Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Student Spotlight: Mary Ewing-Mulligan

Mary Ewing-Mulligan, 64, practicing at Land Yoga for 2 1/2 years 
What made you decide to try us out?  Had you done yoga before?
I used to be a fairly serious recreational runner. I trained for 5 marathons, ran 3 of them, and was so proud of my accomplishment. But I had injuries along the way. In 2011, I was suffering from plantar fasciatis and a heel spur: I couldn't even walk without pain. I had just moved into the city from the suburbs and knew that I needed to find a new form of exercise. Land Yoga had just opened, just around the corner from my home. I was unfamiliar with the various types of yoga, but loved the idea of Mysore practice — the freedom of the schedule and the individual nature of the experience. That's what motivated me to join, 2 1/2 years ago.
What did you think when you first started?  Did you expect to still be here now?
I was amazed at the proficiency of the other students, but I didn’t feel intimidated because the instruction was caring. I was impatient to progress quickly, but Lara took me along very slowly. “There’s always time,” she said. My impatience was a big challenge that I had to overcome. I did know that I would continue with yoga, though; I sensed that it is an activity that I could sustain for the rest of my life. What I didn’t expect was the degree to which I have embraced the practice, and how much I love it.
What do you enjoy most about the practice? What are the challenges and what do you do when you encounter them?
I enjoy the physical challenge of it, and even more so I enjoy turning my attention inward and watching how my body responds to that challenge. I love the fact that one’s practice is personal — it’s between me and myself.  In that sense, it reminds me of the solitary nature of training for a marathon, which ultimately is just between you and the road.

My limited physical ability can frustrate me sometimes, and when that happens, I try to smile at my stumbling efforts and remind myself how far I’ve come. Distraction is a challenge for me on some days; I try to notice it when it happens, and use my breathing to bring myself back inward.  
How has this practiced helped you outside the yoga room?
I am not the same person I was 2 ½ years ago. I feel more alive and more present in the world, instead of existing amidst the niggling anxieties within my mind. I feel younger than ever both physically and mentally. The experience has simply been transforming. I am so fortunate to be able to sip from the fountain of youth every morning!
What would you say to someone considering joining?
I would highly recommend it, of course, and I would say to stick with it even if it seems slow going at first. I would urge him or her to practice daily to gain the most benefit. In a word, I’d say, “Commit.”
Is there anything you've found unique about the experience here?
I have no basis for comparison, but I find it hard to imagine another yoga studio that combines such kind and talented teachers, such a strong community focus and such emphasis on giving and goodwill. Land Yoga not only teaches yoga but also teaches a way of life.
What you do and how people can support you?
I have a wine school in NYC, International Wine Center, ( which many people consider the leading wine school in the U.S. Because I am one of only 314 Masters of Wine in the world, some of our classes attract a serious crowd, but we welcome novices, too. I also write about wine; I have a regular column on Wine Review Online ( that features wines I particularly like. Finally, I am the co-author of Wine For Dummies and seven other wine books in the …For Dummies series — together with my husband, Ed McCarthy. We are so proud of that book, now in its 5th edition and translated into 37 languages! If you want to learn about wine, please check out our book!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Please Do Sweat the Small Stuff (notes on asana practice and beyond)

One of my favorite things to talk about is truth and its contradictions.  The deepest truths often have opposites that are also true.  For example "You are perfect the way you are" and "Never stop growing" are both truths.  I believe ones ability to live with contradictions like these is equal to his ability to thrive in life.

In this blog I want to talk about the opposite and equal truth to "don't sweat the small stuff".  Though this phrase is clearly true and extremely helpful in many contexts, its opposite is also true.  It is often the case that making a few small changes in life can make a huge difference.

Let's talk yoga asana.

It is not unusual for students to come to me with pains and issues located in their body.  Especially as a student begins to practice, he becomes even more aware of his body and starts to notice every misalignment, ache, and pain.  Sometimes old injuries will come to the surface asking to be paid attention to.  This is great.  It's a sign that the yoga asana journey has begun.

But "why," the student asks me is this pain coming just on the right or left side.  She wants to know if she is doing something wrong in class.  Usually she is doing nothing wrong.  That's when I ask the student to look at the "small stuff" she is doing in LIFE.  Does she always wear her bag on one shoulder?  Does she always sleep on one side?  Making a "small" change in one of these off the mat habits is going to have a large impact on life on and off the mat.  Just try it!

Small changes in ones practice can also have huge consequences.  You may not be able to change the Ashtanga sequence,  (We like our tradition.) but you can jump through with opposite leg on top than you usually take.  You can thread your fingers with other thumb on top.  Doing all your poses where the hands are laced, such as Prasarita Padotanasana, Halasana, and Sirsasana with the opposite grip alone will fix almost any imbalance in the body. You can shift your focus from making, to listening to the breathing.  You can give uddiyana bandha priority over mula bandha or vice versa.  It's not that one point of focus, hand grip or jump through is  better.  Big shifts happen when we allow ourselves to become unstuck by making tiny changes which disrupt our patterns.

One student may need to move faster.  One more slowly.  A simple speed of practice change, a "small" thing, will open up a whole new world to a yoga practitioner making the practice seem new and strange in the most beautiful way.  Confuse the body and we start to discover the nuances of the mind learning that methods of doing things we believed were a given and only way, are in fact systems we impose based on our genetics and previous experience.

Our habits are so deeply engrained that they can be nearly impossible to see.  That is one of the many reasons a teacher is so important.  This past Sunday I held my regular Train Your Brain workshop where I teach students how to look at some of those habits and assumptions and disrupt them using small physical changes.  Giving yourself a tactile trigger, like every time you touch your door nob, as a signal to become self aware is an effective example.  And the "small act" of momentary self awareness is, well, no small act.

So go ahead, and sweat the small stuff.  Change your bedspread.  Walk to work. Wear that bag on the other shoulder.  Pick one small shift, disrupt that brain, and start your personal revolution.  You won't be sorry.  You'll be transformed!