Empty Your Cup

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

We live a stone’s throw from the university, all the signs of the new semester are upon us.  Freshmen are moving into the dorms and are perusing the campus with a mix of excitement and nervousness, ready to take their first hesitant steps as adults.  The band is rehearsing in the quad alongside the cheerleaders, who are practicing their routines to the music in preparation for the first home football game.  In my own little world, I am revamping syllabi, rearranging desks, and getting ready for my first day back to school since starting my maternity leave nearly six months ago. 

To quote one of my favorite shows, “Battlestar Gallactica,” “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”  Every year, the freshman come.  Every year, I prepare for the upcoming semester.  Living this kind of cyclical, repetitive life, it can be easy to become complacent, or bored, or even haughty.  It’s easy to say, “I know how to do this,” or, “I know how this is going to play out.”  And when that happens, when we become such experts that nothing is new or exciting anymore, that’s when the repetitive becomes dull, and life becomes nothing more than a boring series of events that are bound to happen again and again.

When life verges on the repetitive, it’s useful to turn to Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.  In his beautiful masterpiece Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki urges us to retain our original mind, the mind of a beginner, which is already rich and sufficient.  A beginner’s mind is always open, always ready to learn, always unlimited.  If we want to learn anything, we have to rid ourselves of our preconceived notions and be open to any possibilities.  I must become that hesitant freshman once again.  I must be that first-year teacher, unsure of what lies ahead of me.  I must be a willing learning, not a jaded expert. 

One of my favorite Zen stories runs along these lines.  It’s called “A Cup of Tea”:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself.  “It is overfull. No more will go in!”  “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

As I begin this new semester, I will take the time to empty my cup.  As I step on my mat for yoga practice each day, I will empty my cup.  I will embrace my beginner’s mind, and I will emerge all the richer for my practices. 

Happy first day of school, everyone.

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Confessions of an Inflexible Yogi

I have a confession, and it’s pretty big.  It’s actually pretty embarrassing, and something no yogi in her right mind should admit to in polite company.  Okay, here it goes.

I am not flexible.

Okay, maybe it’s not all that bad.  I can touch my toes or the ground during forward bends, my shoulder are on the whole pretty flexible, and I don’t have a whole lot of range of motion problems.  But as far as yogic standards go, I’m not all that bendy.  I’m nowhere near achieving Hanumanasana, Baddha Konasana is a struggle, and even after nearly 15 years of practice, I still can’t get into full Lotus, although my feet no longer ache when I can manage Half Lotus.

I think most of my inflexibility comes from the fact that on top of practicing yoga, I am a lifelong endurance athlete.  After thousands of miles of repetitive motion, it’s no wonder that my hip flexors, IT bands and feet aren’t interested in trying anything new or different.  It’s like asking someone who has played the banjo his entire life to suddenly pick up the pipe organ.  Sure, they’re both instruments, but they’re on fairly opposite ends of the musical spectrum.

As an inflexible yogi who also happens to teach a couple of yoga classes per week, I do not have the luxury of hiding my shortcomings in the back of the studio.  Nope, they are out there on full display, and honestly, as much as I’d like to be just a bit more bendy, my inflexibility has actually become a boon to my practice and my teaching.  Since I fully understand flexibility difficulties, I don’t expect miracles from my students.  I am able to offer them tried and true modifications, and I can describe exactly where they might be feeling tightness.  I can also show them how to feel a sense of accomplishment and success in their practice despite their weaknesses, as I learned early on that while my flexibility is sub par, I can make up for it with my strength, balance, and coordination.

Finally, being inflexible has done wonders for my ego, which has a tendency of raging out of control from time to time.  Every time I feel a hint of embarrassment because my students are bendier than I am, I take the opportunity to remember that yoga is not a competition, and that I can honor the progress of my own practice, even if that progress doesn’t extend much further than beyond my own toes.

Asana Saturday: Standing Forward Bend

Sanskrit Name: Uttanasana (OOT-tan-AHA-ahna)

One of the problems (or blessings, I suppose, if you want to go all “glass half full”) with featuring only one asana a week is that there are literally hundreds of choices.  Which pose to pick?  I could choose to focus on interesting and impressive inversions and balances, but to me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to run before you can crawl.  After starting with a foundational pose like Tadasana, it was only natural to follow it up with Uttanasana.

