Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Discomfort and Joy


A bead of sweat rolled down my nose as I pushed my big toe into my fingers in an attempt to fully extend my right leg out in front of me while balancing on my left leg.  The look on my face as well as some of my fellow yogis must have been intense.  
“Remember,” the teacher said, “We do this thing called yoga to find the joy within.”  
This brought smiles to our faces.  Oh yea, now I remember!  I thought to myself.  
She continued with her pep talk as we extended the same leg out to the right while looking left, still holding the big toe with the middle finger and thumb.  She said we have to be able to smile through the discomfort because the payoff of the practice is joy, compassion, and happiness.  She didn’t mention the sculpted muscles.  For most Ashtangis the physical benefit of this vigorous style of yoga is only icing on the cake.  It’s the transformation that happens on the inside that is so remarkable.  It’s good medicine. 
After five long yogi breaths we returned the leg to center, released the toe and tried to resist gravity while slowly lowering the foot to the floor. 
Today is a “led” class which means that the teacher instructs the entire practice and the students move at the same pace.  The rest of the week the classes are taught “Mysore” style, meaning the instructor works with each student individually within a group setting to cultivate a personal practice.  Each student practices at their own level and pace.  The teacher gives you more postures as she sees that you are ready for it. This is what initially drew me to Ashtanga – the idea of having a set sequence of asanas (postures) that I could easily do at home.  
Many of the yogis in the room have worked with Jodi for years and can do some extraordinary things, like dropping into urdhva danurasana (upward facing bow) from standing.  This is not something you would want to try until you are really ready for it.  And forget about using the wall as a safety net for inversions. Not on Jodi’s watch.  You are only allowed to do inversions when you are strong enough and balanced enough to do them without the wall to hold you up. 
My neighbor to the right is a newby to Ashtanga.  Feeling a little bit of pity for her, I couldn’t help but notice her exasperation when after 90 minutes of practice we were still being asked to move through vinyasa, a word used to describe a sequence of three postures used often in yoga to heat and strengthen the body. By this time the windows of the studio were completed fogged up from the humidity in the room, and everyone was dripping with sweat.  
At the end of class I had to ask her, “So what do you think?”  Her eyes widened as she said, “I’ve never been to a yoga class like this before… there are some really impressive things going on in this room!”  
Another satisfied customer…

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Puppetji Guru Wisdom on Baggage

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Puppetj is so wise.  Want more?  Check out his blog - http://puppetji.com/blog/

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Enlighten Up! on DVD

The questions are:  What is yoga? Can yoga be defined? Can it change a life for the better? Can it really lead to enlightenment?  This yoga documentary follows newbie yogi and ex-journalist, Nick, on his yoga experience in the US and India.  His reactions are not always what the filmmaker had in mind.

Whether you're a seasoned yogi or just yoga curious, this film will take you on a journey from modern western yoga in LA and New York to the roots of  yoga in India.  You might feel inspired to go deeper into an ancient practice that has no boundaries.  

I found myself wondering what yoga really means to me.  It gave me a new perspective on my practice, on what I thought I knew, and reminded me that yoga is too big to fit into a perfectly labeled box. 

There are some well known western yogis in this film such as Alan Finger, Cyndi Lee, David Life, and Rodney Yee to name a few.  The interviews with yoga legends B.K.S. Iyengar and the late K. Pattabhi Jois are worth waiting for near the end. 

Check it out on DVD and enlighten up!    

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gratitude for Grumps

When I'm having a particularly surly day my best weapon is gratitude.  While I'm whining about the extra 10 pounds I gained over the holidays, or that I don't have the money to go to India over the summer, there are people with real woes, like say, not  having food to eat.

It's a depressing thought, I know, but by turning it around it can actually create a better state of mind.   If you stop to look for a minute you will find a lot of things to be grateful for.  Even the simple things like a piping hot shower in the morning, choices galore on what to eat, books to read, and let's not forget being grateful for good health.

One of my favorite sayings on the tag of Yogi Bedtime tea is, "To sleep, don't count sheep, count blessings then sheep."  Even if you're not the praying type, it is a good practice to count your blessings and be grateful at least once a day.  Try it, you might like it.

As for those folks that don't have as much as we do - Feeling bad about it does't help them.  What does? Feeling good and grateful so you can make a positive contribution in the world.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Relax!

There is no doubt about it - Some days I am just grumpy for no apparent reason.  I have rare moments of unexplained giddiness too, but those days are pretty few and far between.  I don't know why I wasn't blessed with a constant flow of effervesence, but what I do know is that yoga makes my world a lot better. 

Just a few days of consistent practice can make a world of difference in my mood.  My favorite practices are ashtanga/vinyasa and restorative yoga.  They are polar opposites, so how can I love both of them so much?

Over time I have learned to listen to my body.  No longer do I subscribe to the "no pain, no gain" mantra.  Sure, you have to learn the difference between laziness and fatigue, but some days the energy to get through a strenuous ashtanga or vinyasa sequence simply isn't available. 

