Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Stronger than you think

Last week I set out to write about some struggles I was having in my physical practice and how they related to my emotional state.  Once I started writing, I realized that a whole separate blog would be necessary to make clear that there is a connection between the physical and the emotional and spiritual spheres, so I wrote that one first.  (If you haven't read it, link HERE.) I don't usually write about asana because frankly, I find reading about it to be kind of gross!  BUT, in the sense that it is a manifestation of an internal state, in this entry I will make an exception and use my own personal practice as an example.

Our bodies carry our life experiences and specifically hold on to any situations that we don't let ourself feel fully and allow to pass through.  Certain parts of the body take the lead at holding certain kinds of situations.  No one person is the same.  There are universal holding patterns, cultural, and individual ones. For example, instances which provoke anger are often stored in the jaw.  Over time, these storing areas become very good at their job and jump in to hold vibration and protect you from pain sometimes even before there is any pain to protect you from.  Then these preemptive responses become patterns and without our conscious input, habits are formed.  These habits manifest themselves in everything we do, from the way we walk, to talk, to eat, to brush our teeth.

The habits we carry with us, for example, the way we shift or cross our arms in response to a stimulus, were likely very useful mechanisms for dealing with some uncomfortable situations in our lives.  We probably had an experience where we didn't want to show all our feelings when talking to our boss, or a new romantic interest, and even with a loved one.  Sometimes it is appropriate to edit.  The problem begins when we don't even realize we are doing it and our bodies start to send messages we don't agree with and hold tensions we don't want to hold.  The solution lies in bringing our unconscious tendencies into the conscious realm where we have choice.  This is done through mindful yoga practice.

Last week I was struggling with pain under my left shoulder blade.  It was immediately obvious to me that the cause was not my hard Indian bed, 30 hour journey, or overly enthusiastic first practice (though those were triggers).  The root of the tension was my heavy reliance on that area in the previous weeks.  Busy getting ready for my trip to India, and not wanting to engage fully (aka feel) I fell into old habits like tensing my neck and shoulders.

Once the pain got severe, I was forced to correct my overuse.  This meant a week instructing myself to initiate all movement from my lower body.  Even when lifting my arms up above my head, I imagined that they were being lifted by the use of the bandhas.  This caused my lower body to engage and my shoulders to relax.  The point I am making is that in order to heal my body, I had to retrain my mind to override patterns that were no longer serving me.  I recommitted myself to mula and uddiyana bandhas and promised not to lift up or jump through if the action couldn't be initiated and supported from these inner locks.  In the cases that it wasn't I would step back and forward.  I had to be stringent because the mind is very tricky and wants to maintain its old habits.  Complete honesty with the self and consistent repetition of the new pattern must be there to make change.

Forced to look INSIDE for strength I soon became happily reacquainted with the bandhas and reminded of their numerous benefits.   One of the great things about drawing strength from the bandhas is they don't leave you with residual tension.  They also have a well of power to pull from which gets stronger, not weaker as you use it.  They demand presence and encourage and support deep breathing.  In addition, they move energy upward and leave you feeling light and elated.  In fact, the bandhas have energetic and emotional affects so intricate that whole books are written about them.  The deepest understanding, however, comes from experimentation in your personal practice and by allowing them to develop over time. 

I knew I was cutting off emotion and increasing upper body tension in the days leading up to my journey.  I allowed it to happen knowing I would soon be in India where there is a lot of time and support for obstacle removal and self development.  With any pain or injury there is a great potential for learning about oneself, especially about ones habits.  Still, if injury and tension can be avoided they should be.  In fact, there is so much to learn in this oh so short lifetime that in addition to not repeating ones own mistakes, we should also avoid making the mistakes others have made.  And that, is the number one reason I share this story with you.  There are many paths to enlightenment and we need not all take the same one, but at least take one that doesn't have too much divergence.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Body, Mind, Spirit: the impossibility of a solely physical practice

Is it possible to have a solely physical practice?

You're working too hard - you wake up with a stiff neck.  You have a big assignment due - your stomach aches. Your relationship's in crisis - your back goes out.  We have all had these experiences.  We know there is a connection between our emotional state and our physical one, but most of us don't acknowledge how deep that connection goes.

