"I hope everyone will allow themselves to be really crappy today, to walk away from being perfect. The real yoga isn't in the perfect pose; it's in the crappy pose that you are really feeling."

~the red-haired yoga teacher as quoted by Claire Dederer, author; Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses

Friday, November 28, 2014

The benefits of being a child.


Surrender.
Accept all that is with an open heart.
The more grateful you are,
the more life with bring.


Balasana is another key pose in all yoga practices regardless of the style of yoga being performed.  Balasana also called Child's Pose is one of the most common resting postures.  Anytime during your practice, when you find it necessary to re-connect with your breath, you are invited to take Child's Pose.  Please do not feel it necessary for your teacher to instruct you into the pose. 

BENEFITS OF BALASANA:
  • Gently stretches lower back, hips, thighs, knees, and ankles.
  • Relaxes spine, shoulders, and neck.
  • Calms the mind, reducing tension and stress.
  • Alleviates headaches by increasing blood circulation to the head.

GETTING INTO BALASANA:
  • From Table position, bring your knees and feet together and then sink your hips to your feet.
  • Fold your torso over your thighs and rest your forehead on the floor.
  • Rest your arms along your sides.  Palms are face up near your feet.
  • Completely relax your head and shoulders.

                  MODIFICATION(s):
  • If you feel tight, try separating your knees hip-width apart while big toes continue to touch.  This will give you more space in your chest.
  • If your hips don't reach your feet, you can place a rolled-up blanket, mat, or bolster between your heels and your hamstrings.
  • If your forehead doesn't reach the mat, place a block to bring the ground closer to you.
Play around with this pose.  Some people prefer to keep their arms extended in front of them, some prefer their hands back by their feet.  Find what's comfortable for you; where you can relax and re-gain control of your breath.


One reason I believe we find Balasana to be such a soothing force of nature is because it is ingrained in our body's muscle memory.  Whether you realize it or not, you've been performing Balasana since before you were born. 




DELVING DEEPER: 

No matter what modification(s) you choose for your child's pose:  knees together or apart, hands by your feet or extended in front of you, it is important to rest your forehead either on the mat or a block in order to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating a variety of body functions:  heart rate, breathing, sweating, and digestion.  It works in conjunction with the sympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system provides quick responses to immediate needs and is often referred to as our "fight or flight," response.  On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the parasympathetic nervous system.  The parasympathetic nervous system helps to slow the body's reaction, thus allowing for less urgent processes to occur, often referred to our "rest or digest" response.


A LITTLE ANECDOTE:

It wasn't until I was fully engulfed in yoga teacher training that I even knew a pose called Balasana existed.  Crazy...considering I just told you this is a key pose in all yoga practices, right!?  But it's true. Over the course of several years, at least a hundred classes, and multiple teachers, never once did I hear the right pronunciation of the pose.  I always heard Valasana...with a V!  I finally discovered the correct name for Child's Pose when I was reading a book that kept referencing Balasana.  Imagine my shock, when I googled this pose I'd never heard of and Child's Pose appeared.

But regardless if you call it Balasana or Valasana, be comfortable in Child's Pose and always remember it's your practice, not your neighbor's practice or your instructor's practice.  Yours and yours alone.  Happy resting!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Shanghai'd Thanksgiving

I originally wrote the following article in 2007 after a disastrous first Thanksgiving spent living abroad.  It was later published in an anthology titled Thanksgiving Tales: True Stories of the Holiday in America.
Three years into our expat assignment, I finally realized Thanksgiving is not about the food being served, it's about the people you spend the day with.   
Today we are back on U.S. soil, but still far from home.  I feel particularly grateful for the community we've cultivated over the past couple of years. In Sanskrit, the word Kula has several meanings: herd, flock, clan, tribe, family, habitat, gang, which when pared down all mean "community". Tomorrow, we will celebrate Thanksgiving with our Kula.  Fortunately for all involved, I am not responsible for cooking the turkey this year! 