On those low energy, high agitation days, I can replenish my reserves by allowing myself be supported in 7 to 8 restorative postures accompanied by soothing, hypnotic music like Shamanic Dream

To have a restorative practice at home you will need to invest in just a few props such as a bolster, a strap, a couple of yoga blankets, a candle, and a CD player or iPod for soothing tunes.  If you want to go a step further in your restorative zone, add essential oil with a diffuser and an eye pillow to your list. 

Go to Yoga Journal's list of restorative postures to get started.  The beauty of restorative yoga is that you only need a few postures.  Pick a pose, like supta baddha konasana and get comfortable for 15 - 20 minutes.  Allow the props and floor to support you, letting all of your worries go as you focus on the sweet simplicity of your breath.

The most difficult part of this practice is letting go and giving yourself permission to just be for 60 to 90 minutes.  Once I got the hang of that I could kiss my grumpy ass goodbye because afterwards it's all about the bliss.

Tip:  Sunday nights are a really good time for this practice.  End the weekend and start the new week on a nice, relaxed note.  It's also the perfect practice for "that time of the month" when you need to recoup your energy rather than expend it.

Namaste.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Eating meat: Does ahimsa really matter?

This morning a fellow yogi forwarded an article from the New York Times about yoga and food.  While it has always been my understanding that food should be avoided at least two hours before and one hour after a strenuous yoga practice, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea to package yoga and food together.

The article seems harmless enough - Western yogis enjoying organic food right on their sweaty mats (ew) after class.  Who am I to judge how, when, and where one chooses to eat? 

The part of the article that pissed me off was a quote from Sadie Nardini, NYC yoga teacher and author of Om Scampi, her wordy confessional essay about eating meat.

“Nowhere is it written that only vegetarians can do yoga,” she said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “We do not live in the time of the founding fathers of yoga, and we don’t know what they wanted us to eat.”

I think ahimsa is pretty clear, and if you are participating in the consumption of animals you are certainly "doing harm."   That said, there are plenty of yoga classes in gyms accross the country that focus only on the physical practice of yoga.  It is certainly possible to do the postures and ignore the spiritual teachings.  People do it everyday.  However, I don't think that is Ms. Nardini's point.

I'm no saint.  I enjoy fish on a fairly regular basis, but I'm not going to pretend that it's okay simply because Patanjali is not alive today to tell me that doing so violates ahimsa

Furthermore, I think that animals that are treated well and killed humanely do far less damage than the factory farmed variety.

My real beef (pun intended) is Ms. Nardini's defensiveness and lame excuses for why it's okay for modern yogis to freely eat meat.  I wonder if she would be willing to go out and kill her own meat.  That might kill the taste of intolerance in my mouth.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Discipline and Service

This year I was a little delayed in writing my list of resolutions, and when I got to it I realized it was a little repetitive of the things I'd been trying to do all year:  Practice yoga consistently, write more, meditate more, give more...  Then a friend mentioned that instead of writing a list of resolutions, she simply gave the year a theme.  For her, it was discipline.

Brilliant! I thought.  If there is any one word that can sum up what I need more of in my life - it is discipline.  So, I took her idea and added "service" to it. My year is devoted to discipline and service.  

Now that it is 3 weeks into 2010, I have finally started implementing discipline and service into my life.  (Hey, what's the rush?)  In the last several months I have gotten very lazy with my yoga practice, and I can really feel the difference both physically and mentally.  To kick start my year of discipline I started "21 days of yoga" three days ago.  I'm committed to my ashtanga yoga practice 6 days a week, with 1 day of restorative yoga at the end of each week.  It is said that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit.  May the good habit forming commence!

Service is a little more slippery.  Service can seem overwhelming if we think we have to do big, time consuming volunteer work in one area.  But the truth is - opportunities to serve are all around us everyday.  Service can be as simple as taking the time to share useful information, offering to help someone who's looking overwhelmed, giving a compliment to brighten someone's day, or taking the time to write a thank you note. 

I'm reading a novel called The Lost Art of Gratitude, by Alexander McCall Smith.  Besides being set in one of my favorite cities, Edinburgh, it is full of thought provoking prose.  The main character, Isabel Dalhousie, recalls a quote from her mother to "treat everyone you meet as if it is their last day, and they don't know it."  To me, this is a perfect example of service - and admittedly something I will never be able to do 100%, or even 80% of the time.  But I can try...   

For me, I want to get more involved in animal welfare.  It's something that is close to my heart and I feel like I have a calling to do so.  I have a particular fondness for hooved animals.  Horses, of course, but also cows, goats and sheep. 

After 3 days of ashtanga I'm already feeling better and looking forward to my next practice.  It makes being nice a whole lot easier, so being of service should be a piece of cake.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Southwest Quinoa Salad

1 cup quinoa (keen-wah)
1 can black beans drained and rinsed
1 red bell pepper chopped
1 cup of corn
½ cup red onion chopped
Cilantro coarsely chopped (to taste)
2-3 small tomatoes chopped
2 small cucumbers quartered and chopped
Sea Salt
Juice of 1 lime
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Green Onion (optional)

Cook the quinoa as you would rice.
I suggest using one part water and
one part vegetable broth. In a big bowl,
toss all ingredients with the quinoa.