You may realize that if you go for a run or do any exercise that you feel an emotional shift, but if you want to get into the body, mind, spirit connection, there is no more direct, affective, and lasting way than the Ashtanga Yoga practice. In the Ashtanga practice we use a three pointed focus which yokes our body, mind, and spirit.  First we listen to our breathing.  The breathing we use is called Ujjayi Pranayama and it has a sound.  Our mind stays focused on observing this sound as the breath creates an internal heat, purifying the blood and releasing toxins.  Secondly, we focus our eyes on one point.  This soft gaze is called drishti.  It has numerous benefits for circulation, eye strength and for focusing the mind.  Finally we have the actual pose or asana.  This shape is supported through use of certain bandhas or locks within the body which redirect our energy upward creating lightness, clarity, and presence.  It is impossible to drift away if you are using all three focus points correctly.

The primarily reason the Ashtanga Yoga practice is so affective at connecting mind, body, and spirit is the breathing.   The soul and the breath are intimately connected.  We express our thoughts and feelings through words which ride on breath.  When the breath is "in tune" the right words come out without hesitation, tone is perfectly matched to meaning, and we are heard and understood.  When breath is "off" we hear our words coming out and they don't sound right even to us.  There is an element of falsehood in what we say and misunderstandings are common.

The problem is, most of us are cut off from our breath.  We work in fields requiring the use of our heads, necks and arms, and we use little of our lower bodies.  We live in cultures where displays of emotion are not accepted and so we swallow down vibrations and hold our breath causing internal stress which manifests in illness and violent outbursts.  With regular yoga practice we begin to breath fully again.  When the breath is moving more freely, we start to notice the places it is particularly stuck.  Then, using mindfulness we go into those places and create space.  As tension is released, and space is created we feel the sensation of the whole shape of our being and an ownership of that form.  There is a continuity from the bottom of our feet to the top of our skull and a growing ability to allow emotion or vibration (as I prefer to call it) to run through, rather than get caught inside creating stress, tension and illness.

When you inhabit your form, you become a channel for energy to pass through.  You hear others and are heard by others.  You unite mind, body, and spirit.  When these are united, things like being in the right place at the right time and knowing something you could not possibly have known begin to happen with frequency.  You are clear.  You are present.  You are powerful.

Trying to bipass the body is as futile as expecting to work on the body without affecting the spirit.  In this existence we are in physical form.  If the body is uncomfortable, weak, or ill, it is silly to ask the mind to be still and calm.  How can it?  That is why we take up the practice.  It may appear solely physical from the outside but there is a whole internal process occurring that is sometimes unknown even to the practitioner.  On the flip side, many people fear a practice that goes beyond the physical.  They come into the yoga shala very sure about it only being exercise for them.  This too is silly.  Of course the practice is going to affect you.  No one is saying you will become Buddhist or even vegetarian, but you will be affected, in time, and in the right amount for YOU.

So, no, there is no such thing as a purely physical practice, because there is no such thing as a purely physical you.  Through the act of breathing you are already connecting to your spirit.  You can't escape it, so you might as well embrace it and enhance it through correct practice.  With the guidance of a teacher and a slow and steady approach which employs all three focal points, you will discover it is easier to let go then to hold on, and you will fortify the connection that is already there: body, mind and spirit.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

First time India Traveler Allison Lafferty Reflects on her First Week in Mysore

Allison right after her first class at KPJAYI

Allison started her Ashtanga practice on June 17th, 2011 at Land Yoga, just one day after we opened.  Since then she has committed to daily practice, and even encouraged her partner to do the same.  Allison has embraced all aspects of the practice and has taken it on her own to understand the history of what she is engaged in, by reading books and watching documentaries on Ashtanga yoga, taking class with Sharath when he came to New York, and finally, making the 30hr journey to Mysore, India.  Fairly new to her job, Allison had to work hard and sacrifice to get enough vacation hours combined to make this trip.  Before coming here, Allison had never before been off the North American continent.  Curious about her thoughts and desperate to know she was happy about her decision to follow me across the planet, I asked Allison to answer a couple questions:

Lara: It's been one full week since you arrived here.  I have some questions for you.  How was the plane ride? Were you bored?  What did you do?

Allison: Surprisingly, the plane ride wasn’t too bad.  I wasn’t overly bored because all I did was sleep and watch movies/TV shows on the plane.  However, sleep did indeed dominate most of my travel time.  I actually brought a book to read, thinking I could get some literary action in but I wasn’t able to stay awake long enough to read it!

