Monthly Archives: September 2010

What I’m Working On Now

timelapsesunsaluteLately I’ve been moving toward a yoga practice that’s less asana focused. Which, for a hatha yoga practitioner, may seem like a contradiction. But after many years of diligently working on expanding my asana repertoire, these days I’ve been living by the mantra “it’s not what you practice, it’s that you practice.” Meaning, it’s not so important which poses I practice, or how many – it’s coming to the mat each day with clarity of intention, and doing something, anything at all, that is authentic, focused practice that matters. 

I used to find a zillion ways to procrastinate. Oh, I’d still practice, but I’d end up being rushed, squeezing it in, and/or by the time I finally got to my mat, having to give up other plans an priorities in order to do a full backbend sequence and get in everything I wanted to “accomplish.”  

This went on for years, and over time, got more and more out of control. Finally I realized that jamming through my practice and then rushing off to wherever I had to be was becoming counterproductive, not supporting me in the way that I want my practice to support me. The idea is to cultivate equanimity, calmness of spirit, and open-heartedness, to become more sattvic. There is both great joy and great learning to be had from working on advanced poses, but when it’s just that… ultimately I now find this an empty experience, one that feeds my ego instead of tempering it.

 So, after many years of practicing advanced asana just about daily, I set out to transform my approach. I decided my practice would serve me better if it were simpler, calmer, and less physically ambitious. The challenge would now be not how far I could stretch my body, but how much internal change I could create by mastering all the little habits I’d developed around my practice, habits that had become obstacles.
I resolved to start with just one change, and that change was not turning on the computer until after I’d practiced. This was a huge challenge. I finally succeeded when I resorted to leaving my laptop locked up in the trunk of my car at night, so that I’d have to make a conscious choice to go against my intentions, and get dressed and go outside to get it in order to lapse into reading e-mail before my practice. After a month or so of this, the habit of starting my day with e-mail had theoretically been replaced by first-thing-in-the morning practice.


I say theoretically because once I’d eliminated turning on the computer before I practiced, a whole host of other distractions rose up to fill the procrastination void, everything from the endless task of re-organizing my to-do list to reading my horoscope and checking the weather report to cleaning up my house. My first response to realizing the computer wasn’t the real problem, but only an especially seductive outlet for what was actually resistance, was to feel discouraged. I’d made this enormous change, and it hadn’t completely transformed my routine. But gradually I realized that was the wrong lesson to take from the experience, and from “look, that didn’t work, so I might was well give up” I moved to “I successfully made one difficult change, and I can work on the underlying issue by continuing to make positive changes.” 

On top of that, perhaps the most important lesson was realizing in a new and very clear way that this is always going to be process, a work in progress, and that it’s not a failure when it’s not perfect. In fact, some struggle and built–in imperfection is part of the deal with practicing. With being human. That’s why we practice. If it were easy, we probably wouldn’t need to.

I credit my long experience with practicing asana for helping me understand the value in perseverance, and also that the process of profound transformation is most often gradual and incremental. 

I’m still working on, and sometimes struggling with, the big picture. For example, I know one upcoming change needs to be instituting an earlier bedtime. I’d like to get up earlier in the morning, to both give myself more time to practice and free up more productive morning hours. The idea of a proscribed (even by myself!) early bedtime for someone with my resistance to rules and authority is not going to be an easy sell. And I still find ways to procrastinate; some mornings and some weeks are better than others. But having now piled up a few victories, made little change after little change, I’ve also built up a great deal more confidence in my ability to make my intention stronger than my habits. I’ve gotten to the point that I do, in fact, practice first thing more mornings than not. 

I’ve also let go of my attachment to getting to advanced asanas in every practice, and now I alternate strenuous practice sessions with quiet, meditation focused practices. I’ve finally integrated, a little more fully, the knowledge that asana practice is ultimately about preparing the body and mind for meditation. An advanced backbend or arm balance practice is sometimes the most fun (and sometimes truly needed, as well). But it’s the quiet, inward focused practice sessions that are often the most satisfying.

And more importantly, I’ve also realized that when time is short, it’s better to do a little practice than to try to cram in too much (aparigrha), or put it off for some theoretical later time when I can devote the two hours or more required for taking my body to the outer limits of its asana capacity. Because I tend toward haphazardness, the consistency of that morning routine is an essential component of creating a saatvic practice; getting myself into vrischikasana orvisvamitrasana is less important. So now, not always, but sometimes, my practice is a basic one: Just some gentle stretching and strengthening to wake my body up and prepare it to sit comfortably for meditation, a bit of clearing and focusing my mind with simple asana and pranayama to balance my state of being and bring it into balance between the ease of sukah and the sense of alertness present tejas, that state of quiet ease and open awareness that is the essence of yoga. 

