I recently started practicing yoga asana again after a 9 month hiatus. Life got busy so I spent my time doing things aside from heading to a warm yoga studio to sweat and breath deeply. Over the past few weeks I’ve rolled out my mat several times. I’ve re-discovered how my yoga practice illuminates and challenges my “weakest links.” Right now these weak links are my ability to breath deeply, flex my spine and maintain a steadiness of mind. What I love is that even though I’m challenged now, I know that what is challenged will inevitably react and strengthen.
Meditation is something that anyone can do. It doesn’t require any type of special certification or training in a certain meditation technique. It just requires consistent practice. Here are three helpful tips to help you in your own meditation practice:
Sit every day, no matter how long or short. Frequency matters more than length. Like any habit, doing it often and with regularity – even if you can only sit for 60 seconds a day – is better than a multi-hour marathon meditation session once a week.
Sit in a dark and quiet place. Less distractions the better, especially if your mind wanders easily. When in a small apartment that was brightly lit, even in the morning, I would cover my entire head with a shawl.
Sit early morning. Before your coffee. Before getting dressed. Make your meditation the first thing you do.
Yoga is a fantastic workout for your physical body, but that is not its purpose.
It’s purpose is to cultivate a deep sense of connection to the present moment. In doing so it is the ultimate workout for the mind.
Sweating, losing weight, gaining strength and all those things are collateral benefits but should never take precedence over the real purpose.
I’ll go so far as to say that if your real goal is to get “fit” physically, there are many more effective and time efficient ways to do so. Start running or swimming. Do Crossfit or a spin class. There are definitely better ways to get a normal “workout.”
The real reason to practice yoga is to exercise the mind.
It is the physical foundation of any yoga practice.
A simple pose that aligns your body, mind and breath towards a singular purpose.
All you need to do is stand tall, with legs active, shoulders back and down opening the chest and heart, with a deep breath in and out through your nose. Keep your eyes closed or lightly focused on one-point straight ahead.
Yoga does not and should not be complicated.
Floating into handstand can wait….for now just focus on standing tall and strong in Mountain Pose and you will get ALL the benefits that yoga has to offer. Complications just mask the true purpose, which is to notice what is showing up in your own body, mind and breath.
Wait…isn’t there some trick? Some advanced variation that will deepen the experience?
Yoga literally means “union”, but in practice it is the art of surrender or letting go.
Like peeling an onion, it’s about stripping away everything that is not needed and getting to the heart of things.
Extra effort, mental strain, random thoughts, labored breath, emotional attachments, stories about why something is the way it is….it’s about letting go and surrendering all of these things.
A 5 minute long warrior II pose or 3 minute wheel pose (both of which I did in Jason Magness’s “Jedi Training” class during the Estes Park Yoga Journal Conference!) can help simply because after putting in so much effort for an extended period of time, you have no choice but to surrender and drop away extra thoughts or movements that drain your power.
I see the same thing in endurance triathlon or running. One path (though definitely not the only one) to deep surrender and Yoga (an experience of the interconnectedness of all things) is through intensive effort.
The 2011 Baptiste Power Flow Immersion is complete!
500 + yogis gathered in Estes Park, CO for a three day immersion in Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga. Led by Baron Baptiste, this gathering included Master Teachers from around the country leading workshops in addition to plenty of teachers and students of all skill levels coming together to practice.
Each day began with a four-hour master class led by Baron that included mediation, intensive Vinyasa Yoga practice and plenty of time for group dialogue, sharing and partner work (handstands anyone?!). Following lunch, students could choose from a wide variety of afternoon breakout session. Some were discussion based while others involved more practice – all led by remarkable master teachers from the Baptiste community.
Each evening following dinner there was a different event – including a premier of the new documentary for the Africa Yoga Project and a Yoga Dance Party on the final night.