Lara: What were your first impressions of India? Is it what you expected?

Allison: We arrived very early in the morning on Friday and the weather was cool and damp with a certain smell to it; I think it was incense, Indian food, and burning garbage.  It was also very loud with many horns beeping.  The airport was much more modern than I was expecting, yet it is like another planet compared to NYC.  I was a little shocked when I saw an oxcart being pulled. I was predicting India to be very dusty and that part did live up to my expectations.

Lara: How are your accommodations? Are they what you expected?

Allison: The house we are renting has a kitchen, two bedrooms, a room with a kitchen table, a room with a daybed for reading, a ‘wet room’ with a western toilet, a washroom for laundry, and a separate room with an Indian squat toilet.  I really had no idea of what to expect as far as accommodations, but I am really happy that we have a refrigerator and hot water.  I will admit that I was surprised to find out that the ‘wet room’ is literally wet all the time since the shower is just attached to the wall with no tub or shower curtain to contain the water.

Lara: What has been the highlight of your trip so far?

Allison: The highlight of the trip is definitely practicing with Saraswathi.  Each day I look forward to my practice and a great deal of my energy is expended there.  My first class here in Mysore was at the main shala and it was truly amazing to practice in that space.  The energy one gets from practicing with Saraswathi and along side so many wonderful yogis is beyond description and need to be experienced first hand to be believed!

Lara: What surprised you?

Allison: I think I was initially very surprised by the lack of traffic organization and severe scarcity of road signs.  That was indeed a shock to my system….I have no idea how one would give directions or navigate these streets alone without a rickshaw driver or taxi.

Lara: What are your days like?

Allison: The days here start very early, waking up around 3:45 A.M. to bathe and get ready for practice at 5:00 A.M.  My practice takes about one hour, twenty minutes to one hour and a half since I can really take my time with the practice.  After leaving the shala I go to the coconut stand and drink one or more coconuts.  Then it’s time to head back home and bathe again and grab something to eat.  There is plenty of time in the mornings to go out to the local places serving brunch or eat at home, whatever sounds appetizing.  Some mornings I have a Yoga Sutras or Chanting class at 10:30, otherwise it is total ‘rest & relaxation’ time!  After a taxing practice, you just want to relax and read a book or maybe take a nap.  Some days, especially when we first got here, we did some outings in Mysore: for instance we hit the market for shopping and had a pool day.  In the afternoons we head back out to grab a lunch that will give us fuel for the next morning’s practice.  Bedtime here has been between 6 & 7 P.M., since the days start so early.  

Lara: What is your practice like?

Allison: My practice is basically the same as in NYC, but I can take more time since I have none of the time restraints like I have at home.  The first day I stopped where my practice usually would end and Saraswathi came over and began instructing me.  The last two asnas she has given me are a bit of a challenge and she has been guiding me though them every day.  We take our closing poses is the same room and then move to an adjacent room to rest.  It is indescribable to practice here but with all the energy in the shala you are so alive and focused on the present moment throughout your session.  

Lara: Are you happy?

Allison: I’ll be honest, the first day was rough and I was very jetlagged and a bit lonely.  Now, a week into the trip I am happy, everyone is very friendly and I have chatted with some of the other students in my class.  It has really been wonderful traveling with Lara and having her ease me into life here in Mysore.  I feel blessed to be with Lara who knows all the good foods to eat and keeps me feeling healthy.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Poses, Patience and Becoming Yoga

There is no way to Peace. Peace is the Way. - Mahatma Gandhi

Conference Notes 9/9/12

Sharath had one main point for this conference: If your approach to yoga is to try to get every asana, you are going to find yourself in a tough position.  There are millions of asanas.  The amount of asanas is equal to the amount of life forms on earth, including things that grow from the ground like trees and other plants, the organisms that come out in your sweat, animals in the water, and those that hatch from eggs.  The poses reflex nature in all its forms.

Through our lineage, the lineage of Krishnamacharya, we have 600-1,000 asanas.  In our tradition the poses are broken up into beginner (Primary series), intermediate, and advanced.  If you try to rush through these or skip ahead you will injure yourself and create bad health.  One asana should be perfected before moving on to the next.  Guruji used to say a person needs to do a single asana 1,000 times before it is perfected.  The first group of poses called the Primary Series is extremely important for the pulmonary system, digestion, flexibility, stability, and all around good health.  It should be practiced for some time before moving on.

