Tag Archives: yoga instruction

Breathing Easy

20 Apr

The owners of a yoga studio I work at recently circulated a memo to their teachers about the disruptive breathing issue. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s the wheezing, sighing, moaning, groaning, gasping, panting and sputtering that comes up from time-to-time in every yoga studio environment. It’s the commotion that makes other students roll their eyes and wonder why they didn’t stay at home with a good yoga DVD. Now, I like to hear a steady flow of breath in the room when I practice (it’s one of the things that makes group practice so sweet) but I agree it shouldn’t sound like the Dark Lord has taken up residence on the mat next door. Here are my two cents on the issue for both students and teachers.

I feel the breath is very much the sacred heart of our practice. Attention to the breath and the subtleties of the energetic body is what transforms what we do from calisthenics into something so much more.

Yogic breath typically flows in and out through the nose. Why? Because when you breathe through the nose, the air is warmed, moistened and filtered. That’s a good thing. Also, mouth breathing tends to be a less conscious way of sucking oxygen. When we are overly exerted, we automatically hunch over, open our mouths, and come into something called clavicular breathing (also known as panic breath). You regularly encounter this kind of breathing on the basketball court and at the ends of races. When we breathe consciously, on the other hand, we shift the control of the breath from the brain stem and the autonomic nervous system up to the frontal lobes, which are responsible for higher level reasoning.

Ujjayi breath is a special technique used during certain yoga asana practices. The basic technique involves bringing a slight engagement to the glottis so the air current is regulated as it flows through the throat. It’s an effective way to work with the breath’s duration and texture, and it makes the breath both a fluid guide for movement and an object of meditation. As beginners, we turn the volume up on the breath so we don’t forget it’s there, but as advanced practitioners, we breathe a more subtle and refined kind of ujjayi.

Some students groan and vocalize as they breathe due to simple inattention. In these cases, teachers can remind the whole room to “keep the voice out of the breath.” It’s a quick and easy instruction that everyone can benefit from.

Other students seem to go out of their way to make the breath noisy due to a misunderstanding of what a yogic breath should sound like. A little talk on making the ujjayi sound more subtle and sophisticated may do the trick. And if students don’t respond to the idea that a refined ujjayi is actually more advanced than a thunderous one, teachers can underscore the fact that excessive contraction of the glottis in a forced ujjayi breath can cause harm to the structures of the throat and strain the voice in the long-term.

Last but not least, the sound of the breath in the room is an important guide for us teachers. If the whole room is doing lamaze breathing, it might be a sign that we’re pushing the group too hard and fast under the circumstances. The temperature in the room, the day of the week, the time of the day, the barometric pressure, the level of studentship and a myriad of other factors determine what is appropriate for a given class. As teachers who aspire to be sensitive and responsive we need to remain open what comes up in the room. Sometimes the correct action is to depart from the game plan and slow things down rather than asking students to keep it quiet.

Springing Forward

27 Mar

The frogs have recently returned to the big pond out back and they’ve got me thinking about the intricacies of hopping forward from downward facing dog to a flat-backed stance at the top of the mat. It’s an action we undertake over and over again during our sun salutations when practicing vinyasa styles of yoga, like Ashtanga, Jivamukti, and Power Flow, but many of us are half-hearted hoppers at best.

I’m charmed by the fact that frogs seem to leap without any of the doubt or hesitation that often plagues us on and off the mat. They don’t play small, no siree Bob; they use what their mamas gave them to propel themselves from one place to another, confident that they’ll figure out how to catch themselves when necessary.