I’ve been to many yoga workshops and multi-day trainings but the Power Flow Immersion was unique. It was unique in the size and welcoming nature of the community that gathered to practice each day. It was unique in its setting – with Estes Park being the gateway to the gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park (where else do elk walk by you on the way to yoga practice?!). It was also unique in the balance between intensive practice and discussion sessions with just enough free time that allowed things to really “sink in”.
For me, the most unique thing was the overall quality of the teaching. Each Baptiste training I’ve been to has been more impactful than the last. Part of it might be that I’m becoming more receptive to the teaching and as such – things are starting to really “click” for me, and it’s also true that Baron and his committed teach of staff and master teachers are continually evolving and improving their approach. That’s part of what I really like about this community – everyone really seems committed to constant and never-ending improvement – and that includes Baron and his teaching!
I’ve walked away from the past three days with a new found sense of possibility for what I can create in my own life. I’ve been inspired through witnessing the transformation of others around me in the Baptiste community. I’ve also learned the difference between power (good!) and force (not good) and how these energies show up in my own practice and everyday life.
I have a few more days remaining here in Estes Park as the Yoga Journal Conference kicks off today and continues through the weekend, but already the experience has greatly surpassed my expectations. If you have an opportunity to attend at Baptiste program, don’t hesitate to do it! Whether you have a desire to teach yoga or not, you will surely come away with direct experiences and practical tools that you can apply to create massive progress throughout all aspects of your life.
Attachment is having a “hangup”. It’s a stickiness or a blocking (as described by Zen teacher Alan Watts).
It’s about having a hangup on the things we are told by our parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, bosses and peer groups. Things that define what we do, what we think about the things we do (or don’t manage to do) and how we feel about those things.
We create elaborate mental models based on peer feedback about how we should relate to the world. Some things are helpful –> like ‘don’t put your hand in a fire.’ Others are less helpful –> ‘successful people must drive a nice car, live in larger homes and work endlessly day and night until they are 65.’
In yoga we learn to not be attached.
This means, listening to what people say – but then not getting “hung up” on those things.
This means, going through life without the burden of needing to conform to some pre-fabricated and outwardly imposed model of the universe. Instead, it means going through life with the curiosity of a living organism that interacts with the environment – as part of the environment – and relates to the world based on what is actually showing up – not based on what someone told you or what something is called.
A tree is a tree not because it is called “tree,” but because it is what it is – beyond just an image in your mind or words.
The universe operates in terms of cycles – or seasons as I like to call them.
This applies to obvious things in our environment – like the changing weather throughout the year; as well as other things like relationships that come – and go – and then come back together again, businesses that thrive – wither and then come back to life, or as was the case of my White River 50 experience, emotions that go from good – to terrible – to oh my god I’m gonna die – to great….all over the course of a few hours of racing.
The seasonal nature of things plays in out so many ways.
I’ve seen this enough in my own life that I know it’s how things work. Sometimes the seasons play out over the course of a few hours. Other times it takes many years…but they always do play out.
Acknowledge the seasons and know that when things are not going so well…they are bound to improve. Likewise, when things are going great – take the opportunity to “prepare for winter” – that is to say, remember your successes and draw on them stay strong and confident in your purpose when things become challenging. This is where journals become powerful tools, as do vision boards, affirmations or regular meditation on a positive intention.
The documentary takes place during a 1 month intensive in which Guruji and his grandson led several hundred students in daily Ashtanga practice in the heart of Manhattan. What makes it even more powerful is that the teaching occurred in September, 2001.
I have not taken a formal Ashtanga Yoga class despite having practiced yoga asana for almost 10 years. I now want to check it out!
All my classes start in this way, with a few moments of silence. With time for students to consider why they took the time to practice at the start or end of a busy day. Establishing a clear intention is the single most important thing you can do in a practice of yoga. It’s certainly far more important than being able to rock a headstand or headstand. It’s matters much more than or how hard you plan to push physically during a class or how much you sweat or how deep you breath or what kind of clothing you have on.
Intention is everything. It’s like a compass or GPS that orients you in the right direction at the start of a trip, and if you get off course it will help you get back on course. We know that the brain takes in far more data than we actually bring to conscious attention, and your intention guides the filtering process to make sure that suitable things are brought to your awareness.