Much like Mountain Pose, Standing Forward Bend is a seemingly simple pose that can function as part of sequence (it is featured in most Sun Salutations, and is part of my first Simple Sequence), or can serve as bridge linking any number of standing poses.  It’s also a great place to return to after a challenging sequence, a place to release and let go, to let gravity take over and just hang out.  I especially enjoy Uttanasana after standing twists for a good spinal release, or after any intense leg work to help loosen up my hamstrings.  I love feeling the rush to my head and to let my facial muscle relax completely.  In this way, it’s kind of like a very simple inversion and a chance to see the world from a different perspective.

Getting into Uttanasana

Starting in Tadasana, exhale and bend foward from the hips.  Make sure you’re moving your entire torso forward and down as opposed to simply bending at the waist or rounding your back.

Your hamstrings may feel tight as you fold forward.  Resist the urge to pull down with your arms to increase the stretch before you’re ready.  It’s okay to have some bend in your knees; work with where you’re at now and let gravity do most of the work.

Let your hands rest on the ground, palms facing down, either in front of or right beside your feet.  Allow your head to hang between your arms, again letting gravity take over.  Keep your eyes soft and your facial muscles relaxed.

On each exhale, try to release a bit further, allowing your knees to straighten and hips to fold more deeply.  But again, don’t push further than you’re ready to go.  This is a pose of release; no need to hurt yourself here.

When you’re ready to come out of Uttanasana, avoid rolling your spine up.  Instead, work from the strength and length of your torso, pressing your tailbone down as you inhale upwards.  You’re now ready for whatever pose is next in your line up.

Resources:
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
www.yogajournal.com

Yoga and the Gita

When I first became interested in yoga nigh on 15 years ago, I did it purely for the asanas.  I wanted to be lithe and bendy, and I wanted to be able to stick some impressively twisty poses.  As a teenager who was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there was no way I was ready for the mind blowing and alien concepts of yogic philosophy.  But in college, I was exposed to the Tao Te Ching, which led (eventually, after a difficult decade of complete faithlessness) to Buddhist philosophies, which has in turn piqued my interest in the metaphysical realm of yoga and Hinduism.  While I’m not gung ho about one particular philosophy or theology or another, I have more or less bought into the idea that I’m part of something greater, even if that “greater” thing is simply derived from notion that matter is neither created nor destroyed.  If the energy from my body is eventually used to fertilize a tree, then I’m down with that.  I’d like to think that there’s something more, a Way, the Force, or the like (I’m not as keen on anthropomorphic gods at the moment, but I respect the concept), but if all I get is tree fertilizer, that’s still infinitely better than the vast nothingness I feared during my Catholic upbringing.

For a variety of reasons, the most important being that I’m ready for a little mind expansion, I’ve spent a good chunk of the summer reading Hindu texts.  I just finished reading the Bhagavad Gita for the first time, and I think I understand why it is a pivotal text for the study of yoga, and why it is also revered as an accessible handbook for life in general.

Just as a bit of background, the Bhagavad Gita is small section of a massive Indian epic, the Mahabharata.  In this section, the hero Arjuna must face his kinsmen in battle in order to gain control of the kingdom, and he’s naturally feeling uneasy about this.  How can he kill his kin and remain free from sin?  Luckily, the god Krishna is his charioteer, and the Gita is both Krishna’s argument to Arjuna to join the battle, and also an explanation of the nature of man and the Supreme Spirit.  In the end, Arjuna does indeed fight, and emerges victorious.

I’ve read the Rig Veda and the classic Upanishads, but to me, only the Gita translates well to modern (and Western) readers.  Not only does it provide a manual for living in harmony, but it also presents a concept of the Divine that allows for the worship of deities and for those (like me) who’d rather contemplate the oneness of all things.  The Bhagavad Gita may feature an anthropomorphic god, but Krishna himself states that he is “the beginning and the middle and the end of all things,” that he is “what is and what is not” (9:18-19).  To me, this doctrine of oneness sounds an awful lot like Buddhist or Taoist concepts of equality and interdependence.  The Gita transcends religion, and is an ideal vehicle for contemplation.

