Restorative Yoga – Why we Love it!

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I seem to write a lot about restorative yoga… or maybe I just think about writing about it a lot.

I know I think about it a lot. I use restorative yoga with my private clients and teach it quite a bit, even in my vinyasa classes there are elements of a restorative practice. So it’s always on my mind.

In the last few years Restorative style classes have popped up everywhere. And that’s a good thing in our Go GO GO world. We need that quiet time, that meditative rest that is so good for the spirit as well as the body.

Physically your body gets many valuable benefits from your restorative sessions…

** Deeper stretches…… When we can release and let go of long held tension in the body the body responds by ‘unraveling’. Long, supported poses allow your body to completely release, soften, and allow that unraveling to happen over time, without the need to pull or tug.

** Increased flexibility….. And while all that unraveling and releasing does promote more flexible muscles and joints it’s not a goal, or even an end results we are seeking. Restorative gives you a sense of freedom to explore what happens when you release the tension you habitually hold in your body.

** Getting to know your body….. When you spend concentrated time setting up for a pose and exploring how it feels and then giving yourself permission the change that setup, to adjust what you need, you learn where your patterns of tension occur in the body. And when you connect to those patterns it’s then that you can begin to change your body’s boundaries. This is where you get to be Magellan or Lewis & Clark and you  become an explorer.

But a restorative practice is so much more than the sum of its physical benefits. There are countless mental and emotional reason to add restorative yoga to your life.

**Cultivate body awareness….. Wait didn’t I just say that in the paragraph above?? Yes.. but getting to know your body  eventually shifts from the physical and delves deeper into the mental and emotional layers. Most people are cut off from their bodies, especially when we experience chronic pain. But through the  practice of restorative yoga we can begin to explore a deeper intimacy with ourselves and we may find a profound sense of self-love and acceptance.

** Sooths the central nervous system….. In our crazy busy lives we seem to always exist in a heightened state of nervous energy. That ‘fight or flight’ we all hear about.  All those stress chemicals constantly trickling into our bodies does an inordinate amount of damage to our cells. But when we know how to turn on our Relaxation Response then we can counter the effects of those chemicals, some studies now show that we can even reverse that damage.

** Encourages a meditation mindset….. When are first encounter meditation or are first learning about it ir can be very challenging to simply ‘sit still’ to cultivate that deep quiet of the mind. But when we start with a restorative practice we discover that it might just be the hardest yoga we can do! Because we being asked to shut up a mind that never knows when to quit and that’s where the work can be. But in that work we can often times find the deepest benefits of the practice, the greatest growth of who we are, physically and spiritually.

Lets look at a few of the common restorative poses

First ‘Supported Child’s Pose –

  • Gently releases the lower back
  • May relieve shoulder tension
  • Quiets the mind and deeply calming
  • Stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system

Key propping ideas – For more height (head higher than hips) you can put a block or another bolster under the front end of the bolster. This can help if the back isnt comfortable in this pose.

Another place to consider when propping is if the knees are tight.. adding a blanket between the knees the calves often helps this.

If the Ankles are tight add a small blanket under the ankles

Salamba Balasana

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supported childs pose

Next is Supported twist over a bolster

Salamba Bharadvajasana

Benefits Include

  •  quiets the brain, calms the central nervous system
  •  quiets distress and anxiety
  •  reduces tension in posterior muscles of back, lateral, and neck muscles

Key Propping issues – The bolster can be elevated on a block reducing the angle of the twist.

You can add blankets under the knee to reduce strain on the hips

And place blankets under the arms to support the shoulders

  • Proceed carefully if you have severe back problems
  • Can be difficult if you have sacroiliac joint issues
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Twist over the bolster

Finally everyone’s Favorite  Legs up the wall

Viparita Karani

  • reduces edema in the legs and feet.
  • relieves tired leg muscles.
  • gives you all the benefits of inversion, without the effort.

