around you. Notice how the body is being moved through its full range of movements - twists, forward bends, back bends, lateral stretches - without you having to march through a catalog of set movements. Notice any feelings of confusion or wariness or perhaps delight. It helps to think like a kid when you do this. Or better yet, recruit a few kids to do this with you - they'll show you lots of ways to move you haven't yet considered.

Continue moving in this way as long as it energizes and enlivens you. Notice the shape you've formed with all your painting. Is there any part of this egg of awareness you've left untouched? Just in front of the belly, perhaps, or perhaps between the legs, or behind the nape of the neck? And have you instinctively painted your egg any particular color? (I sometimes ask students in class and always love their responses: blue, gold, green, white, rainbows and even sparkles.)

When you've had enough - five minutes or so, perhaps - return to a quiet tadasana. Notice what has changed. Notice the quality of the breath, the feeling of the feet on the earth, and the space around you. Do you feel taller, fuller, more awake and alive? And can you sense a deeper connection with the world around you (especially the space behind you), a sense perhaps that your vitality - your sense of you - shines out beyond the boundaries of your skin?

As you move through the rest of your yoga practice notice what effect this exploration has had upon you. You may want to continue this free-form movement with different sets of rules. (Ground the shoulders, for example or ground one leg and one arm.) Or you may use traditional poses as a starting point, and then exploring the limits and possibilities when you begin softening their boundaries just a bit. (Start out in trikonasana, triangle pose, for example, and then let the arms roam free and see what arm variations you can come up with.) Stay on the watch for any feelings or "rightness" or openness when you've opened up the body in a way that helps life woosh through it freely.

Alternatively, you could move into a more typical asana practice of well-formed shapes. Be curious about how the experience of freeing up your body in tadasana has shifted your experience of the more static and rule-bound poses. On the outside you may appear still, but on the inside you will likely be riding ever-changing waves of subtle movement and breath. And you will likely be more deeply aware of the beautiful ways your body and your mind commune with the space around you.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Awareness Meditation

Not long ago, a yoga friend and I shared memories of wide-ranging yoga and meditation practices we have loved through the years. And then we bolstered each other's memories of yoga and meditation practices we had forgotten. We wished we had written some of our favorites down, not just to keep them fresh in our minds but also to share them with others.

Our conversation inspired me to write down some of my favorite practices, for you and for me. I'm starting with a simple awareness practice that is offered in some form in many meditation traditions all around the world.

Awareness Meditation

The instructions are simple: sit, stand, lie or move quietly with an attitude of friendly openness and receptivity. Breathe, relax and soften. And then just pay attention to the world around you, fully experiencing the sensations as you notice them.

Your job is to welcome all sensations with openness and a welcome spirit. The idea here is to become one beautiful tangle of nerve endings whose job is to receive the news of the world. The idea here is also not to get to tangled up in this news - to not build stories about them or to judge them. You simply receive with gentle and loving awareness.

In the beginning, it can be helpful to gently name the sensations as they enter your field of awareness. This gives the mind a little something to hang its hat on as you delve into the experience of life. The meditation goes something like this: birdsong-birdsong, breath-breath, sweet tea-sweet-tea, thought-thought, warmth-warmth. Sunlight, exhale, heaviness, tea, shade. Worry, plan, birdsong, breath. Bunny in the yard! Regret, softness, inhale, ease.

As you cultivate this practice, try more and more to break experience down into its most basic energetic sensations. When you notice that you are feeling tired, for example, ask yourself what tired feels like in the body. Tired might become  heavy, dark, dense, cold. Anxious might become fluttery, hot, busy, breathless. Reducing experience to its rawest ingredients - to its basic energetic qualities - cultivates what the Buddhists call "bare attention," and puts us into clear and deep relationship with all of life.

As your mind acclimates to the practice, you may be able to let go of the process of naming the experiences (planning-planning, slamming door-slamming door, bunny-bunny) and simply float in the experience of life in the here-and-now in a more nameless way. If you're lucky, and if your mind and the world cooperate, with each passing moment you may find the sharp boundaries of your skin softening, and you may feel more and more immersed in the experience of life. You may even find your sense of self dissolving, leaving you feeling like a beacon of life and of light, an instrument through which the music of the world is played.

This exploration is portable - you can do it standing in line at the grocery, lying on a beach, walking in the woods, sitting at your computer. And because all experiences are welcome equally, you can do it when you're happy, when you're despairing, when you're passionate and when you are cosmically confused. This Simple Awareness practice can serve as a powerful way to anchor yourself to the experience of life and to reconnect to the energies and delights of the vast and beautiful universe, of the experience of being fully alive in the world.