SHANGHAI'D THANKSGIVING

It had been just three months since we boarded a plane bound for China, and transitioning to life in Shanghai was going much smoother than anticipated.  It wasn't until confronted with the impending arrival of Thanksgiving, a truly traditional American holiday, I realized just how far from home we were. 

For me, Thanksgiving meant spending the day with family, eating and eating and eating until it became imperative to change into pants with an elastic waistband.  I was determined to re-create that tradition with my own children, but in order to accomplish this, I first needed to find a turkey.  Without a turkey, Thanksgiving might as well be on a Tuesday in July.  It cannot be celebrated without a turkey.  Period.

In November in the United States, turkey is not only plentiful but cheap.  Many stores offer promotions, and if taken advantage of, the turkey is easily the least expensive item on the menu--not so in China.  Turkey, being indigenous to North and South America, are neither wild nor farmed in any part of Asia.  And although there are 19 million people in Shanghai, only a select group of expatriates want to eat them...and only once a year.  Therefore, the average 15-pound gobbler will set you back approximately $100 U.S. dollars.

In addition to the requisite turkey, the menu also included mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls, corn, fresh vegetables with dip, and Jell-O.  Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, finding them required scouring five different stores over three days and cost a small fortune.  But I did it!  I found everything I needed, including the myriad of spices to make brine, which was sure to be the one thing that brought the simple bill of fare to five-star restaurant status.



Thanksgiving Day, after consulting with both Betty Crocker and Butterball.com, I determined the bird would take approximately four hours to cook at a temperature of about 350 degrees.  I carefully converted Fahrenheit to Centrigrade and decided to set the oven at 170 degrees.

While the oven was warming, my husband pulled the bird from the brine, which had been soaking up the lovely, savory flavors overnight, only to discover the pan I'd purchased was too small.  It was like trying to squeeze a size ten foot into a strappy, little size seven shoe.  It just wasn't going to work. 

In my shopping excursions that week, I noticed some of the stores stocked with disposable pans.  I crossed my fingers as I ran on foot to the closest little market.  I was in luck.  Covered in dust and tucked away on a back shelf, they had just one.  I snatched it up and ran home.

We were now ready to throw the main course into the gas chamber, but the new pan was too big for the tiny oven.  After performing a little origami fused with some karate chops on the cheap aluminum, the pan fit.

With the turkey safely roasting, I took the kids to the park for the afternoon.  When I returned, I started peeling the potatoes.  By my estimation, the bird would be done in 30 minutes.  I opened the oven door to check its progress. NO FLAME.  At some point during the day, the gas had blown out and while the temperature in the oven dropped, the tension in the kitchen soared. 

We had no idea how long the turkey had not been roasting, and this particular bird had no plastic indicator to let us know when it was time to carve, so we did the next best thing and stuck a thermometer in it.  My husband punctured the breast and watched while the temperature gauge rose.

"According to Betty, the thermometer is supposed to go in the thigh," I informed him after consulting the red and white checkered cookbook.

"Where's the thigh?" he replied.

"I'm not exactly sure," I said, "but I know that's not it."

He left the thermometer in the breast and we watched as it climbed to 130 degrees Fahrenheit.  The kids were starting to moan and groan.  They were "staaaarving."  So I presented them with veggies and dip and we started to snack while we waited another estimated hour for the bird to reach a safe temperature to eat.

When the thermometer started to beep, indicating the turkey had reached temperature, I began to set the table.  While my husband whipped the mashed potatoes into creamy goodness and heated the corn, he snuck a bite of a dinner roll...and then promptly spit it out.  The rolls were filled with sweet cream and raisins.  We'd spent several hours the day before going from one bakery to the next in search of anything that resembled a dinner roll.  The little surprise inside of these was unexpected and unappreciated.

I remembered seeing a French baguette at the store earlier, so I put on my running shoes and sprinted there a second time.  Again, I felt very lucky.  No one else had purchased the single loaf of bread on the shelf.  I paid for it and raced back home.