Intentions are not some squishy woo-woo metaphysical thing. It is a very practical act that is at the heart of what makes us human and different from other beings that roam the planet. We are able to set a purpose behind our actions as opposed to acting simply due to cosmic entropy.
It is why I don’t eat animals (even though at some point in our distant past our predecessors did). It is why I run a lot and enjoy it a lot, even though for some people running is torture! It is why I have spent 10+ years at Microsoft, and love it , despite the nature of the work demanding loads of time and energy. We get the power of choice as humans and that makes us unique. Intention is everything and it paints your life experience in the color of your choosing.
An intention predicated on neediness, fear, self-gratification or greed will amplify those aspects of your practice and will paint your experience to appear as such.
An intention predicated on self-discovery, openness, joy, forgiveness and empowerment will amplify those aspects of your practice and will paint your experience as such.
Before you begin your next yoga practice, take a few seconds to consider why you are there and set and intention. What follows will take on an entirely different meaning. You can do the same at the start of a workday, a business meeting, a long run or any other endeavor.
Brock and Krista came to town for a three day yoga workshop. Learned a ton. Highly recommend checking out their classes. It will be different than anything else you have done yoga-wise. They have amazing methods for teaching inversions, arm balances and handstand variations. These were easily some of the most challenging yoga asana classes I’ve ever done. Some random things I’ve come away with from the weekend:
Fear is by far the biggest limiter to doing a handstand or inversions of any kind.
Raw strength is less important than core stability and muscle awareness.
Pressure through the fingers (hasta bandha) is useful for maintaining balance in handstand and other arm balances.
Have fun AT ALL COSTS 🙂
Staying hydrated – before class not just during – is super important during intensive weekend trainings.
Learn to fall and be ok with it….if you are going to do handstands, you are going to fall!
Let your hips lead the way when jumping forward from downdog to forward fold.
For me, tight hamstrings are a limiter when it comes to moving into certain poses. Need to work on that.
Have fun with transitions into and out of poses…try new ways to get into and come out of poses.
Have another session with them tomorrow…will add any other tid bits to the list after that.
[updates after our final sessions]
A few more thoughts after a final 2.5 hour practice:
Proper fuel and hydration are so important. I did a 90 minute vinyasa practice prior to the 2.5 hour intensive sessions with Brock and Krista – and sweated through several yogi-toes towles and several changes of clothes. Having proper hydration is critical. I am using Amino Vital right now, with nuun tablets in a separate water bottle and a PowerGel between classes. In retrospect I should have drank more water last night or in the middle of the night to prepare. Oh well.
Building strength around an injury can help an injury heal.
Play around with variations – e.g. handstand with one hand on a block, arm balances with one hand turned out, etc. keep it interesting.
Some might say doing so many inversions is not part of the traditional practice of yoga – but Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and others had incredible practices and frequently went upside down.
Some teachers might not be cool with you doing things (like jumping int handstands from downdog) outside of the norm – don’t worry about that – if you want to do interesting variations – do it and find a teacher that will support you.
Again…I realized that tight hamstrings can be a limiter in getting my body into certain poses. Find your limiter and work on it (in class and outside of class).
Interesting transition: go from forearm plank to low-plank using your back muscles! This can also work with a scorpion to low-plank transition.
Interesting transition: go from headstand to tripod headstand and back by just moving your arms.
We are experts at applying effort. We are terribly poor at relaxation. I say “we” since by virtue of reading this blog, you are probably a seeker of self-development and discovery, and not the kind of person that sits around all day doing nothing.
The art of relaxation is a lost art.
In my yoga classes (I teach three classes per week – Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga) I see all walks of life, with a skew towards working professionals. Motivated and hard-working, I find students more than eager to try a new pose or push themselves in some manner. More sweat is not a problem for most people.