Key prop is a wall…that’s all…. But if you have an eye pillow thats glorious! And you can have someone put a sandbag on your feet thats a nice luxury!

 

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Legs up the wall

 

So give restorative a try and let me know how it goes!

I love to hear your thoughts about your practice so feel free to email me or to comment in the posts below.

And if you want to learn more come to the weekend Restorative Yoga Training Event! Open to all whether you are a yoga teacher or not!

Check out the website too http://cherylmurmanyoga.wixsite.com/certifications

Om Shanti

Cheryl

Oh those pesky Edges ….

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In yoga the phrases “find your edge” or “play with your edges” have been prominent for many years. But I haven’t ever really liked that way of teaching, at least not to my tribe. Finding one’s edge or playing with your edges always feels a little bit like playing with fire… closer (warm)…Closer (warmer)… CLOSer (getting hot)… CLOSER annnnnd you get burned!

Most people don’t know what the hell the edge means, let alone how to find it or play with it. And so they topple over that edge everyone else seems to know about. And they get hurt or frustrated. Playing the edge seems hard or harsh and it’s quite the balancing act if you think about it. And again us average Joes and Janes aren’t very good at walking a tight rope.

And I do know what teachers mean when they say those things, they want their students to grow in their practice, by pushing their personal limits. I get it… I want my students to grow and to expand too, but how about we talk about it in a different way. Think of that growth in a different way.

Let’s start by looking at other words we can use to convey the same message… these are words I use all the time to encourage growth while maintaining the concept of Sukha…. Effortless work.

Explore

I really want you to explore what you’re doing. Be Magellan, go somewhere you’ve never been. The mat is the perfect and safe place launch a personal expedition. From the security of your mat you can explore your body, look for ways to strengthen yourself, seek out new ways to release tension from the body and sift through the negative things your mind tells you about your body  to find ways to accept it for the amazing vessel it truly is.

Erode

From your mat your body can flow with your breath like a river, gently, slowly eroding away the borders of your personal riverbanks. As the erosion takes place the old is washed away revealing new life underneath. And your tension and stiffness are gently released revealing fresh new energy.

Expand

From the safety of your mat you can expand your horizons. You can approach a pose in a new way. You can spiral outward slowly expanding the territory of your own awareness, the awareness of your body but also the awareness of yourself. From your center you can reach outward through the action of expansion to create new boundaries.

Boundaries (my favorite)

Instead of edges think of boundaries, because a boundary can change, edges seem to be stationary, they are always there. But a boundary can shift and change as you change, as your practice changes. Over time you slowly build up strength to hold a pose longer and gently over time you increase your physical flexibility. But it’s within the boundaries of our minds that we can find the most change. As we ‘explore’ our boundaries our minds discover patience, as we ‘erode’ away the old energy we may find those old negative thoughts have less of a hold on us. As we ‘expand’ our practice we expand our heart and minds to see things in a new way.

Yoga is the perfect compass, and from the mat it can take us so many new and wonderful places.

Go explore your mat and let me know what you find there, tell me where it takes you.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

Cheryl

More off the mat chat

I’ve been talking about the concept of taking Yoga off the mat. I want to delve a bit deeper into that concept. Yoga has the reputation, certainly in the West, of being ‘only’ a fitness regime, a physical health program. And that’s part of it for sure, but at some point you realize that yoga is something else. Your practice then becomes so much more. And that’s when the real struggle begins, because you start to question things in your life. And that can make the people in your life uncomfortable. It can make you uncomfortable.

Odds are when you first come to yoga, whether through a studio or a gym class or even online it was through the lens of the physical practice, the asana practice, and so for many that’s all yoga is, only a bunch of postural exercises.

But after a while yoga begins to take on a different meaning, you start to recognize something in your practice that you can’t quite put into words.

I tell my students all the time that yoga will slowly worm it’s way into your life, it will start to move you in ways you hadn’t expected. Slowly and over time your yoga practice becomes your own…. Not your teachers practice, not your friends but your practice. Even if it looks similar on the outside, on the inside it’s unique. It’s intimate and subtle and you find yourself looking at the rest of your life through that now intimate and subtle lens.