Finally we were ready to eat.  The table was set, the candles were lit, and we said our prayers of thanksgiving.  Just as we were about to carve the turkey, in the the flicker of the candlelight, I noticed a lot of juice on the platter.  I jumped out of my seat and threw on the lights...BLOOD!  The entire ambiance was ruined as the bird was not even close to being edible.  Frustrated, my husband cut the gobbler wide open and put it back in the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  He sliced off a large piece of breast meat, nuked it,  and sat down to eat.  I fed the kids Jell-O while I waited for the turkey to finish roasting.  At 8 p.m., I opened the oven door to check on the bird.  NO FLAME!

After eight hours of failed attempts to roast the perfect turkey, I surrendered.  I put everything away, did the dishes, and bathed the kids.  Once they were safely tucked into bed, I broke out the Pop Tarts.

Happy Thanksgiving to me!

Our third Thanksgiving in China, there was not a turkey in sight, just great friends and lots of laughs.  I was wrong.  While eating turkey is a nice addition to the holiday, it is ultimately who you spend the day with that matters most---not what's on the menu.











Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Standing Tall in Mountain Pose



One of my last projects to complete in order to receive my 200 hour yoga teacher training certification is to write a 6 week beginning yoga student series.  Mountain Pose is a foundational yoga pose.  It should be taught (and learned) before any other pose.  It is a pose that is important enough, I felt it warranted a blog post dedicated to only it.

Mountain Pose, known in Sankskrit as Tadasana, is a key pose in all yoga styles.  It is the pose we seek in every other pose.  Proper alignment is crucial and begins at the base of the mountain, where our feet meet the earth.  Choose your base wisely.  Some people prefer their feet together.  Some people prefer their feet apart.  A wider stance will produce a more stable foundation, so if balance is a concern, feet hip distance apart is a good guideline. 

Standing at the top of your mat, lift your toes up and place them all back down one by one so the pads of your toes touch the ground beneath them.  Shift around on your feet until you feel your weight evenly distributed between your big toe mound, your little toe mound, and the heel of your foot.  Once your feet are firmly planted, you can begin to move up the mountain.

  • Engage your quadriceps, the muscles at the front of the thigh.  You should feel a slight lift in your knee caps.
  • Check that your pelvis is in a neutral position.  If you have a tendency to stick your tailbone out, scoop it slightly being careful not to over-scoop or hypo-extend.
  • Engage your core muscles.
  • Lengthen up through your spine.
  • Relax your shoulders and roll them down your back.
  • Chin should be in a neutral position, parallel to the floor.
  • Turn your palms to face front.
  • Breathe.

Can you see Tadasana in this Downward Dog?
As you continue to practice yoga, you’ll start to realize, Tadasana is in every pose…the neutral pelvis, the engaged core muscles, the straightened spine, reaching out through the crown of your head and out through the heels of your feet—in plank, in downward facing dog, in forward fold.  Build a strong mountain from the beginning and a strong asana practice will follow.

During a Yin Yoga teacher training seminar, Joe Barnett, a senior student of Paul Grilley, stated:  “As we grow older, we are shrinking and drying up.”  In fact, according to the article, Do people shrink as they age? written by University of Arkansas for Medical Services, we can start to lose inches as early as 30 years old.

Don't over-scoop putting your pelvis into posterior tilt.
Well into my “over the hill” years, I’m certain this statement is true for a large majority of the population, but I can attest that I am actually ½” taller than I was before I began practicing yoga.  Not because there’s magic or voodoo in my yoga practice, but because of Tadasana.  I have learned to stand up straight.  I no longer stand with my pelvis anteriorly tilted; I no longer stand with my shoulders slumped forward; and I no longer stand with my gaze toward the floor.  I stand with my spine straight, pelvis in neutral, shoulders back, and head high.  I’ve elongated my spine and created space between my vertebrae.


So while most people my age are being overcome by the gravitational pull of the earth, I’m finding new height!  Just one more positive thing to add to the list of the many ways yoga has improved my overall quality of  life.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

It's more than just a car.