I also notice that many students struggle with the later parts of classes, where the tempo slows and the focus is on integrative energy. Turning inward of the senses with deeper and longer asanas (poses). These poses take an ability to sustain effort while also relaxing into the pose. In the finale of every class, we end with a corpse pose “savasana” which requires nothing but stillness while laying face up and arms/legs spread open. Inevitably, people start fidgeting and futzing with things. Fixing hair, toweling off, etc.
Many people have lost their capacity to relax.
It is not gone, just lost. It can be found and cultivated again with practice. The problem with this lost art is that the secret to excellence in any field (especially athletics) is not just with the training, it is with the recovery. If you watch pro cyclists train, they put in incredible amounts of effort in training, but are also among the laziest people in the world when they are not training! Having lived with a house-full of triathletes I can personally attest to this fact. Recovery is as important as training.
Without the ability to relax, your body-mind complex will burn out.
It’s like red-lining your car or using your laptop until the battery runs out. As humans, we have an enormous capacity to adapt and take punishment…but over time, without the ability to truly relax, the price will be paid. It may take a few decades….but it is unavoidable. This applies to corporate execs or people who have their eyes set on that goal as well.
Take as much care learning and sincerely practicing relaxation as you do trying to “do” other stuff in this world. Start each day with 10 long and deep breaths. Meditate for 10 minutes a day or more. Practice yoga or go for a run WITHOUT headphones and music blasting in your ears. Sit by the ocean or a lake and do nothing but watch the world.
I have a friend who works for master glass sculpture artist Dale Chihuly, and we were talking about the sculptures a bit. It got me thinking about how amazing this art is. If you’ve ever been to the Bellagio, that’s his work hanging on the ceiling as you enter the main lobby. The thing about glass is that it can be incredibly brittle (I am well-known to break wine glasses all the time). Glass sculptures can be oh so delicate. However, add a little heat, and the glass becomes fluid like a syrupy liquid, you can bend shape and transform it into the most fanstastical creations. Heat can be freeing and liberating.
In my yoga classes I spend a lot of time generating heat in the physical body, so that we can move safely and deeply into back-bend and hip-opening postures. After a few sun salutations, even stiff legs can feel quite loose.
For all of us, heat can come in the form of literal/direct heat as one would find in a heated yoga practice, or generated internally through focused breathing. It can come from the intense heat of continued focus and effort. It can come in a deep way through meditation. It can come from emotional “heat” due to stress, longing or news both good and bad. Heat can be incredibly uncomfortable but it is also through this heat that we are able to bend and shape ourselves in new ways.
The Sanskrit term that best captures this notion of heat is called “tapas” which literally means “heat” but also references a practice of spiritual purification through the burning off of negative energy. In yoga it is also one of the “niyamas” or self-restraints that are mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Without heat, deep change is impossible. Welcome the purifying heat. When things get challenging and you feel the intensity build, understanding that you have a unique opportunity to grow in incredibly profound and new ways. It’s a chance for you to make your masterpiece.
Would you do whatever it takes to keep them healthy? Would you go out of your way to keep them safe and to protect them from trouble? Would you spare no effort to make sure they received a proper education? Would you give them all the care they needed? Would you give them the attention they deserve? Would you push and challenge them to be more than they “think” they can be? Would you lift their spirits when they were in a “funk”? Would you laugh with them? Would you be truly present when you were around them? Would you be totally OK with their physical appearance just the way they are? Would you support them in their struggles and celebrate their victories?
If the answer to any or all of these questions are YES YES YES, then please do ask yourself just one last question.
If you would show that kind of love to another being, why not start by showing it first to yourself?
In yoga classes I often ask students to “set and intention” for the class as we begin. This intention, or purpose, can set the tone of the entire class. An empowering intention can make be the difference between moving through class with “the wind at your back” and struggling through in a hope that it will come to an end quickly! Intention setting is not some esoteric principle. It is something that we do every day whether you know it or not.