The yoga described in the Gita really has little to nothing to do with the asanas, but I think the philosophy of the Gita could be applied to asana practice.  Krishna explains to Arjuna that the work of yoga can lead to the Supreme if it is done selflessly, without attachment, and without expectation for a reward.  Similarly, while it might be great to be bendy, and it might be a worthwhile goal to achieve difficult and striking poses, my asana practice is the most fulfilling when I can surrender to the physical work without needing to meet the exacting demands of my ego.  Krishna declares that freedom from the cycle of rebirth and death is the natural consequence of  faithfulness and the work of yoga; it need not be sought after, and practitioners can continue free from attachment to outcomes.  On a similar (although not so grand or consequential) note, physical well-being is a natural outcome of practicing the asanas, whether intended or not.  It too can be achieved without attachment.

So there you go: ancient yogic philosophy and the Western focus on the asanas can coexist peacefully, and can even work to advance one another.  Is the Gita necessary for fulfilling asana practice?  Probably not, but if you’re looking to delve into yogic philosophy, it’s a great place to start.  Happy reading.

Simple Sequence – Modified Half Sun Salutation

I must admit, I enjoy the diversity and rigor of a solid, challenging asana sequence.  It’s definitely rewarding to work my way through a difficult series of poses, culminating with a peak pose that allows me to reconsider that ever elusive, ever evolving yogic “edge.”  However, as fun and satisfying it might be to hit “big” poses (well, big to me) like Crane, Monkey, or Firefly, there is a lot to say for simple, comfortable, reliable poses and sequences. 

Simple sequences are like old friends, poses you can always return to, regardless of where’re you’re at physically, mentally, or emotionally.  They are a call to honor fundamentals, to reestablish alignment, or to quiet the mind.  They may not be as flashy or as interesting as more challenging sequences, but maybe that’s the point.  For me, yoga is not as much about displays of physical prowess as it is about connecting the physical existence to the mental or spiritual.  And while complex sequences might expand the mind, they should be balanced by simple sequences that allow practitioners to integrate, develop, and deepen that expansion.

So without further ado, I present my first simple sequence.  It’s nothing new or revolutionary, so I don’t want to take any undue credit for it.  In essence, it’s s simple modification of the first portion of Ashtanga yoga’s Sun Salutation B, with the placement of Chair Pose move back a bit.  Its one of my favorite simple sequences to warm up my legs, as it involves both lengthening and eccentrically working the major muscle groups in the legs.  It awakens the entire lower half of your body and prepares you for the rest of your practice.  It’s also a perfect sequence to throw in after holding poses for extended periods, simple as a “shake out.”  As an added bonus, it’s a simple sequence you can do in the office to avoid the tightness that comes from sitting behind a desk for hours.  Give it a go, and don’t be afraid to modify it to fit your needs.

Simple Sequence – Modified Half Sun Salutation

  • Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), quadriceps engaged, creating a line of energy extending from your feet up through the crown of your head.  I prefer the Samasthiti Variation here, with my feet hip distance apart and my hands at Prayer Pose.
  • Inhale, reaching both arms up into Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), extending your elbows and gazing up slightly. 
  • From Urdhva Hastasana, exhale and swan dive slowly forward into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold).  Let gravity take over here, and don’t be afraid to let your knees bend if you have tight hamstrings. 
  • As you inhale, raise your arms up over your head and sit your hips back into Utkatasana (Chair Pose).  You only need to sit as low as is comfortable for you; depth will come later.  Work on keeping your spine straight and your breath even.  Stay here for one breath.
  • On your next inhalation, use the strength of your legs, push back up into Urdhva Hastasana.  Be careful not to let your knees splay out or bend in as you stand up. 
  • Exhale and lower the hands back to Samasthiti.

You can repeat this simple sequence as many times as is necessary to get your legs going.  Use it as a break from sitting, a reminder that your legs are both strong and supple.  In fact, I may do a few rounds myself right now.

The Yoga of Grief

I fully intended to write a positive and uplifting post about my introduction to and subsequent infatuation with yoga, but just as yoga isn’t all bendiness and enlightenment, life isn’t all peaches and cream.  Lately, it’s been full of grief and heartache, betrayal and rejection.  Don’t get me wrong.  On the whole, I have a beautiful life, and I’m grateful for what I have.  But all those positives are sometimes difficult to remember when jarring and unwanted negativity comes creeping in.