As I pull out of my driveway in my shiny, new, silver Toyota Prius V, my neighbor is roaring down the street (at 25 mph) in his shiny, new monster truck complete with neon orange shock absorbers and custom detailing.

When I bought my Prius, I was making a conscientious decision to be a better global citizen.  Me, myself, and I.  No judgements.  My neighbors are great people despite their taste in automobiles, and they are far from the only people here in NASCAR country that jack their vehicles ten feet off the ground.

Since buying my environmentally friendly vehicle in May, I have watched with pure delight as my miles per gallon have climbed to it's current reading of 43.5 MPG.  With each new tenth of a mile, I clap and cheer with downright giddiness.  Estimating a savings of $200/month, "This car is paying for itself!" I exclaim to whoever will listen.

If I'm being totally honest, I never gave much thought to the cost of gas BP (Before Prius), but then my neighbor's monster truck rambled down the road and I began to think about it.  It's Economics 101:  supply and demand.  While I'm getting over 40 MPG, my neighbor is probably getting south of 10 MPG.

I know, I know.  It's his money, right?  But is it?

The more gas his monster truck guzzles, the less gas there is to go around.  The more gas one person uses, the more we ALL pay at the pump.  Supply and demand.  So while I'm saving myself money by using less gas to go from Point A to Point B, I'm saving you money too.

YOU'RE WELCOME.

My Prius is not glamorous.  It's not sexy.  People don't do a double-take with envy.  But it is the smartest designed car I've ever owned, with storage, cargo space, and leg room that can rival sexy any day.

And if saving money while saving the planet isn't sexy, I don't know what is!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Is the Word of God in the Yoga Sutras?




When I originally read the Yamas, the first of the 8 limbs of yoga as outlined by Patanjali, I couldn’t help but notice a parallel between them and the Ten Commandments as outlined in the Bible.  The Yamas are considered moral restraints and tell us how to behave in society; the Ten Commandments do the same.

Before Patanjali transcribed the Yoga Sutras in 400 AD, laying the groundwork for modern day yoga, yoga was taught one on one, wisdom passing from guru (teacher) to student.  Not unlike Martin Luther who translated the Bible from Latin to German to spread the word of God to a larger audience. 



AHIMSA:
The first Yama is AHIMSA, which is the practice of "non-violence".  According to Judith Lasater, “This refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts.”  Judith Lasater is considered one of the nation's foremost yoga instructors having co-founded not only the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, but also, the most prominent magazine for yoga enthusiasts, Yoga Journal.  

 A lot of yogis interpret AHIMSA to include all animals and animal by-products resulting in the participation of veganism or vegetarianism.  AHIMSA is similar to the 5th commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  However, in 1280 B.C. in the land of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the books of the Bible where the Ten Commandments appear, God was still demanding the slaughter of innocent farm animals as a temporary covering of sins.  His intention with the Fifth Commandment was not to create a world of herbivores.   

While I can never see myself converting to veganism, I have found myself being more conscientious toward all living creatures.  I no longer mindlessly swat insects and as far as violent thoughts are concerned, I am judging less and viewing all beings including myself with compassionate eyes more.   Whether or not AHIMSA was intended to extend to all living creatures or just mankind is up for interpretation, similar to many passages in the Bible.

SATYA:
The next Yama is known as SATYA or “truth”.  Judith Lasater wrote, “Honesty is what we do when others are around and might judge our actions or words, but to have integrity is to act in an honest manner when others are not around and will never know about our actions.”  Again this Yama bears a strong resemblance to the 8th commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  In other words:  Tell the truth.  Be honest.  Don’t lie.

In The Small Catechism by Martin Luther, the explanation of the 8th commandment is expanded to read, “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully, belie, betray, slander or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.  I believe “neighbor” is a broad term and can be expanded to include all people with whom you come into contact.  Because our truth(s) are filtered through our own experiences and beliefs--our perception is our reality—we have a better chance of achieving SATYA if we speak with the intention of not harming others.