Think about your own day (pick a day, like today). If you went to work or school or on a trip somewhere, when you walked out your door to start your day, you had an intention with regards to where you were going. Whenever I put the keys in the ignition of my car, I have a point to why I am turning on the car. Either it is to get to work, go to the store, visit a friend or do something else with a purpose. There is always a reason, even if the reason if to just go for a joy-ride!
In the same way, when students roll-out their yoga mat they are their for a reason, be it conscious or not. In making a conscious and directed purpose for practice there is an opportunity to create a positive meaning for the time and effort spent. It is also a chance to anchor a practice to something positive. After all, it is a lot easier to push through a physically challenging asana if there is a motivating reason for it! In the same reason, it is easier to deal with a challenging situation at work or while traveling if you have a motivating force behind your actions.
As with yoga class, there is power in setting an intention for your day. When I get up every morning, I set an intention for how I intend to be to be during the day. The intention is never based on an outcome (which is impossible to control) but always centered on my own way of being (which is completely within my control!). Here are a few examples of empowering intentions – in the form of “Today my intention is to….”
…be an outstanding example for others
…see the humor in every situation
…relax and have fun
…see the best in everyone
…focus on doing what matters
…serve without expectation
…to give it my best effort, nothing more and nothing less
Try this practice out for the next few days. When you wake up in the morning (perhaps after a meditation) make it a point to set an intention. Come back to it on a regular basis (perhaps every time you have something to eat or drink), and watch your days take on a whole new meaning.
I commit to, starting today and for the next 30 days, meditating twice a day for 20 minutes each. Once in the morning and once in the evening.
The challenge began simply enough, and became progressively more challenging as life seemed to get in the way of my attempts to sit still and focus. First allergies, then a cold, then several late nights and busy work meetings made sitting still a challenging task! Despite the challenges I persisted and eventually found my time sitting to be easier and more fulfilling. By the 10 days of my 30-day challenge my meditations took on a whole new shape. I was no longer having to force myself to sit. It became more enjoyable and I began to notice more profound benefits.
I’ll share my approach to meditation, the challenges I faced and the benefits received as a guide for those of you that want to take up a similar challenge yourself. Suffice it to say, that at the end of my 30-days, I took 1 day off and did not meditate at all (even though I wanted to!) simply to keep myself from getting in the trap of trying to “keep a streak alive.” However, this morning I did sit for 20 minutes again and will do so again this evening. This is no longer a challenge for me but a way of life. I’m going to keep this up.
Sat still in silent meditation for 20 minutes, every morning and evening
Often meditated after exercise or yoga practice (makes it easier to sit still and focus)
Chose the same place every time, mostly in a dark room (without tons of light shining on my) and away from noise
Set a timer for 20 minutes (I use my iPhone, it has a built-in count-down timer and the alarm is soothing!)
When cold, I draped a shawl over me (including my head) just leaving room around my mouth to breathe
Sat on the floor (light carpet or yoga mat), and avoided using excessive props and pillows (if you need props or pillar, or even a chair to start, no problem, if you can sit cross-legged on the floor, do that)
Rested my hands, palms faced down, on my knees
Kept my spine straight, but with its natural curves
Imagined an apple balancing on my head to keep from slouching (just initially)
Kept eyes closed no matter what
Breathed in and out through my nose (not loud or with “ujayii” breath as in yoga asana practice, but with a normal breath)
Focused on my breath to start (in fact, you could spend the entire 20 minutes just noticing your breath, I would often do this)
If you know a mantra or empowering phrase, you can repeat that, often I would do this, but it is not necessary. You can also focus on an emotion or idea like peace, love, harmony, etc…
No matter how much my mind wandered, I brought it back to my single point of focus (breath, mantra or whatever you are using for that)
No matter how badly I wanted to see how much time I have left, I did not open my eyes! (it helps to keep any clocks out of sight so you aren’t tempted to look)
When finished, I ended in namaste (with hands in prayer at heart center) and that is it!
My challenges (all avoidable with practice and care!)
