Off Your Mat

Bringing yoga off your mat into your life, one pose at a time.


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The Modification Pose

There are a number of asanas that are energizing, exciting and a little bit frightening to beginners. I can remember the first time I saw Bird of Paradise (Svarga Dvidasana). I wasn’t even sure of what I was looking at when I saw it.

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bird of paradise

For months I didn’t even attempt it. I stayed breathing in my bound side angle pose watching others move into Bird of Paradise. As I gained confidence in my practice, I began the awkward shuffle step out of my side angle pose pictured above in step 3. I was content to hobble up to the top of my mat with my arms locked around my thigh.  I felt silly crouched there but I wasn’t quite ready to stand. I was practicing alone at home when I finally stood up into Bird of Paradise. With the freedom of privacy, I floated right up into the pose. It gave me the heart to try it in the studio.

As with most things, yoga related or not, I didn’t just jump in at expert level. I modified the pose until I was ready to take the full expression.

In my experience, among beginners, one of the most commonly feared poses is Wheel.

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Wheel Pose – Urdhva Dhanurasana

This is often an intimidating pose to novice yogis. It requires flexibility, strength, balance and control. These are all areas where beginners might not have complete confidence.

That doesn’t mean they have to skip the pose! This is where the art of modification is most beneficial.

So many asanas incorporate the back bend and can be used to work up to a full wheel.

There is Cobra (Bhujangasana) that is a gentle and supported.

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Cobra

Or there is Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) that is particularly gentle on the shoulders.

Yoga (Bridge Pose)

Bridge

I use Wheel as an example, but all challenging poses can be modified, allowing yogis to progress safely to more challenging levels.

Modifications are most beneficial when building a yoga practice or coming back after an injury. The modification allows the practitioner to reap the benefits of the pose, while lessening the risk of injury. The human body needs to become accustom to new positions and challenges. Just as a casual jogger shouldn’t run a marathon without any training, novice yogis shouldn’t push their bodies beyond comfort.

That goes for our state of mind as well. If a pose is frightening, if you get nervous just thinking about it, take a modification. Work into the challenge over time. Our minds need the same progressive and gentle support as our bodies.

This week, I invite you to take the art of modification off your mat. If something is frightening, approach it step by step. Do not risk injury trying to jump in as an expert. Allow yourself to accept gentle support when faced with a challenge.

Modify until you are ready to float into your version of full expression.

 


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Resting Pose: The Practice of Doing Nothing

Child’s pose (Balasana) is a resting pose.

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Balasana – Child’s Pose

Child’s pose can also be an active, resting pose.

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Extended child’s pose

To actively engage in this restful pose, the fingers should be spread, finger pads and palms gently pressed into the floor. Elbows should be raised. Knees can be together to release the lower back or wide to release the hips.

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Child’s pose – knees apart to release hips

The pose itself appears like nothing is happening, but internally your body is working.

Whether you actively work the pose or allow your muscles to completely rest you will benefit in the following ways:

  • Gently stretches the hips, thighs, and ankles
  • Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and fatigue
  • Relieves back and neck pain when done with head and torso supported

Although child’s pose is simple and restful, it is not a pose you should move away from with experience. It is a pose to be repeated and savored daily. It allows the practitioner, either experienced or new, to regain breath, calm the mind and release tension. It is a place to gather and recharge before or after more vigorous practice.

I cannot think of one yoga class I have attended where the instructor did not encourage use of child’s pose. Students are always reminded that child’s pose is available to them if they are feeling fatigued or need to regroup. There is no shame or defeat in stepping away from the class flow to a private reprieve on your mat.

What a wonderful concept.

Can you imagine the possibilities if we let that practice translate into our everyday?

What if there was no shame in figuratively putting your head down and resting on your laurels?

There are times I find this simple practice happening naturally. For example: I do not write my blog posts in one sitting. I write. I stop. I reflect. I write again. If I never stepped away and reflected, I would never sharpen some of the finer points. The active work would not be as good.

However, there are plenty places in my daily living I forget this gentle practice of resting. I push and strive when the smarter path might be to sit back, take a moment and do nothing.


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The Stressful Pose

There are times in yoga that the challenge is not to move through a series of asanas, but to remain still.

You will have moved into a pose that takes you to the edge of your physical abilities and you will hear the instructor say, “Let’s remain here for 5 deep breaths.”

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Bound Revolved Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana)

Your muscles tremble, the sweat pours. Only you can know for sure if you should stay there for all 5 breaths. You might be at a stage in your practice that you only feel one breath is beneficial, you might need to modify the pose to remain still, or you might feel so good in the pose you linger beyond the instructed time limit. Only you can determine where the line is between moving out of your comfort zone and risking injury.

The practice of breathing through a stressful physical pose conditions your mind as well as your body. Breathing and keeping your mind still through the physically stress of a challenging pose teaches you a valuable mental skill – the ability to breathe through stressful situations that life can drop at your door.

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Cave painting of panthera leo spelaea (cave lion) chasing prey.

Being human is a stressful condition. Our ancestors had to endure incredible stressors to survive. Before the advent of technology humans were lower on the food chain. Food, shelter, and companionship were harder to come by and safety was a fragile fleeting thing.200170582-001

As a result, our human brain developed a fight or flight strategy to stress. When faced with stress, adrenalin is pumped into our system, our heart rate increases, our breath becomes rapid and shallow, and our minds only take in minimal information.

Thousands of years later, our brains will still go through the prehistoric motions of fight or flight, even if our lives are not threatened.

Public speaking, a missed appointment, getting stuck in traffic on the way to pick up your child, waking up late, the nasty surprise of a personal betrayal or heartbreak – You will live through all of those stressors, but your brain might decide to send out all the physical symptoms of a life threatening situation. Your heart beats faster, you sweat, your mind fogs in a panic.

It is in those moments that it is most important to take your deep breaths and find mental stillness. It is then you can evaluate if you have been pushed to the edge of your emotionally abilities.

The same way you might decide whether a pose works for you on your yoga mat, you can also decide in life if a stressor is beneficial in the long run.

Is it a stressful challenge that is making you stronger? Or is this a potentially painful position in life that needs to be released?

Only you can decide.

 


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The Unexpected Pose

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There are times during studio practice that the instructor will stray from the usual series and try something new.

Early in my practice this is how I was introduced to side bound crow (bakāsana variation).

I felt a twinge of irritation when we were instructed to take this crow variation. I just wanted the class I expected. I wanted to stay on track and not get distracted by this unfamiliar pose. Dutifully, I followed the instructor’s step by step instructions. The pose felt awkward, my muscles trembled, I could not find my sweet spot. For a split second I held the pose, then I plopped on my mat with a thump, embarrassed. I will not pretend that I came away from that moment feeling accomplished.

The next time an opportunity to take that pose came up I wasn’t thrilled, but I was more willing to attempt it. Soon it became part of my practice.

If I had let that twinge of irritation guide my decision-making, I would have never started down the road to learning the pose. My first steps were difficult and a little bit humiliating. I chose to shed those negative interpretations of being new at something. That allowed me to grow.

Life can hand us challenges that we never dreamed we would face. You might be offended that life has presented you with something outside of your plans. The prospect of surmounting a particular task might leave you feeling exhausted, angry or heartbroken. Worst of all, a change of plans can be frightening.

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As terrifying as it may be, if you don’t take on the challenge, if you hide from it, if you ignore it, if you explain it away with rationalizations, you will never thrive.

In these moments, you have to see past your plans and understand there might be something better in the offing that can only be reached through the unexpected.