You may change behaviors in your life, like drinking less or eating differently. You may stop smoking or maybe you start going to the gym or the park to exercise. You may stop participating in conversations with friends that marginalize other groups outside your own. Your prayer or devotion time might now start with an asana practice. You start to find the subtleties of yoga in the way you wash the dishes, in the way you actually listen to someone when they talk. You may also look at yourself differently. You may see your beauty, where before you saw only flaws. You may start realizing your strength is in the very same places that others had only seen weakness.

Yoga off the mat is an ambiguous phrase but the truth is yoga will change you and you will reflect that change in your life. As your practice grows so will you, you will blossom and flower into a new, better version of yourself.

For me Yoga is the basis of my life, it is the foundation of who I am and every single day yoga reminds me of where I come from and how I can continue to move forward. If I never get on the mat again, if for some reason I never do the movement practice again, yoga will still be an integral part of my life. It is how I breathe, it is how I move, it is how I face the challenges of life, and it is the foundation for my relationships, my relationship with my students, with my friends, my family and with God. Yoga isn’t about perfection it’s about reaching deeply into myself so that I can then reach higher and find the better parts of me.

Yoga is my spiritual practice.

Yoga doesn’t take away the responsibility of our daily existence, yoga doesn’t teach us to run away but instead to be grounded and rooted in the experience of life so that we can see the beauty in our daily lives.

Om shanti

Cheryl

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Yoga is everywhere

pic-effectsYoga is more than the movement of your body; yoga is a journey that takes its path through your entire life if you let it…

What does it means to take your yoga off the mat and into your life? That your body is physically stronger and more flexible? Well, yes you certainly will be but that isn’t what we really mean. Taking Yoga into the rest of your life means being strong enough to face life’s up’s and down’s, to be flexible enough to face the choices we need to make.

Yoga teaches us to be flexible and resilient to smoothly bounce back from the chaos of life.
It teaches us to inhale fresh life, and exhale the things that hold us back; breathing in love, and breathing out anger,
It teaches us to face the fear of failing in life, much like the first time we tried headstand on our own,

A few months ago my hubby and his two daughters and I went backpacking along a section of the Appalachian trail, it was a tough trail, hubby thinks it was just fine, but me and Ashley beg to differ…. It was Hard! 

All up…every step was UP the first day. We climbed 1800 feet in 5 miles that first afternoon and 1300 feet in 7 miles the second day. The 3rd day wasn’t as bad…I mean we had to come down, right. But my legs we  were pretty toasted by then. What most people don’t know about me is that I have a neuromuscular condition known as Mcardles disease that cause extreme muscular fatigue and failure. It affects the body’s ability to process sugars for energy. It wont kill me but it makes some things, from walking up a flight of stairs to backpacking for 3 days, challenging.

What does all this have to do with yoga well if hadn’t been for my yoga practice, my long suffering hubby probably would have left me out there….still whining! As I walked along I remembered all that I learned from my teachers…. from yoga. The  basic tenets of yoga help us to make choices throughout our lives and in this case to get through what was both a wonderful, fun time with my family and a grueling, physically challenging event, that at times I wasn’t sure I could finish.

Yoga isn’t something that we do only when we roll out our mats, it weaves it’s way throughout our lives, in our minds and actions. Knowing how to practice Ahimsa, to do no harm, was a big help over that weekend. I had to know when I needed to rest, but I needed to balance that with getting to our camp site set up before dark. In Yoga there is a strong emphasis on having a ‘single point of focus’ a ‘Drishti‘. A drishti doesn’t move so you stay focused on a still place while moving  or being in a challenging pose.  For me during that those long climbs when I thought my legs weren’t going to make it, my breath became my drishti. Just being aware of my breath helped me to put one foot in front of another when my legs were telling me I needed to stop. Using the technique of a dristi can get you through many of life’s tough challenges. Having that stillness within you, no matter what is going on around you, gives you the focus to get through the Chitta vritti. Chitta vritti means chaos of the mind, literally means mental vortex or whirlpool. It’s calming  to know that when the mind is all over the place you have a place to go ‘be still’ and organize your thoughts.