Felt sleepy while meditating if I didn’t get to bed early enough
Had trouble concentrating if I would eat right before meditation or ate heavy foods or overate (or ate late in the evening and then meditated before sleep)
Tempted to look at a clock or timer to see how much time was remaining. In many cases, I would open my eyes and look right before the time was up!
Legs sometimes felt ancy…..not pins and needles, but ancy like I wanted to get up and do something
Mind would wander incredibly, especially if I was late for work or had other important matters to do
Allergies made it very challenging at times, with constant sneezing and a runny nose, I persisted through this
Was extremely tired a few times, due to a cold and late work days, made meditation incredibly challenging
Listening to music or watching a movie (especially action movies) would make meditation more challenging
Less attachment to other people’s actions towards me – especially words and things they say or do that would normally tick me off. Things would just have a far more neutral effect on me
Incredibly enhanced ability to concentrate on single tasks – especially creative tasks and challenging work that requires focus. I wouldn’t be joking to say that my productivity at work doubled in the past month on a per-hour basis. Not in terms of quantity, but also in terms of quality of work.
Better connections with people. I noticed a better connection with people in yoga classes I teach, and also in several personal relationships and also in the workplace.
Easier control over what I eat – size of portions, type of food, etc. I’ve noticed that I’ve become far more away of what I eat and have noticed having to eat less or just moderate my food intake in a more natural way. I think this is due to less impulsive feelings which let me notice when I am really full and stop eating at the proper time, and also make smarter choices about what to eat.
Overall feeling of happiness and well-being. This is perhaps the single biggest benefit. I generally just feel happier. I feel like there is a purpose and direction for what I am doing and things don’t get to me like they used to.
That’s it, if you decide to take up a meditation challenge of your own, please let me know in the comments. It is very well worth it!!!
In the Yoga asana practice that I teach we spend a good portion of each practice in an energetic fiery flow that builds “yang” energy. Simply put, you get very warm, start sweating profusely and raise the overall energy level of your body. The closing portion of class is designed to be more cooling, contemplative and introverted energetically speaking – more “yin” in nature.
The “yang” however only exists relative to the “yin.” If the entirety of the practice was more gentle, a few sun salutations would be construed as fire-building. In the practice I teach, sun salutations are heat building, but could also be construed as more gentle given the numerous poses we do that build even more heat (extended side-angle pose, dolphin pose, plank pose, arm balances etc.). I remember being in a class with a master teacher last year, where after several hours of intense asana practice the teacher had us hold dolphin pose for a while. After a minute of struggle, she mentioned that if we wanted a break from dolphin, to just straighten our arms into downward dog! For those of you that practice yoga asana, you know that holding downward dog can itself be tiring if held for a while. However, in the context of all the other asanas we were doing during this particular practice, it seemed quite effortless. Downward dog felt as relaxing as child’s pose!
In the same way, when I was in high school we use to train with all kinds of equipment to increase the intensity of our practices. We used to wear drag suits (old torn suits with pockets sewn in then) and tie inner-tubes around our ankles. We’d swim miles like this. When we’d take them off, we’d start swimming sets that would normally be grueling, but they would seem easy in contrast to swimming with all that darn equipment!
My friend asked me the other day what I would do if I could do anything I wanted, if I was 100% financially and otherwise secure. I didn’t have a great answer when she asked, and I still don’t. However, that question got me thinking. I have been thinking about what it would be like to live in a world where everything was great. Where nothing bothered me. Where I didn’t have a concern in the world. Where everyone was happy and I was always happy. Where nobody ticked me off. Where the bus always came on time and where days were always sunny. I started thinking about what this world would be like.
I didn’t like it.
I think it would lack color, energy and interest. I think it would get boring. I think that the surprises and excitement that I get from my life is partially the result it being full of highs and lows, good days and challenging days, tough luck and good luck. I think without the “bad” the “good” wouldn’t seem so “good”. I think the trick in this whole situation is then to just accept and deal with the challenges as natural events. Not get caught up or impacted by them in a major way (far easier said than done!), and understand that it is only through this contrast that life can have any color and interest at all.