Ahimsa - A {Sacred} Thread Writing Prompt

Briefly, its been really fun to get to know the yoga community here in Atlanta. I'm lucky to teach at some truly wonderful studios that help me to connect with their students. Every studio does it a little different. At {Sacred} Thread one of the ways we get to interact is through a common teaching theme each month. I love it. We teach on it during class and submit our thoughts on it in writing as well. When it comes down to it I love to write but am undisciplined and work best from prompts.


Thoughts ON ahimsa:

Have you ever failed at being the bigger person? Have you ever lost your temper, slammed a door, raised your voice or wished ill upon someone? If not, please take me under your wing and teach me your ways. If so, what if anything are you intentionally doing to lessen or eliminate such behaviors? How often have you been on the receiving end of such lapses in kindness? 

When you step inside of a yoga studio designated as a quiet space for meditation, set aside for a moment the need to speak words and externalize your experience to the people around you, and start breathing and focusing on the internal state of your mind and emotions what do you notice?

Do you hear a calm, confident encouragement about the yoga that's about to happen, a loud clamoring about the things on your to do list that are not being done while you're in class, a rehashing of the missed opportunity to connect with someone, a barrage of how you have to do better on your next job interview? There are limitless possibilities as individual as the emotions and situations we experience from moment to moment each day. The consistent factor each time you or anyone else practices is that in those 60-90 minutes of silence and moving you have the opportunity to observe your relationship with yourself. Reviewing those times that you have had the opportunity to observe your inner dialog, are you communicating compassionately or with animosity? 

Yoga is multifaceted with the physical practice (Asana) being but one of many angles by which one might undertake to "do yoga." In fact, it is a more traditional approach that the student spends time and tutelage under a guru to demonstrate a mature self-understanding and an ability to externalize moral behavior in interactions with the rest of the living world. Those particular two facets of yoga are the Yamas and Niyamas - ten things to not do or do along your path of practicing yoga. At the top of the list of Yamas, the actions to refrain from doing, is to commit violence. In the West we talk about having compassion, being peaceful and non-violent and in the East this same concept is termed Ahimsa. Whatever you want to call it - ahimsa or compassion - this ethical construct is viewed as a foundational aspect of moral behavior cross-culturally. 

So often it is demonstrated that in order to get anyone to make a change we much lead by example. So often we find ourselves multi-tasking and underperforming. As far as kindness and compassion go the trend follows - its natural to want other people to demonstrate kindness to us yet we in turn fail miserably all of the time at being examples of said kindness. Yoga anticipates, predicts and provides a solution for all of this. When you step inside of the yoga studio and are allowed a consistent quiet space to go in and observe your relationship with yourself do you find that it is perhaps not unlike your other relationships? Do you perfectly execute kindness and compassion on your self or do you allow there to be some level of harsh critique...violence? 

Yoga is there to give you that time and space to practice compassion on yourself. Sometimes the teacher is there to push you to your very physical limits so you can see how your relationship with yourself is under stress (while getting a nice workout), sometimes the teacher is there to give you practice that will allow you to relax into a pose with as little work as possible so you can almost entirely focus on accepting exactly where you are. Each day is different, you are different each day but the yoga is there consistently in whatever iteration you need to begin to grow your practice of Ahmisa, your capacity for compassion on yourself. 

Being kind and compassionate to others is a much a skill as any sport or artistic talent. To become a master at painting one must attain the necessary dexterity of hand by holding different bushes and practicing different strokes. Chances are you learned to ride a bike by practicing with training wheels or on a tricycle. Doing anything that requires skill takes practice, consistently, emphasizing foundations but also increasing the difficulty again and again and again. Yoga, undertaken with intention is the perfect method for practicing compassion on yourself. The differences it might have initially in your relationships might be subtle but as you stand a little taller, compose your face through hardship, and remember to balance your breathing, external stressors seem more like tough poses - challenging, yes, but ultimately just one more step along the path of yoga.  