Here are some practice tips compliments of our froggy friends:

  1. transform your downward facing dog into a downward facing frog by lifting high onto the tippy toes, bending the knees, bringing them down close to the ground, and sitting the hips way back towards the heels. The arms are straight and the gaze is lifted.
  2. Now imagine a large, cheerful frog sitting on the mat below your belly button. Your job is to hop your feet over him or her on the way up to the top of your mat. Think ahimsa, non-harming and make your jump a labour of love. This is a surefire way to overcome fear, uncertainty and doubt. Then, make your green friend proud by hopping your feet up, up and over.
  3. As you approach the top of the mat, be prepared to catch yourself with your hands. Push the ground away as you land to make your arrival extra buoyant and soften your knees a little upon touch-down to keep things springy.

Chances are you’ll surprise yourself with your own strength and come further forward than you’re used to coming, so please move any obstacles out of the way and don’t jump directly into a wall. It won’t be long before you learn how to control and refine those mad hopping skills.

A Well-Rounded 90 minute Practice

1 Oct

Spritz Fritz

Let me tell you a true story about egoism, disgrace, and a bottle of perfume. It was the late 1990s, I was fresh out of law school and I had just spent the longest year of my life working as an articling student at a downtown law firm. It was a good year in some ways: the money was outstanding, I learned lots, and my parents were brimming over with pride. The experience was also pivotal because it confirmed a growing suspicion that the legal profession was not for me. Call it negative research, if you will. And so I walked away from the firm’s job offer, applied for unemployment insurance and broke my parents’ hearts.

The thing is, while I had some clarity on what I didn’t want, I still hadn’t figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t unlike that feeling you get when you’ve left Mr. or Mrs. Wrong but you don’t have much faith that Mr. or Mrs. Right will come along. It was a groundless and edgy time. In the meantime, my rent was due and I started to have anxiety-filled dreams about the mountain of student debt I incurred to become a lawyer.

Around this time, a friend’s mother took pity on my situation and offered me a job to tide me over while I plotted the next step on my career path. She was an upper level manager at a swanky department store and the job she offered me was almost too good to be true; it would’ve paid more money for less work than my legal job, but there was a major catch: the department store was located in the same commercial complex as my former law firm and the job would have had me standing in a conspicuous location holding a bottle of perfume while my former colleagues walked by. I could just imagine their pitying looks. “Poor thing,” they would say to each other as soon as they were out of earshot, “she couldn’t cut it as a lawyer. Just look at her now.”

The perceived tumble from lawyer to perfume spritz girl was too much for me to handle. My poor, fragile ego couldn’t deal with the shame, the disgrace, the loss of face, and so I turned down the job. What happened next? Well, pride goeth before the fall, as they say. I don’t mind admitting that I spent another six months or so broke and in a minor funk. I lost touch with my yoga practice, sat in front of the TV for days at a time, and had nothing to show for the time off but a pile of bills and a few extra pounds. In the end, I took another lawyering job out of necessity and spent another five or six years figuring out what I already knew—that I wanted more from my life than financial security and an impressive title.

In hindsight, the perfume spritz incident was a stark lesson in something Master Patanjali calls egoism (asmita). In book II, sutra 3 of the Yoga Sutras, he says egoism is one of the five major obstacles to true happiness and freedom. The others are ignorance of who we really are (avidya), excessive craving (raga), excessive aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (abhinivesah). He implies in this list that our ignorance of who we really are causes us to over-identify with our ego selves and that misidentification causes us to chase our selfish, petty desires, on the one hand, and cower from anything that challenges our ego identities on the other hand, especially the death of the body.

One of my teachers says we spend the first part of our lives acquiring our ego identities and the remainder of our lives defending them at any cost—even when it hurts us and the people we love. Does this mean we should abandon our egos and adopt an egoless existence? Good luck—that’s like asking the mind to stop thinking—it’s next to impossible. As yogis, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate beautiful, graceful egos, in the same way we build strong, flexible bodies and elevated minds. Let’s make our egos our allies, rather than our enemies, and use them to assist our movement towards greater happiness and freedom. And don’t forget that when push comes to shove, you are not your mind, you are not your body and you are so, so much more than your job.