Yoga can be everywhere and in every action. So when you are off the mat how does Yoga show up in your life. Where, in your life, can you start applying what you have learned from your practice? Give it some thought. And here are a few tips for taking your yoga off the mat and into your life.

  • Attend to your Breath: Just like in yoga class, breathe when uncomfortable situations come up, bringing with them emotions like anger, sadness and fear. Breathing helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system prompting the relaxation response. So just like on the mat breathing with purpose and awareness can help us to relax and therefore change a stressful situation. 
  • Be aware of what you feel: Notice your feelings, emotional stress can come up in the body as muscle tension, or headaches or an upset digestive system. But our feelings are not the problem. It’s when we try to control them or we refuse to face them that is the real problem.  So when faced with a stressful situation sit with it and allow the feelings the come up to move through you, without you trying to clutch at them. Use your breath to control that knee jerk reaction.
  • Witness yourself: Witness consciousness is the capacity to notice what’s happening without judgment, the ability to observe with deep compassion and understanding. When we can step outside ourselves for a moment and witness whats going on we can gain new understanding of the subtleties in life. Just like on the mat when we step away from a pose and look at the subtleties of movement and alignment we gain a better understanding of the pose .
  • Allow things to unfold naturally: If we can allow painful sensations to arise and pass on the mat then we can do the same in life. We can’t control other people, situations, or things, but we can learn to let things pass, to ‘let things go’ without always trying to fix or change them.  We can relax and experience  what’s happening instead of trying to force it.     

 

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson                          

Om Shanti

Cheryl

 

 
 

Are Private Clients needy?

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I have a private client that was attending an event downtown recently and she was seated at a table with a local yoga teacher. During their conversation my client mentioned she did yoga but had a private teacher. The person she was talking to said she did not take private clients because private clients were ‘just too needy’……. Hummmm well my knee jerk reaction is “what a jerk!” but that’s not very Yogi like is it. So I thought about it for a minute and I know that each of us has our talents and the gifts we were born with. And I’ guessing that her gift is something other than working with private clients. It does take a specific skill set to be successful at working one on one.

But I think it’s her perception of private clients as being needy that I took the most exception too. It is way off base……They aren’t needy but they are in need. They need the specialized training that a private yoga teacher has. If you had a heart problem you wouldn’t go to a General Practice Doctor you’d go to a Cardiologist. If you need help with your teeth you see a dentist. If you are training for an Iron Man event you don’t go to your local gym and hire just any Trainer you hire someone who specializes in coaching athletes.

And the people who go to a dentist, cardiologist or hire a coach aren’t considered needy. But they do have a need.

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And just as not all yoga teachers are gifted as private teachers, private yoga isn’t for every student. Most of you will never have that ‘need’. But don’t assume that because someone is hiring a private yoga teacher that they are needy and just want a lot of attention. All of my clients have very specific needs, such as pain reduction, mobility issues, illness or injury recovery to getting ready for a marathon or Iron Man (and many others). But whatever your reason it should be looked at as part of your self-care regime. Just like getting a massage, seeing a chiropractor or having your teeth cleaned it’s all part of what you do to keep yourself health and well.

You keep doing what you need to do to be healthy and well!

 

Om Shanti

Cheryl

A brief talk about Nidra

WHAT IS YOGA NIDRA

Yoga Nidra in Sanskrit mean Yogic Sleep, but it is not sleep. It is a powerful meditation technique from the Tantra Yoga tradition. It is both a name of a state of being and of the practice that creates that change of consciousness.