 

"Ahimsa calls for the strength and courage to suffer without retaliation, to receive blows without returning any."  M. K. Gandhi 

140908 Yogi Time Lapse - This is how to lotus

Warrior poses and handstands and one-leg balancing postures and down dogs and planks, and cobras - yep, all great poses. Those poses only help, minimally, however, in developing the lotus seat - padmasana. If you only have a rigorous asana practice you are missing out on some of the biggest benefits of yoga derived from sitting and meditating. It is widely agreed that the lotus seat is one of the best postures for meditation. This is due to the natural torque that occurs in in the hips which in turns grounds the ischium. The reciprocal energy of the legs into one another and then into the ground and a similar transference between the ischium and ground allows energy to be drawn into the pelvic floor almost effortlessly. In turn, through controlled breathing, the abdominal diaphragm lifts the energy though the anterior and posterior planes of the trunk, into the chest and when the shoulders are relaxed the chest has room to fully expand. Thus, this particular seated posture allows for the greatest ease and expansiveness with breath. With an appropriate dristi or focal point, the neck continues this unbroken transference of energy all the way through the spine from tailbone through the crown of the head. 

Such economy of energy transference is hard to replicate in other poses. In my experience "easy pose" or sukkhasana requires more trunk stabilization as does bound angle (boddha konasana). Child's pose (balansana) or kneeling are good options but the compressive element of those poses puts the shins, ankles, calves, and feet to sleep when held for a long time. Savasana or "corpse pose" is great for economy of movement but the challenge in that posture is to keep your meditation from turning into sleep! 

So how do you get into lotus? Have you tried only to have too much pain in the knee or ankle to get all the way situated? For some the lotus seat is easy. The hips are naturally very open, their legs are long enough that the angle for the knee is less severe. For many, however, lotus is anything but comfortable and just about unattainable. I fell into the latter camp my entire yoga career until just this past month.

A year ago it was pointed out to me that my ankles were turning under or "sickling" when doing poses like pigeon, cow-face pose and in half lotus, fire long pose - really the list was very long. For me, unlocking lotus started with fixing my ankles. The ankle is intended to be either extended - nice and straight with the toes expressing that straightness by pointing OR the ankle can be in some degree of flexion as in when you are standing on it. Problems with the ankles start in the bottom of the foot more often than not, though mine actually was a combination of poor foot placement during walking and old soccer injuries. People over-weight the outside of the foot when walking and that translates to the seated position. The outside edge of the foot begins to turn under and there is an outward bowing of the ankle joint placing a LOT of stress on the lateral ankle ligaments. I started by making sure my ankles were either expressing full flexion or extension in each of the poses above.  Two things helped me get my foot into really good flexion -

1) When possible use your hand or another body part to give the foot feedback. If you walk wrong chances are the second you try to put your foot into flexion without the floor underneath it you will default to your bad walking pattern. Use your hand on the bottom of your foot to simulate a floor and root down the base of the big toe and pinky toe as well as the heel to get your foot flat and start to re-train appropriate flexion at the ankle.

2) Flare the pinky toe. Yogi toes look ridiculous at first but aside from the surface area they provide for balance, this simple flaring of the toes pulls the muscles of the plantar fascia and arch wider, stretching the bottom of the foot which in turn makes ankle flexion a LOT easier. 

So after the ankles, the next major crux is the knee, right? If your ankle is fully into extension or flexion you're going to have to work rather hard to get your knee out of alignment. Your knee is a hinge joint, just like the angle. The knee joint expresses range of motion between 0 degrees (knee totally compressed as in kneeling) and 180 degrees (knee open as in standing). In between the two is the mid-way, 90 degree angle, as in sitting in a chair with the feet flat on the ground. Those are the three safest positions for the knee. At any of those three angles, the foot angle can either be flexion or extension and the effect of the relationship between the ankle and knee is experienced in the hip. If your knees give you trouble my suggestions are as follows - 

1) Spend a LOT of time kneeling. Start small with a block underneath you for support and work eventually so that you do no need the block. Start with 5 minutes and work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes. Mind over matter, your legs will tingle but if you keep your pelvic floor and core engaged and your focus on your breath you will one day make it that long. Don't expect that to happen overnight or without some tears. When you have sat kneeling for a long time, make sure you give yourself a long time to unwind out of the posture and don't try to stand up right away. Just get in dandasana and let your body process what happened. 