A 45 minute Beginners’ Class

13 May

A Fresh Start

Not long before I officially traded in my legal career for the life of a yoga teacher, I had one of those pivotal, change-everything-in-the-blink-of-an-eye experiences en route to a dental cleaning. It was a hot August afternoon and I remember cursing the overly air-conditioned office environment I had just left (the one I called home during waking hours) as I sweltered along in skirt suit and nylons. Passing a busy patio, filled with carefree bohemian-types relaxing over pints, I caught myself muttering under my breath: “who exactly are these people who loaf around on patios all day? I mean, don’t they have jobs to go to or something?” Busted—I was already becoming a sour-faced professional, filled with outrage and moral indignation, and I hadn’t even made partner yet.

Now that I’ve retired my suits and crossed over to the other side, I don’t mind admitting the outrage and indignation were probably just envy in disguise. Really, who wouldn’t want to spend less time living for work and more time living it up?

The thing is, most of us assume we don’t have much choice in the matter—we feel bound by honor, familial pressure, and/or our current financial obligations to walk the straight and narrow path to sustenance and stability, if not exactly riches and respect—and so we defer the real stuff till later. Much later. We say, “when I retire, I’ll see the world, write short stories, paint, meditate, do good deeds, spend more time with my loved ones….”

But, in actuality, we just don’t know if and when this will all come about; the moments of this life are fleeting, as one of my teachers likes to point out, and we don’t all have the luxury of growing old before we die.

We also happen to be living at a time when traditional assumptions about the way things work no longer hold true. Author, journalist, editor, and critic, Bruce Sterling brought the point home for me earlier this year in his post on the “State of the World, 2009” when he wrote:

I’m a bohemian type, so I could scarcely be bothered to do anything
“financially sound” in my entire adult life. Last year was the first
year when I’ve felt genuinely sorry for responsible, well-to-do people.
Suddenly they’ve got the precariousness of creatives, of the
underclass, without that gleeful experience of decades spent
living-it-up.

Perhaps the time has come for us to reconsider the terms of both the social contract and the deal we’ve made with our innermost selves. Did you make your career choices freely, unfettered by external forces? Did you fully understand what you were getting yourself into? Did you get what you bargained for? And most importantly, are you happy with the results of your choice today?

No doubt, these are big questions that lead to even bigger questions, but they seem to be front and center for an increasing community of people who are actively re-examining what they want to do and who they want to be.

I’m delighted to have friends who are brave enough to make a fresh start (I’m thinking of the corporate manager who moved to Australia and started teachers’ college in her forties, the seasoned IT professional who recently enrolled in massage school, and the CEO who left his corner office to work in the public interest); I’m delighted to have friends who wholeheartedly pursue their artistic and spiritual callings; and I’m delighted to have friends who keep checking in with themselves as they continue to run their businesses and go to their day jobs.

There was a time when the decision to follow my passion, rather than a pension, felt like a big deal. I’m happy to say I don’t feel so special anymore—the tribe is growing day-by-day and I’m in good company. Great company, actually. Why not pull up a patio chair and join us?

A Grounding 75 minute Practice

16 Apr

The Worm Bin Teachings

I’ve started a new daily practice, one I do before washing my face, unrolling my yoga mat, or having a cup of tea: it’s the practice of getting down-and-dirty—quite literally—and it’s every bit as important as any other spiritual practice I do. Every morning, I pop open the lid on one of the five homemade worm bins in the living room, dig around, and get some dirt under my nails. Sometimes it’s just to say hello to our ever growing family of red wigglers and confirm our kitchen scraps are to their liking; other times it’s to harvest their nutrient rich castings for use in our garden.

Now how exactly does an urban, condo-dwelling, clean-freak from way back come to have a number of sizable compost bins in her living room, you might ask? It began quite innocently with this niggling feeling that I could be living a greener life. Sure, I’ve always recycled, used CFLs and followed the “if it’s yellow” rule, but it still concerns me that our North American lifestyles are so resource and waste intensive. Doesn’t it boggle your mind that the average North American consumes 32 times more resources and produces 32 times more waste than citizens in developing nations?