Lately, it appears that just when things are going smoothly, something seemingly catastrophic comes barging in to rain on my parade.  Am I being overdramatic?  Perhaps.  However, I have some pretty reliable and ancient sources backing me on the whole suffering thing.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is dukkha, or suffering.  Inevitably, somewhere along life’s paths, we all encounter something that causes us pain.  This would be a pretty dreary philosophy if not for the understanding that dukkha is caused merely by attachment, and that man can break free from that attachment.  We can take a page from Eckhart Tolle’s book(s) and view suffering as a path to the destruction of the ego.  Or, we can go all sports psychology and insist that pain is weakness leaving the body. Either way, there are methods for relieving suffering, and this is a good thing.

That’s where yoga comes in.  Yoga’s focus on breathing, presence, and
acceptance can go a long way towards alleviating suffering and kick starting the grieving process.  For the past few days, I have craved time on my mat, and I’ve let yoga be both an escape and a release, a place to forget and a place to remember. Other than the love of my husband and children, it’s been the only thing that has helped ease what has sometimes seemed like a mountain of emotional pain.  I’ve focused on gentle backbends (Bridge, Cobra, Locust), anything that will open my heart and lead towards acceptance, and hopefully, eventually, healing.  As I settled into Savasana in my most recent practice, I truly focused in on being supported by the earth, of knowing that I’m in good hands, both physically and spiritually.  I breathed and let go.  And suddenly, life was good again.

I’ve recently discovered the writings of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and her philosophies about the ups and downs of life make a whole lot of sense to me. In essence, she states in order to fully embrace the positive aspects of ourselves, we must also recognize the negative.  On the same token, if we are to appreciate the goodness in our lives, we must acknowledge the bad as well.  These may seem like “well duh” statements, but they’re incredibly difficult to apply to daily life.  We all want to increase the positive and decrease the negative, even to the point of desiring perfection.  I’ve experienced this same longing for perfection recently, saying to myself, “If only this or that wouldn’t happen, then my life would be perfect.”  Really?  Is my happiness really dependent on perfection?  If so, I’ve got a whole lot of unhappiness coming my way.  And if I did somehow miraculously achieve perfection, would I really want it?  Probably not.  I have the sneaking suspicion that perfection is boring…

Asana Saturday: Mountain Pose

Sanskrit Name: Tadasana (tah-DAHS-anna)

I am an educator by training and trade, and as such, I am an advocate of gaining solid and simple background and grounding before moving on to more complex subjects.  You can’t fully understand the Romans without a background in the Greeks; you won’t truly grasp the motives of Henry VIII without knowledge of the Protestant Reformation; and you can’t study Postmodernism without hitting Modernism (can you guess which subject I teach?).  In my opinion, the same kind of grounding is necessary in yoga.  Some poses are prerequisites to others and require a solid grounding in simple movements and alignments.  And when it comes to grounding, what better pose is there than Mountain Pose?

Some people may retreat to Downward Facing Dog or Child’s Pose after a challenging sequence, but for me, nothing beats Mountain.  Mountain Pose offers an opportunity to recenter, to check in with my body, and to notice the subtle changes the previous sequence may have caused.  In Mountain, I can feel the strength of my feet and legs, notice the movement of my breath, and slow down enough to feel my blood pumping through my limbs.  It’s more than “just standing there,” are some of my more impatient students like to say (they’re young; they’ll learn); it’s a chance to practice grounding and to notice subtlety.  And for young or beginning practitioners, Mountain is a place to find comfort and reliability, to feel as if you’re doing a pose “just right.”

Getting Into Mountain:

Stand at the top of your mat with your feet parallel, touching slightly (although some variations call for the feet to be hip distance apart).  Spread your toes, lay them back on the mat, and make sure your weight is distributed evenly across your feet.

Engage your quadriceps.  While your knee joints should be firm and extended, make sure your knees are not locked (passing out is bad).  Take the time to make sure your hips are balanced over your knees, and your knees over your ankles.  In essence, you want to imagine a line of energy moving in a straight line from your feet straight up through the crown of your head.

Your arms can hang gently by your sides, palms facing either out front, or in towards your legs.  You could also take the Samasthiti variation, in which you place your hands in prayer pose at your heart (this is my favorite variation, almost a standing meditation).  Your head should balance gently on your spine, keeping that straight line of energy in mind.  Think about rooting this energy down to create a stable base for the rest of your practice.  Find your center and breathe.

Once you’ve established Mountain Pose, you can move into any pose that strikes your fancy.  Personally, I enjoy starting with a simple sequence that moves between Tadasana and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) to wake up my legs.  Of course, the choice is yours.  Just take the time to get grounded before you get going.

Resources:
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
www.yogajournal.com