The practitioner through Nidra learns to relax and to facilitate their healing and can manifest seemingly magical changes in their life, helping to clean up karmic debris in their life.

We can use different means to achieve the state of nidra but the following will always be included:

1) Pranayama: Control of breathing and the ability to control and direct Prana, the life energy force.
2) Dharana: Concentration, cultivation and heightening of inner perceptual awareness
3)Pratyharya: the withdrawl of the senses and influences of the  mind.

The stages of the Yoga Nidra Practice are usually followed the same way, whether it’s a 10 min nidra or a 45 min practice.

1) Relaxation – you begin with a preliminary preparation of the body
2) Sankalpa– A personal goal is declared silently

3) Rotation of Consciousness – we then tour the whole body in a structured fashion
4) pranayama –awareness of the breath
5) Creative Visualization – Various images are visualized mentally
6) Your Sankalpa is repeated and, now in a highly suggestible state of consciousness, is programmed into the subconscious mind.
7) Return to Full Awareness – a careful and gradual return to a normal state

So what is a Sankalpa

‘Kalpa’ means vow, and ‘san’ is a derivative of the highest truth. A sankalpa then, is like a commitment in support of the deeper meaning of our life.

A sankalpa is the resolve, determination and good intention will that resonates precisely in your core and aligns with your highest intention .  Swami Saraswati describes it as a will power that is flexible enough to account for changing circumstances changes begin to manifest in your inner and outer world.

Think of your sankalpa as the seed and your mind the garden, we plant a seed and for it to grow we must cultivate it, water it, feed it and encourage it to grow.

We can often struggle to hear our own true sankalpa. We sometimes develop it within the practice of Yoga Nidra, without really understanding what it is.

What it isn’t is a wish, or a new years resolution. It isn’t a ‘wanna’ (I wanna lose weight, I wanna quit smoking I wanna a new job). Typically this kind of statement lacks commitment; a sankalpa is a statement of deeply held fact.

Roger Miller calls it  “a heartfelt desire, the calling of your higher self our DHARMA, it is what resonates with your true soul & what speaks of your true nature”. It takes time to find your sankalpa, to develop the deeper understanding of who we are before we can truly know where we are going.

You need to learn to listen to the deep voice within. Your heartfelt calling is already there, in you waiting for you to hear it.

Learning to find what you really want is a process that takes time; you have to dig through all the preprogramming that you have, the samskaras, the grooves in our record.

  • Here are a few tipson finding your sankalpa
  • Find and follow your Bliss
  • Try don’t to string too many things together
  • Make it simple right now your samkalpha might be to take the time to find a good sankalpha
  • Keep it in the present moment – the word WILL, means will power, but can also mean in the future
  • Tap into your psyche, your inner strength
  • you can say ‘I am stronger, I am becoming healthier, I live a healthy life, I belong, I am powerful

And remember that a sankalpa made with conviction, determination & perseverance but mostly from a deep sincerity will never fail you.11032678_10153162371738099_6929746366132006448_n

Sensation

Sensation

The Merriam Webster definition

:a particular feeling or effect that your body experiences

: a particular feeling or experience that may not have a real cause

: the ability to feel things through your physical senses

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When you are doing yoga are you always looking for something to feel? Looking for a sensation? I have taught for many years and throughout those years I have taught a lot of newcomers, people who don’t  know they have a body let alone understand it. So a lot of my teaching has had the idea of looking for ‘sensation’. Feel this or look there. This is helpful to people beginning to explore their bodies and to understand what and where their pain may be.

Hopefully they eventually get to a point where there is no longer a need to look. Over time you learn to connect to your body,  you know it so well that you know your edges, your challenges and you know when they change and shift. But sometimes it’s the absence of sensation we should be noting. I’ll explain.

I had a student in class last week make an interesting point; we had been doing a yummy psoas release (notice I didn’t say stretch) using a block and after class he said he couldn’t feel his psoas. I said most people can’t since they didn’t know where to look, he said he was well acquainted with it since he had been in PT several times for sports injuries. He said no matter how hard he stretched in the pose he couldn’t feel it. I wondered if maybe he was trying too hard. That sometimes it’s more about the letting go of sensation not chasing after it.