At the moment, our city’s green bin program doesn’t collect compostables from apartment buildings, condos or businesses. As a result, a full two-thirds of our weekly garbage used to be composed of smelly kitchen waste, that we double and triple bagged to avoid leaks. No wonder I felt both sheepish and relieved every garbage day when I put the whole mess in someone else’s hands.

My adventures in worm composting started with a half pound of worms, ordered online, and a rubbermaid container. I drilled holes in the container, for ventilation and drainage, filled it with a generous amount of torn up newspaper and put it out on the deck for the summer.

The moment of truth arrived with the first frost. Left outside, I knew the worms wouldn’t make it through a harsh Canadian winter, but I couldn’t quite fathom having a box of worms and rotting food in the house for six months either. In the end, I grudgingly chose inconvenience over frozen worms, and the worms moved in.

Surprisingly enough, the bins don’t smell. If anything, worm compost smells fresh and clean, like rich, dark earth after a rainfall. And, no, we don’t have worms, fruit flies or other pests in our living room—the worms stay put, that is unless you feed them something they don’t like (they follow a basic vegetarian diet, and stay away from anything too salty, oily or acidic) or forget to feed them altogether, and we avoid fruit flies by burying the sweet stuff deep in the bins. I’m thrilled because we’ve significantly reduced the amount of garbage we put out on the curb each week, including paper and cardboard. And, yes, we do intend to keep the bins indoors all year round.

I think of my earthworm practice as a way to get grounded and set my foundation before getting swept-up in the headiness of a busy day. It reminds me of my oneness with the earth and all its inhabitants, and, as such, it’s a yogic practice in the deepest sense of the word. My time with the worms is a death meditation, an exercise in loving-kindness, and a way to focus the mind on the sweet details of the here-and-now, all rolled into one.

A Deep 10 minute Savasana

28 Feb

Feeling Blue

When e.e. cummings wrote: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always our self we find in the sea,” do you think he contemplated the possibility that we might lose the very sea itself one of these days? In the fifty some-odd years since he penned these words, much has changed on our watery planet, and fragile marine ecosystems everywhere are under serious threat from overfishing, pollution, and climate change. The facts are alarming:

■ Humans have taken—eaten, actually—more than 90% of the big fish in the ocean, including tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, and flounder. Some of the world’s most productive fishing grounds have been depleted and entire coastal economies have collapsed. If current trends in industrial fishing continue, scientists predict the world’s fish and seafood populations will be totally extinct by 2048.

■ Much of the waste we produce on land eventually reaches the oceans through both deliberate dumping and run-off. In coastal areas, untreated sewage and fertilizer are responsible for algal blooms that suffocate other marine life and create enormous dead zones. According to a recent study, there are 405 dead zones and counting.

■ Nearly half the coral reefs have disappeared. They are among the first casualties of climate change. Higher surface water temperatures have resulted in coral bleaching, while ocean acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels is making it harder for coral to build their calcium carbonate shells. The rising sea levels, decreases in sea ice cover, changes in salinity, shifts in ocean circulation and increased storms that come with climate change will undoubtedly change marine life forever.

If we care at all about the fate of our seas, we humans need to be more mindful about what we take out of and what we put into the water.

Why should we care? Well, for starters, over three quarters of our planet is covered by water and up to 60% of our bodies are composed of water. All life came from the ocean and 90% of life on earth still resides there. Healthy oceans are absolutely necessary for a healthy planet. We land dwelling creatures mustn’t make the fatal error of thinking we’re immune to cataclysmic, or even subtle, changes at sea.

On the bright side, it’s now easier than ever to stay abreast of the issues: as of earlier this month, Google Earth includes the oceans in its maps. This means users can now dive underwater, see ocean topography, and watch regions change over time. You can get it all free at Google Earth.