Chill and serve.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Quinoa salad with a side of resentment

Yesterday was a challenging day for me. There were obstacles put in my way to test my patience and I failed to hurdle them gracefully. Instead, I stumbled into a serious face plant. Perhaps it's those pesky hormones that come every month and cause all of my enlightened thinking to fly out the window and render me intolerant.

The day started out positively enough. I was invited to a surprise birthday party wherein everyone was asked to bring a vegan and/or raw dish to contribute. I prepared my famous southwest quinoa salad to add to the menu. I felt pretty good about it.

When I arrived at the party, the guest of honor's boyfriend was visible in the window as I parked my scooter close to the wall as he'd instructed me to do the last time I had been there. He started mouthing something through the window, and then looked annoyed as he got up to come out to meet me.

"Can you move it back - that's the only path to the front of the building," he said.

I probably wouldn't have been bothered had he not barked at me the last time I was there for my poor parking choice. This time I went out of my way to park exactly where he had instructed me to on that previous occasion. And it's a Vespa for God's sake! How much of a problem could it be?

"Sure," I said in a tone with only a hint of pissiness. "Can you take this?" I said, as pushed the quinoa salad into his hands. 

All of the food was beautifully displayed on the table.  There was a rainbow of raw colors in green, red, and orange, all lovingly placed for visual effect. All, that is, except for my quinoa salad, which, to my dismay, never made it to the table. I could feel myself headed for my own personal hissy fit.

I nibbled on luscious spring rolls and chatted with other guests, but I couldn't stop thinking about the absence of my salad. The clock ticked and tocked, but still there was no appearance of the quinoa. How rude! I thought, and started to take it very personally. Yes, I know, the first lesson in life is to never take anything personally. Well... too late.

Finally, I decided it was time to take myself and my resentment out of there. I couldn't help but notice that the parking lot was then crowded with cars, and a motorcycle had wedged into the very spot where I had been asked to move my Vespa. Hmph! I scooted away indignantly.

So what was that saying from the wise man I quoted before? "Nobody knows what they are doing. Everyone is doing the best that they can in this moment. If they could do better, they would do better." I guess I could apply that to myself as well, because my PMS-addled brain was incapable of doing any better.

While I know in my heart that anger and resentment are counterproductive, it is also true that sometimes you just have to let yourself feel whatever comes up. I can judge myself for being judgmental, or I can just accept that he stepped on my ego and I'm well within my rights to be offended. Like Rumi's poem, The House Guest:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Furthermore, one of the beautiful things about yoga is that there is always opportunity for a new beginning in every moment. We practice yoga, we don't perfect yoga. It's letting everything be what it is in that moment, including yourself.

Right now is is a new chance to practice - with or without quinoa salad.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Starting the year with good intentions

I've been an "aspiring" vegan for some time now. Even before I learned the Sanskrit word ahimsa, which translates to "do no harm," I felt pretty strongly about the way our food animals are treated in this country. Giving up meat and dairy, and simply not participating in the suffering has been my contribution to the practice of ahimsa. Recently, I was exposed to various materials that have me thinking a little deeper on these topics.

The first only served to disturb me to the core. I found a clip of a film called Earthlings, which is a documentary about the suffering of animals worldwide at human hands. To say that the trailer for this film is disturbing is a gross understatement. Watch it at your own risk. Even though I'm already aware of the suffering of animals due to factory farming, this footage is beyond the pale. It is heartbreaking and deeply disturbing, but for many it is only "preaching to the choir." It's those who are blissfully unaware of where their food comes from that need to see this film.

The second film that really opened my eyes in a new way is Food, Inc. While there is a little bit of animal footage in this documentary, the real story is where our food comes from, and who is in control of the industry. It is, of course, corporate America. This film gets to the root of factory farming, how we've gotten to this point, and for the first time reveals that it is not only the animals that suffer in this assembly line, it also harms low income employees that work in these factories. Ultimately the American public suffers with obesity due to low cost, low nutrient food. An interview with best selling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan, solidifies the point of this film - Where does your food come from and what is the real cost of it?

Finally, I got some good news from NPR. It seems that dairy farmers are going bankrupt because more and more people are choosing to buy organic dairy products. The story on NPR follows a family who had given up dairy farming because they couldn't make a profit. A few years later they gave it another try, this time going organic. They own only 42 cows and know each one by name, and since they cannot use antibiotics on organic cows, it is essential that the health of each cow be closely monitored. In my eyes, this is the way dairy farming should be, and the story makes me feel a little bit better about deviating from my vegan diet with organic coffee creamer.

If we truly believe the old adage "you are what you eat," I think we can do ourselves a great service by investigating where our food comes from, and making choices that honor ahimsa and ourselves. The sources mentioned here are a great place to start.

Namaste.