Well that conversation got me to thinking about sensation and the need for it in a yoga practice. Yoga teachers, me included, are always asking for students to ‘find their edge’ but here’s the thing most people are on the edge all the time, whether in pain or  stressed out. Maybe we should add a few minutes in our practice to explore the absence of sensation.

I work with a lot of people in pain or at least a lot of discomfort. They feel sensation all the time, some even constantly, so for them we are usually working on letting go of the ‘sensation’, moving past it or around it. To learn to move in ways that aren’t the sensation of ‘pain’. But this idea can also apply to someone who may not be in pain, but their body is tight and stiff, rigid, stuck. Sometimes we need to change the need to feel a strong sensation when stretching (that  hard ‘pull’ or ‘tug‘) maybe we could work towards feeling no sensation at all. Instead try simply letting go of, moving away from, sensation. Sometimes when releasing tightness there may be no sensation, none at all. This releasing creates space in the body, the (guess what) sensation of spaciousness. That concept of creating space in the body is about letting go of the tightness that contracts and that contraction or constriction is what can contribute to a lot of pain. We hold ourselves tight as if braced for battle and of you’ve been in pain for a long time you are always braced for that battle.

Think of this as part of learning the practice of Pratyahara.  Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses from both the external world and the images or impressions in the mind.  When we practice pratyahara we gradually gain positive control over the mind being obsessively drawn towards the things that contribute to our pain.

Sense withdrawal, pratyahara, rests on the solid foundation of a steady, comfortable posture and smooth, deep, quiet breath. The combination of breath and steady, calm movements and postures can help us find that place where sensation is sukha, effortless.

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Try exploring the differences between stretching and releasing;  stretching to create length and releasing the concept of letting go of tightness and creating space.

Let me know what you think

Om Shanti

Cheryl

 

 

5 Poses to Do Every Day

Sthira Sukham Asanam     Patanjali  Yoga Sutra 2.46  

5 Poses to do Every Day!

Oh come on, it wont take you that long.
I know it’s hard to schedule 90 minutes in your day for a yoga class, trust me I know! But we all have 10 minutes for a few yogic things to do at home and remember your home practice doesn’t have to be a complicated 90 min Hot class.

Just roll out your mat & spend a few minute’s in each pose listed, focus on your breathing, on being comfortable in the pose & remember try to feel a sense of freedom in the pose. Don’t get caught up in how it looks, but instead bring your awareness to how it feels. The important thing is to move and articulate the spine in all directions allowing for energy movement and to help with back pain & stiffness. Remember our teaching of Sthira (stability) & Sukha (ease, freedom). Take time in each pose to notice where is the balance between being grounded and stable (Sthira) and being free, physically and mentally?

1st pose is Mountain (Tadasana) –Mountain pose is about taking the time to ‘come to your mat’, in the physical sense as well as a mental & emotional sense. Stand in Mountain pose and turn your attention in. Start to make a connection with your breath and just focus on the quality of your breathing. Tadasana is about rooting and grounding your practice with your intention for coming to the mat. This is the time to reflect on your body (how do you feel, how much energy do you have & what does your body need). Draw energy up from the ground into your feet (Sthira), feel that relaxed energy filling your core body (Sukha). Take 5 breaths.

2nd Pose Forward Fold – Forward Fold from an anatomical perspective is about folding from the hips, stretching your hamstrings and lengthening your low back. It’s always a good thing to relax your back body, but your mind and emotions benefit too. A forward Fold relaxes the mind, soothes the central nervous system and calms the senses. While in your Forward Fold look for the Sukha & the Sthira. Where do you find stability and freedom?