Compelling and eye-opening information from leading ocean researchers is also just a mouse-click away. Legendary oceanographer, Sylvia Earle’s extraordinary TEDTalk, “Here’s How to Protect the Blue Heart of the Planet,” has been spreading virally online since it was delivered in mid-February. Educational and inspirational, it’s a must-see for anyone who dares to care about the planet and its inhabitants.

I’m also greatly buoyed by the fact that people like my friend Jeff Warren, an author and explorer of consciousness, are still out there during these turbulent times looking to the sea for insights into the true self. His most excellent radio documentary, Ocean Mind, explores the world of dolphins and whales as a way of moving beyond the confines of the human experience. Episode 2 is a favourite of mine. As Jeff explains: “This episode is about the limits of human knowledge. It’s about imagination and empathy – and science – and how we may be able use all of these things to get insights into the fantastic alien world of the great whales.”

Hoping for a taste of this “fantastic alien world,” I spent an hour in a flotation tank earlier this month. I went in expecting something completely outside the realm of my experience, but was, instead, pleasantly reminded of the time I spend on my yoga mat lying in savasana, or corpse pose.

The way I figure it, yogis are experts at stepping outside the human unwelt, a German word usually translated as “self-centered world.” We try on the various forms of nature—in dog, tree, and even fish pose—partly as a way to get over ourselves and partly as a way to gain insight into the essence that underlies all form so that we may better know ourselves.

A Quiet 30 minute Practice

26 Jan

New Moon on Monday

The Lunar New Year begins today, and Astrologers are excited about the fact that the first new moon of the year coincides with both a solar eclipse and Mercury in retrograde. Apparently that’s a pretty big deal. During this time, we’re advised to stay in, be quiet, contemplate life, and catch-up with ourselves. It is not the right time, they say, for any wheeling and dealing or busywork.

Senior Ashtanga Yoga teachers tell us this isn’t the best time to practice physically challenging forms of yoga either. Why? Because the energy of the new moon corresponds to the very end of the exhalation, where the force of our apana (the downward facing energy in our bodies, governing elimination, menstruation, childbirth, and creative endeavors) is strongest. A yogi practicing under the influence of the new moon might feel more lethargic, heavy and physically uncoordinated than usual. This is one the reasons why women are commonly advised not to practice strongly on the first day of their monthly cycles.

Like everything else, our lives, bodies and yoga practices tend to move cyclically. It makes sense: we’re watery beings on a watery planet and we can’t help but feel the influence of the sun, the moon and the stars as they move through their own cycles. It would be naÏve to think we’re immune to the forces that move oceans, shape rock, and cause plants to unfurl their leaves.

But our busy, modern lives can be numbing and flattening, and many of us feel disconnected from natural cycles. For example, there are so called privileged people who live in downtown condominiums situated on top of a subway stations who can go an entire winter in Canada without a coat. Sure, they’ve found a way to escape the cold, but they do so at the expense of feeling the wind on their faces.

Girls and women now have the option of totally eradicating their periods with a pill. Sure, they no longer have to deal with PMS or uncomfortable and inconvenient menses, but they do so at the expense of being fully present with their heightened senses, deepest intuitions, and emotional authority. You’ve got to wonder what we really lose when we turn away from the seemingly awkward, messy and uncomfortable side of life.

The practices of hatha yoga teach us to honour both sun (ha) and moon (tha) as we seek wholeness, integration and balance (yoga). These are practices for waking-up to the totality of human experience, and that means our daily practice needs to be flexible, sensitive and nuanced; sometimes we need to jump around, sometimes we need to lie still, and sometimes we need to get off our mats altogether.

Hey, here’s a cute joke for the Lunar New Year:

Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon?
It has great food, but no atmosphere.

May the upcoming year bring you much nourishment!

Image courtesy of Phil Hart