ASTEYA:
The third Yama is ASTEYA, which translates to “non-stealing”.  Again there is a commandment that supports that philosophy.  Commandment #7—“Thou shalt not steal”.  While the meaning of this Yama is obvious from the outset, it goes a little deeper.  Not only are we to not take what isn’t ours, but also not more than we need.  In a society where the obesity rate is at an all-time high, food is a good example. 

Judith Lasater wrote, “We fail also when we steal from ourselves—by neglecting a talent…”  Before I enrolled in yoga teacher training, I thought I needed to be able to soar in Bakasana, also known as crane pose.  If I can’t do it, how can I teach it?  I thought.  One day I realized that once I had the pose, I would find another obstacle—something else wouldn’t be perfect—and that if I truly wanted to be a yoga teacher I needed to quit focusing on what I couldn’t do and focus on what I could do!

BRAHMACHARYA:
The fourth Yama, BRAHMACHARYA, may be the one that lends itself to (mis)interpretation the most.  The literal translation is celibacy, but when the word is dissected we end up with a new meaning…”Walking with God”.

BRAHMA-the name of a deity
CHAR-to walk
YA-actively

So while some people may choose to live their life as a nun or monk offering their sexuality as devotion to God, others believe BRAHMACHARYA simply asks us to remain faithful within a monogamous relationship.  I again feel a direct correlation between the practice of BRAHMACHARYA and the 6th commandment:  “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Judith Lasater wrote, “…use sexual energy like all life energies, in accord with the practice of AHIMSA (non-violence).  This means that we respect ourselves and our partner when we are in a sexual relationship and do not use others to have sex mindlessly.”

APARIGRAHA:
The fifth and final Yama is APARIGRAHA, which means “non-greed”.  When I hear this Yama I think of the ninth and tenth commandments:  “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” and thusly “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor cattle, nor anything that is his.”

In our name-brand, designer world, it is easy to get caught up in greed.  It is also easy to fall into the “keeping up with the Jones’s” trap.  I’m guilty of both—always measuring and comparing, but I’d like to believe I’m making strides in the right direction and that my yoga practice has had an impact.  I have so much less ego than I did when I began this journey.  Recently I had the opportunity to purchase a new car.  When I began the search, I started at BMW and Porsche.  When I wrote the check, it was signed to Toyota of North Charlotte.  In an effort to be a more globally conscientious citizen, I bought a Prius.  While I wish it had a power-lift gate or automatic seat positioners, I squeal with delight every time my MPG jumps a tenth. 

Just as the Bible can be interpreted to be self-serving, so can the Yamas:  to eat meat or not to eat meat, to have sex or not to have sex, as a practitioner we have to use the Yamas as guidelines to live a life as close to our own truth as possible.

As I write this, I am transported back to catechism class 1982 discussing I Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”   

Pastor Westendorf explained that it was okay to drink alcohol and use tobacco products as long as it wasn't done in excess—as long as we didn’t harm our bodies, which were the temples of God.  When I told my Grandma what the pastor had said, she scoffed.  “That’s just his justification for smoking cigars!”

Yeah.

Well…even men of God have their vices!

My relationship with God and organized religion in general has been tentative for years.  I prayed daily to God while questioning his very existence.  By the time I started yoga teacher training in 2013, I was agnostic at best.  It was the reading of the Yamas that made me begin to believe that perhaps there really is only one true God--no matter if he is called Brahma or Ishvara, Allah or the Universe--he, she, it is one in the same. It seems clear to me that although yoga itself is not affiliated with any religion, perhaps some of it's earliest teachers were in fact influenced by the word of God.

I'm still working to discover what God truly means to me, but I'm open and that's the first step.  Being open to all possibilities means I have a greater chance of receiving whatever messages the Universe sends my way.  I don't know if I'm correct.  I'm not a theologian--just a yogi who has experienced a power greater than herself.  

But now that I've published it on the internet--it must be true!