3rd is modified crescent lunge – Why modified instead of full crescent lunge? Because most of us will be doing this sequence either first thing in the morning or right after we get home from work, so we are dealing with cold, tight hip flexors. Although if you want to do the full version all the same principles apply. Raise your arms only after you have drawn up the front body, being careful not to thrust the ribs forward, but rolling the body up one vertebra at a time. Play with shifting the Sthira between the Left foot in front and the Right knee behind, find a balance between those 2 points of contact with the mat. The Sukha in the pose might be in maintaining a calm easiness in the arms overhead, so relax those shoulders. Repeat on the other side.

4th is Twists seated or supine – If you aren’t comfortable (sukha) in seated twists please lay on your back for supine twists. Sitting in Sukhasana (simple crossed legged position) Inhale drawing the arms over head lengthening the body then rotate to the right and bring the arms down. Stay for 5 breaths and come to the center and repeat on the other side. It really is that simple. If laying on your back, draw your knees over your body on the inhale then exhale as you lower them to the right, keeping the left shoulder on the mat. Then repeat on the other side.

5 is Sphinx or Cobra  – Spinal extension (back bend) is an important thing to do every day. Most of us are desk jockeys or at least we sit a lot, so it is necessary to length out the front body. Maybe start with baby cobra and move with your breath. Inhale as you lift up (Sukha) and exhale as you lower down. Keep the hips, legs and feet connected to the mat (Sthira).

6 is savasana –  Yep, Savasana. Taking the time for stillness, even just a few minutes, each day is the most important thing we can do for ourselves. Corpse pose requires a stillness of mind as well as your body. It gives your body a chance to return to normal, helping you to reap the benefits of your practice. Corpse pose is the bridge between your practice time and the rest of your life. Take the time to cross that bridge and take the calm, restorative, energetic properties of your practice into the rest of your life.

 

Om Shanti

~C

Asana Practice

“The Asana should be effortless. There should be no effort not only in the body but also in the mind. Absolute ease of relaxation is the sign of perfected Asana. The student should be in a most natural condition in which he is not conscious even of his breathing.”

Swami Krishnananda

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Yoga Asana.

What is it really? This Asana we do. Do we really know what it is, what it means to practice asana?

Obviously Yoga asana are the poses, the physical movements of yoga. What we all recognize as Yoga. Although Yoga Asana is only one part of yoga, one limb of a very diverse tree.

Pantajali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, didn’t say much about the Asana practice only a few things and that has led some to believe that it isn’t a very important part of yoga, or that it is less important than the other limbs. But it is all part of the same process. When we incorporate all the limbs of yoga into our practice, then we begin to cultivate more spiritual awareness.

In the sutras Pantajali  wrote of Asana;

2.46  Sthira Sukham Asanam

  • sthira (Steer-a)  / steady, stable, grounded
  • sukha (Sue-kahm) /With Ease, Spacious
  • asana (As-ana) / posture or pose (also means “to sit”)

Within this simple statement Patanjali provides the perfect guideline for asana practice: sthira sukham asanam or one should be steady and comfortable in asanas. To be more specific, sthira means stability & grounded while alert & active. And sukha means with ease or without suffering.

When we practice asana we are often taught where to feel the pose or how to feel the pose and if we are feeling the pose we must be doing to correctly…perfectly.

Unfortunately that isn’t really it…. It isn’t really about a right or wrong way to do a pose and it is never about perfection. That’s the western way of viewing an asana practice. That we should mimic the pose that our teacher does.  It’s like we exist outside the pose waiting for someone to tell us what to feel while we are inside the pose. That isn’t asana. But where does asana come from and why do we practice it.

Asana means ‘seat’ or ‘pose’ and it first appears in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (between 800 BCE-500 BCE). Both of these texts asana as meaning a ‘seat’ for meditation and rituals. And In the Yoga Sutras (about 300 CE), we find only three Sutras about asana. And it’s obvious that Patanjali views asana as a preparation for meditation.