Intermediate Series is called Nadi Shodhana (nerve cleansing).  Sharath pointed out that all the series including Primary have the element of Shodhana (cleansing), but it is most intense in the intermediate poses.  This series of asanas focuses on back bending.  Sharath emphasizes that back bending is not just about the back but requires a lot of strength in the legs.  This must be built up first.  To highlight the importance of patience in one's approach to the practice, Sharath shared his own experience of a two year period where he did not receive any additional asanas from his grandfather.  He even admitted to his own impatience at the time.

The advanced series, Sthira Bhaga, translated as "divine steadiness" or "strength and grace" focuses on increasing stability.  Sharath didn't say much about advanced which is typical.  Those poses come from the teacher when the student is ready and as with all the poses, should not be learned from books or video.  Sharath emphasized how important a teacher is in this process and how you can always tell when a student has learned with out the guidance of a teacher because of incorrect Vinyasa.  The correct linking of breath and movement is EXTREMELY important.  Done properly, this it is the key to stability and good health, but done improperly, agitation and bad health will occur.

As usual, there was a time for questions.  A student asked about what to do when the mind starts to drift during practice and Sharath remarked kindly how this will happen even to long term practitioners.  Doing Japa, the repetition of a mantra or divine name is helpful.  Mostly we should remember, that slowly by slowly the body and then the mind will change.  Sharath maintained, we can not change the world, but we can change ourselves.  Through the practice we can become calm, focused, and manage our own thoughts and actions.  The limbs of yoga are not simply practiced, but ultimately absorbed.  Given time and proper practice this will occur.  Then, as Gandhi became a living, breathing example of Ahimsa (non-violence), so will we come to live yoga, expressing it as a quality in all we do.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

30 Hours

On route from Bangalore to Mysore

30 hours.  Call it crazy, but I love the journey from New York to Mysore.  Thirty hours door to door is just enough time to sleep away city exhaustion, read a page or two, listen to an old nostalgic tune, eat some snacks, and create a space between what was and what will be.  It's that space, that chasm I treasure so dearly and look forward to each year.  My friend points out that right before each visit I question worryingly, "Will I be able to go there, to get into that deep India mode?"  And each year the trip is satisfyingly different and the correct "mode" attained.  I'm not certain, but I have a very strong feeling that this year's theme is Play and Practice as Play.

I'm consistently deep about my practice on the mat and off.  I'm able to search inside using the breath to let go of secret hidden holdings and tensions, and peel away layer after layer of protective habit until the raw truth appears, but what about Play?  Play is essential in practice and in life.  The older I get, the more aware I am of the importance of Play and taking things lightly.

How fitting then, that I ended up with a copy of Gretchen Rubin's, The Happiness Project, a perfect companion for my 30 hour journey.  In The Happiness Project, Gretchen shares her year long attempt to increase her happiness using a list of personal resolutions.  Some of them, like "Act the way I want to feel" (which I call "fake it till you make it") I have been using for years and find very helpful.  Others like, "Find More Fun," "Take Time to Be Silly," and "Lighten Up" are perfect compliments to my theme of Practice as Play.

In the book, Gretchen talks about squeezing the most happiness out of a situation by anticipating, savoring, expressing, and recalling our happiness.  As our plane began it's decent at about hour 25, I was clearly in anticipation mode.  The sites, smells, and sounds of India came pouring back to me and I imagined clearly the life ahead of me: purchasing coffee at the little store and watching the man grind and weigh it, opening my trunk of treasures stored each year at the end of my trip, stepping into the shala for the first time and feeling the worn rugs under my feet.

Now that I'm here, my commitment is to enjoy each of these moments fully by being present, sharing my joy, and documenting my experience so that I will be able to look back on these happy times and smile long after I have left.  This plan has already shown itself to be extremely easy mostly due to having a first time India traveler with me.  Seeing India and the practice through her eyes has already opened me up to experiencing the wonder that had, I will admit, worn off a bit after 6 previous trips.

As I sign off now ready to enter a deep and dreamy India sleep, I anticipating my first yoga practice in the shala and the smile that is sure to pulse through my body as I raise my arms in rhythm with teacher's first "Ekam, Inhale" and take my first practice in the spirit of play.