2) Heros pose at least 3 days a week - once you can kneel for about 15 minutes without a block start working Virasana into your practice to help with internal rotation of the hip while the knee is compressed. This is the opposite movement of the hip than lotus pose but as is often the case one must go East to go West. The hip will not externally rotate if the internal rotation component is missing.

3) Start practice your half lotus - in tree pose, on the ground. Get the heel in contact with the abdomen about two inches below the navel and slightly to whatever side leg you are working. Get the very midline of the shin pointing to the ground and then lean forward to help your pelvis tilt anteriorly. Eventually your knee will drop down to the ground and you will have one half of your lotus legs.

Finally what does one do about the hips? If the ankle and knee are in a good relationship to one another, stretching that you do in pigeon, cow-face pose, janu sirsana, fire log pose etc will all work efficiently and effectively and most important EXCLUSIVELY at the hip. Unlike the other two joints, your hip is a ball and socket. The range of motion in the hip is huge comparatively and you need all of it for lotus. In my opinion the hip takes care of itself when the other two joints are in order. One of the most important poses to get your ready for padmasana is fire log aka double pigeon aka agnisthambasana. This pose is a doosey. It slowly torques the hip socket into submission. Often the hip does not rotate out or back all of the way in the socket but this pose will take care of both of those elements. The first time you try this pose however you might find that there is huge gap between your top leg and bottom leg. First, follow all of the aforementioned tips for the ankle, make sure they are both in flexion. You may need to hang the top ankle over the quad muscle of the bottom leg to be unimpinged in your top foot flexion. From there my tips are as follows - 

1) Lean forward and compress your torso onto your legs. This will guide your hip placement and  anteriorly tilt the pelvis so the head of the femur sits all the way back into the socket.

2) If it feels bad in the knee or ankle don't go there yet. That is my advice at every step of the way to lotus. You only have one knee and one ankle per leg. Treat them kindly. Go slow. Do not force things upon your body that it is not ready for.

I will likely do a tutorial or maybe even a lotus workshop here, soon. If you want a great video on how to get into lotus go here. To see all of the above advice in action check out my time lapse from yesterday below. Good luck and let me know if you have any questions in the comments.

Labor Day Yogi Time Lapse with some stills

Well, I find myself working on Labor Day, again. Its a regular occurrence. The last real (as in away from home and more than just a weekend) vacation I took was in 2009 when I went down to Mexico to help people build houses. I take a day or two per week to slow down and not work but I figured people might like to do some yoga on a day where they do not have to rush to work. So, today ended up being a work day.

Here's my time lapse from my personal practice and some stills with comments. Yes, its good to go to a studio and have a teacher guide you through practice. But now that technology has advanced to iPads and iPhones you can train your own eye in alignment and work to fix your own alignment issues, too. If you can't make it to a studio I highly recommend you get on that asap - there is no reason to keep yourself in the dark.

Yes, I am incorporating more free-style movement into my flows. Maybe one day, I will post a video of me dancing. There are many on my personal Facebook page but they are hidden from all but me these days. It used to be I would share them but then I stopped using FB for all but the essential upkeep of the Congruence Yoga page. But, they are organic moments so keep watching to see when one happens to spring forth.

I read that Pattahbi Jois could hold his Urdhva Muka Svanasana for 15 minutes and practice his pranayama while in the pose. I've been working on strengthening and lengthening the duration of my holds in Up Dog ever since. I find the challenge is to no lose the strength/support of the abs or the upward movement of energy from the hands into the chest, sternum and head.


If I look introspective in this posture it is because I'm going deep inside to find the core stability to maintain balance while stretching that hammies in this pose.


Oh hey, wheel. No surprise, my shoulders could open more but this is looking supported enough in the middle to maybe walk my hands in and get that deeper should opening. Maybe I'll try that with a wall soon.


Whoa, yogi toes and bliss point. This marichyasana A is looking comfortable and reflective. No pain-face here!

Variety within a yoga practice and some Ayurveda basics

I've mentioned before that my yoga practice does not look the same every day. Once a week I take a rest day and the rest of the time I listen to what my body tells me I need. Friday I did a really vigorous flow with a lot of back bending and power moves. It was great. My abs were sore, my side body and back felt really flexible and I felt mentally clear and strong. The next morning I decided to go to the back-to-basics Bikram workshop at Hot Yoga Downtown. Flexibility with my practice style has kept me moving along - flowing up and over plateaus and always grateful and happy to practice yoga.