What Happened Today — September 10, 2010

I got back from vacation last Thursday evening. It wasn’t a long flight, just the hour and forty minutes from Portland to Oakland, but on top of a week of very little practice, my body was craving a real yoga practice by the time I landed.

southwet plane
As much as I’m working on consistency in my practice, I figure a vacation is meant to be a break from routine— that’s one of the elements that makes vacation rejuvenating. So when I’m traveling, I let go of my regular two-hour, five mornings a week practice. If I’m staying in a hotel, I do occasional mini-practice sessions in my room, and make a point of going to a few classes in whatever city I’m in. I don’t even try to practice on my own if I’m staying in someone else’s home, but I always enjoy checking out the local studios and teachers.
Portland is home-away-from home for me, so I have a few places I go regularly for my yoga fix when I’m there. The day before returning home from this recent trip, I made it to Sarah Joy’s class at Amrita. She’s an exceptional teacher, and it’s always a treat to practice with her. Her class was the most yoga I’d done all week, so it felt especially great.
That’s an unusual amount of time for me to take off from practicing, so my intention was clear when I made it onto the mat the first morning back home. I’m going to admit that it was mid-morning by the time I got there. I didn’t turn on the computer—unless there’s something truly urgent, I’m pretty strict about that rule now that I’ve established it—but I felt compelled to get organized, sort through my mail, and do at least a bit of unpacking before I could give my practice my undivided attention. Getting back to an early morning routine would have to wait until Monday.
Once on the mat, I knew what I needed most was, first, to get grounded (I always feel the need for that after traveling—especially when it’s involved being literally off the ground in an airplane, but even just being away from home usually makes me feel the need to settle strongly back into myself again), and to re-establish a baseline. What I mean by the latter is that I’m accustomed to starting each day feeling refreshed, open and clear following my morning practice. The difference when I’m not getting that regular practice time is palpable. It’s a bit like feeling a little grubby when you’ve been too long without a shower, only it’s an inner grubbiness. The first practice back after a break acts as an internal cleansing.

Practice Sequence

So, my practice for the day was a no-brainer.  Standing poses for grounding, and a variety of basic asanas to refresh my whole system. Here’s the recipe:

reclined constructive rest position & breathing awareness
gentle reclined twist, back & forth a few times, moving with breath
reclined hip stretch (aka thread the needle or number four stretch)
supta padangusthasana 1 & 2/reclined leg stretches

supta padangusthasana variation — ardha parivrtta supta padangusthasana? — basically you go toward a twist but stop halfway to stretch the IT area, so I’ll call it reclined half-twist

marjaryasana/cat pose
adho mukha svanasana/downward facing dog pose
adho mukha eka pada rajakapotasana/basic pigeon lunge
eka pada adho mukha svanasana /downward dog with one leg in the ground, one in the air
surya namaskar/sun salutations, 5 sets
prasarita padottonasana/wide-feet standing forward bend
virabhadrasana 2 + viparita virabhadrasana/warrior 2 + reverse warrior, 2 minutes per side
utthita trikonasana/triangle pose, 1 minute per side
repeat prasarita padottonasana, adding shoulder stretches
surya namaskar (once more)
salamba sarvangasana/shoulderstand, 6 minutes
halasana/plow pose, 2 minutes
karnapidasana/ear pressure pose, 1 minute
supta baddha konasana/reclined bound angle pose, back supported on blankets, 2 minutes
constructive rest pose, also over blankets, 1 minute
gomukhasana/cow face pose
agnistambhasana/fire log pose
parivrtta agnistambasana/fire logs w/ twisting variations
pacscimottonasana/stretch for the west side of the body/full seated forward bend
supta padangusthasana 3 & 4/more reclined leg stretches
parivrtta supta padangusthasana/reclined twist
sukha yoga nidrasana/gentle sleeping yogi (sleeping yogi prep, aka happy baby pose)
savasana/corpse pose (aka relaxation),  6 minutes
seated meditation, 6 minutes

Not Enough Time To Do this Practice?

For a shorter practice, try this: Cat pose, the standing poses, downward dog, then pick out one seated and one reclined pose, and finish with viparita karaani (legs up the wall relaxation pose) for a 20 – to 30 minute version.

How it Went, + Notes

I felt great after this practice—the sequence is pretty tried-and-true—and it accomplished what it was meant to. It took about an hour and forty minutes (the same length as my flight the night before!). When I was finished, I felt more grounded, more like myself, and was more at home in my body again. Whew!
I used to hate the standing poses, really dread them, and now I love and depend on them. I’ll write more about that process at some future time. I always find that the quickest route to feeling better is a combination of hip and shoulder stretches. These are the largest joints in the body and between them they are responsible for most of the major movements we make. When the muscle groups that support these major joints loosen their grip on the skeleton, the spine feels free and light.
Shoulderstand is one of those poses you either love or hate, and I’m a shoulderstand lover—it’s one of my absolute favorite places to be, and there’s nothing like it for opening the shoulders, chest and, as a result, the breath.
Fire log pose (sometimes also called stacked logs or double pigeon), including the twisting variations, have become a regular and essential part of my practice. Of the various names, I’ve settled on fire log because the image of fire seems to fit with the intensity of these deep hip stretches. I have a student who refers to this type of really intense stretch as a “wasabi pose,” and I think this is both hilarious and apt. Fire log stretches made my eyes water like wasabi for a long time, but now I’m more accustomed to and more open in them. And at this point I don’t feel quite right without them, so I’ve made them a daily part of my practice. My hip rotators are much tighter then the rest of me. I think I overdid backbends and inversions for many years earlier in my practice, and created an imbalance that I’m now working to correct.  So I do pretty deep hip openers in just about every practice session, including as cool down stretches following backbends. It’s been a really long process, but it’s made a noticeable difference in how comfortable I am sitting in meditation.
It was great to get home from traveling a couple of days before I had to get back to work. I flew back Thursday night, had Friday to practice and settle in back at home, both literally and figuratively. Saturday was a last vacation day, which I spent mostly reading and relaxing, and then I came back to my regular routine on Sunday. I would not have felt ready to teach without this thorough, grounding practice. With it, I entered my work week feeling completely rejuvenated, and happy to be where I was.

view of sf from the air