Then around 500 CE Hatha Yoga comes on the scene and uses posture (asana) to promote a strong body and good health. The idea being that the body is a temple of the Divine and we must do our best to keep it healthy. Within the last 200 years we saw the development of asana as the main focus of almost all Western yoga practice. In his book, “Yoga Body-The Origins of Modern Posture Practice,” Mark Singleton looks at the history of asana and explains that most of the tradition of modern yoga is from the 19th and 20th centuries in India as a result of the influence of colonial British physical fitness and the rise of Indian nationalism.

Judith Hanson Lasater says “We stay with the practice of yoga asana because it is a powerful non-verbal expression of the sacred. And practicing and living the sacred part of life is often sadly lacking for many people in the West today.  The expression of this sacredness has to do with the nature of asana practice itself. No matter how many times one has practiced a certain asana, when it is practiced now it is absolutely new.”

“A powerful non-verbal expression of the sacred” The first time I read that I was like YES! That’s it! Asana has always been for me a meditative practice. Erich Schiffmann’s famous book ‘Moving into Stillness” is a wonderful book and I love it. But for me it has been more about ‘Moving with stillness’ and yes that sounds like an oxymoron I know, how can you be still if you are moving, but the stillness is on the inside. When I am moving in asana, my mind can’t be anywhere else, it has to be still, focused and quiet. And the stillness can be the pose itself. Being able to hold a pose in that steady, comfortable state gives you the opportunity to observe the feelings that come up. Do you feel anxious or uncomfortable and why.

So in our modern practice we try to combine both the ancient & the modern ideas of asana, of being
steady and Comfortable. This is the principle of balance. We seek to harmonize strength and steadiness with comfort and ease.

When we are doing asana remember the yamas & niyamas. Consider Ahimsa (do no harm), I talk about this all the time in classes. Never move into physical pain or practice asana in a way that disturbs our mind or spirit. If you are doing something that physically hurts are you honoring that expression of the scared?
Practicing asana from a place of Satya (truth) means being honest about where we are in the pose and why. Rather than thinking about how it should look, we need to discover our own yoga, not the yoga coming from the teacher or from other students or from the cover of a magazine.
We should practice asana with tapas (heat and intensity), svadhyaya (study of the Self) and Isvara pranidhanani (devotion). These are the concepts help us to forge our asana practice in the way that you would forge steel, to become strong and resilient.

So in our asana practice, it’s important to focus not just on what our body is doing, but on how we’re doing it. Come into the pose(s) and hold them long enough to become steady and use the feeling of comfort as a guide and know that steadiness (sthira) and comfort (sukha) have more value that moving so fast that you become lost in the routine and your goal is to simply  finish X number of poses.

Also watch your breath. Observe it. It can be the best indicator of how you are feeling in a pose. It too should be Sthira, and Sukha. Using the Ujjayi breath is calming to the mind and can provide focus, helping to create that calm, steady state that is meditation.

Scan your body for any tension, holding a pose doesn’t and shouldn’t create tension, such as clenched jaws and scrunched toes. Try to achieve that state of relaxation with alertness and if we are straining and gritting our teeth through a yoga class, there is no ease.

I could write all day about asana and still not speak so eloquently about the subject as Mr. Iyengar does in one small paragraph.

“The body is the temple of the soul. It can truly become so if it is kept healthy, clean and pure through the practice of asana. Asanas act as the bridges to unite the body with the mind and the mind with the soul.
“Patanjali says that when an asana is correctly performed, the dualities between body and mind, mind and soul, have to vanish. This is known as repose in the pose, reflection in action. When the asanas are performed in this way, the body cells, which have their own memories and intelligence are kept healthy. When the health of the cells is maintained through the precise practice of asanas, the physiological body becomes healthy and the mind is brought closer to the soul. This is the effect of the asanas. They should be performed in such a way as to lead the mind from attachment to the body towards the light of the soul so that the practitioner can dwell in the abode of the soul.”

B.K.S. Iyengar

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Om Shanti

 

Cheryl