The kind of fluidity, however, is very much against my nature. Any way you cut it, any personality assessment you do of me, I am in theory and in practice, a person that tends toward structure and discipline. For the sake of simplicity, let's keep to Eastern concepts in discussing my decisions and personality-type. Ayurveda is an Eastern approach to broad-stroke personality type characterization. At its basis it asks the person to observe him or herself physically - the personality characterization follows from the body-type. There are three body-based personality-types known as "the doshas." 

Even very modern personality theories have been debunked when the scope moves from personal analysis to analyzing others. So, while I can find some basic common sense suggestions in dosha theory as well as The Myers-Briggs, they are only facets of my self-understanding. That being said, its helpful to have the observation of millions of similar humans to guide my understanding and in that way dosha theory is helpful. People have seen correlations as they have been outlined by the doshas for many thousands of years - that's just enough of a pattern to cause me to stop and examine how I am the same and how I am different. Therein the characterization becomes a powerful tool. 

I am a pitta's pitta according to dosha type. Where I have done best to use that understanding to great effect has been in my diet and in my yoga practice. My diet is a topic oft discussed, as I have been able to put on muscle and drop weight on a whim since I was about 23 years old. That kind of ease in shifting my appearance leaves a lot of people wondering what my secrets are so I will write about that in another post.

As far as my yoga practice goes, recognizing my tendency toward order, I can imagine it would be very easy to do the same yoga routine over and over day in and day out at the same time every day. I also recognized that I would become so regimented that if something occurred to throw off that routine I would be super angry or depressed. I have not found the perfect balance (I suspect I would still do best to practice at a consistent time daily) but I have found fluidity in the style of yoga I practice and that has been a strong start to a lifelong practice (a year and a half daily practice to-date). Switching styles from yin to Bikram to power vinyasa has kept my practice feeling fresh and new and has allowed me a variety of poses and mental approaches to leverage continual change out of my body. It is also recommended for pitta personalities to do as much. I made that decision independently but I rediscovered that recommendation this morning as I was checking dosha theory.

The reason I wanted to spend a little time on dosha theory is to discuss how my body reacts to different yoga styles. In particular I wanted to highlight my experience with hot yoga which came in two different phases of my life. When I moved back to Virginia from Austin, Tx I did Bikram Yoga for one whole month, everyday. When I went to my teacher training in Austin, Tx I did hot yoga every day for one week. I found the same thing happened both times and I think it is worth sharing. I started out strong, enjoying the heat but after every class it was a fight to get enough to drink and eat to compensate for the amount of energy that I burn. I run hot, I sweat a lot. That, too is very pitta, apparently so retrospectively it all makes sense. My metabolism is always on afterburners so when I put myself into a hot environment I burn out fast and entirely. After several days of hot yoga, I was unable to maintain my usual intensity in work and other physical endeavors. In that moment it was not a good thing but it can be good. I am intense in all activities and find it hard to take days off from work and mentally strenuous activities so Bikram/hot yoga is the perfect yoga for the morning or evening before a day-off wherein I want to do nothing but watch Netflix, listen to audiobooks, cuddle with the dogs, and eat food. For someone else hot yoga might be the perfect daily practice and instead of sapping them of energy it might energize him or her. That person is not me. 

When I do yin yoga, I get super contemplative and very in-tune with the micro-changes that happen in my body. I have the opportunity to notice mental patterns that are tied into physical barriers. I also feel like I make super huge gains in flexibility from staying longer in the poses. The only problem is I miss the movement and the strength of vinyasa after a day of yin. In the same way that Bikram can be used to great effect, so too, can yin. It keeps me wanting more yoga. Is yin the perfect style for someone else to use primarily? Yes, surely. For me, yin is a supplement.

At the end of the day you are more than a personality assessment and your needs will vary throughout your life. Listen to your body and honor what it is telling you. Seek out different styles of yoga - we have all of the aforementioned and more right here in Lynchburg, Va. The more you know about the variety of yoga and your own body the more educated decisions you can make. Have fun, practice daily.