Off Your Mat

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


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The Brave Pose: The Practice of Facing Fears

Having fear is part of being human. The trick is to not allow your fear to drive your choices. Being brave doesn’t mean there is an absence of fear.  It means you are afraid and you are doing it anyway.dancer on rock

Yoga practice allows us to build the skill of facing our fears. The seemingly small practice of pushing our boundaries on the mat strengthens our abilities to do the same in our life. There is a terrific article in Yoga Times addressing this very issue. Facing our fears gives us the freedom to be brave.

There are a lot of things to be afraid of in this world. I avoid watching the news for that very reason. It’s not that I do not want to be informed. It’s that I don’t want to be terrified.

I have to remind myself that broadcast news is a business driven by viewers and the more terrified or titillated we are, the longer we are likely to watch. It is the job of the news program to evoke deep emotion from us as quickly as possible, resulting in the broadcast rule, if it bleeds, it leads.

Mosul mosque bombed by ISIS in Iraq care of LA Times

Lately, the news has been particularly bloody.

For weeks I’ve been thinking that my gentle yoga-based Sunday blog was not the place to process the beheadings, wars, and daily acts of violence that seem to be escalating in my news feed.

Today, I decided I would be a hypocrite not to acknowledge it.

Violence is born from fear. Fear of losing power or control. In turn, violence is used to create fear in others. Actions born from fear are usually wrong and often destructive. It’s a vicious cycle.

Some of us live with it daily, close to war zones or facing battle. Some of us see it on the news. For those of us who observe it from afar, we can not afford to be ignorant of what is happening. The sad truth is that we are all vulnerable to this violence.

I learned that on September 11, 2001, when I stepped out of a deli a mile from where the planes hit. I saw the pillar of smoke rising from the World Trade Center. I watched the second plane fly into the second building. I smelled the acrid air and saw people in shock, covered in dust making their way north up Sixth Avenue.9-11-september-11-2001-32144945-500-357Twenty hours later, I got back to my apartment in Queens. I stayed there for three days. I couldn’t imagine going back to work in Manhattan.

Then, I realized that hiding in my apartment wasn’t going to stop my fear.  I had to choose between letting my fear paralyze me or getting out there and living, terror and all.

I got out there.

Now, I see the terrible images floating in my news feed online. It makes me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. It makes me want to home school my daughter for the purpose of never letting her out of my sight. It makes me want to avoid all travel.

That isn’t what I’m going to do. Not because I’m fearless, but because I refuse to let my decisions be controlled by my fears. I will not miss out on all the good things that can happen, because I’m afraid of the bad things that might happen. That is my miniscule act of bravery.

The truly brave people are the ones that continue to head toward those dangers and conflicts driven by beliefs much stronger than their fears.


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The Practice of Trust: Appreciating the Art of Assistance

The art of the assist is an amazing part of yoga practice.

assist1

Assisted Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)

The purpose of the assist is to help students attain proper form and reap the benefits of the pose. Assists can be doled out verbally, by giving students a mental picture to connect the instruction to the task at hand. One of my favorite verbal cues is when the instructor prompts us to envision our bodies between two plates of glass while holding trikonasana.

triangle

Trikonasana

There is also the self assist using a block…

Trikonasana with block

or a strap.

LOOP

Navasana with strap (Boat Pose)

But, the most interactive form of assistance is hands on.

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Assisted Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)

As a novice yogini, I wasn’t thrilled when I discovered that often instructors offer hands on assists in yoga classes. In the beginning, I tolerated assists, even though I felt vulnerable. I was caught in a weird place of being freaked out by being touched by a relative stranger, yet at the same time, I appreciated the help.assist2

When an instructor would move into my space, I immediately became self-conscious. I was twitchy and tense, preoccupied with my fledgling skills and sweaty skin. At the same time, I found the contact provided incredibly insightful guidance that was helpful in improving my form. Soon, I accepted that a well executed assist gave me a safe place to reach a little further and test my abilities.chris_chavez__spanish_banks_yoga_class__23-250x374

I became a true fan of assists while taking half-moon pose. Having the physical support of my instructor allowed me to fully extend and rotate while finding my balance. That was something I had not been able to do alone. Having the instructor there gave me a glimpse of how the pose would feel when executed properly. The next time I did it on my own, I knew what to shoot for.

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Assisted Ardha Candrasana (Half Moon Pose)

I grew comfortable with the close proximity of a hands on assist. I was lucky to work with some incredibly gifted practitioners that struck the delicate balance of coming into a person’s private space without crossing the boundaries that exist there. As I let go of my fears of letting someone get close to me, I was able to get the support I needed to make me a stronger practitioner. I came to trust the helpful hands that reached out during my practice.

How about that? My ability to trust made me stronger.

With all of the reasons to be guarded in this world, I found the practice of trust in the yoga studio refreshing.

I like to think that yoga practice itself can be considered an assist to daily living, building strength in the skills of trust, focus, and flexibility for use in the everyday. I also like to think that there are more than a few places outside the studio where trust can flourish. It is only a matter of practice.


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Asking the Right Questions Pose: How ESPN’s Hannah Storm Gave Me Hope

When I was in my 20’s I was a volunteer crisis counselor for a domestic violence hotline in Philadelphia. For two nights a week, I waited for the phone to ring, prepared with lists of shelters, crisis procedures, a working knowledge of how to obtain a restraining order and an open heart.

The voices I heard on the other end of the line belonged to women of every walk of life. They fit no stereotype. What they had in common was that they were physically injured, in danger, frightened and ashamed. I listened and helped them through one of the darkest moments of their lives.

Given that experience, I have been following the Ray Rice story closely, watching the familiar circular media banter that surrounds public domestic violence cases. It is amazing to me the repetition of the naive and ill-informed questions of Why didn’t she leave?, Why did she marry him?, Why would she stay?, Why would she provoke him?

These are the wrong questions.

It makes me sad that there is a large percentage of the public that doesn’t understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship. Again and again the public asks about her choices, when he is the one who chose to knock her out. His choice was extreme violence and I have yet to see one news program call in an expert to discuss why he chose to hit her. I was losing hope.

Until today. I came across a story that gave me hope. So much so, that I had to share it.

The article was recapping a commentary by ESPN anchor Hannah Storm. She said the following:

“On Monday morning, I was genuinely excited to come to work and break down what I thought was a fascinating first weekend in the NFL. Instead, I kicked off ESPN’s coverage of the horrific Ray Rice elevator video. Meanwhile, one of my daughters has her first Fantasy Football team this season. But at breakfast this week, instead of discussing how her team was doing, we watched the Ray Rice video play out again in all its ugliness,” said Storm. “I spent this week answering seemingly impossible questions about the league’s biggest stars: ‘Mom, why did he do that? Why isn’t he in jail? Why didn’t he get fired?’ And yesterday, ‘Why don’t they even have control of their own players?'”

“So here’s a question: What does all of this mean for the future? What does it mean for female fans, whose dollars are so coveted by the NFL, who make up an estimated 45 percent of the NFL’s fan base?” she asked. “Are fans and are families, are we as parents supposed to compartmentalize everything that’s happening? Are we supposed to simply separate a violent game on the field from violent acts off the field? And if we do, what message does that send?”

And that, ladies and gentleman, is called: Asking the right questions.

Thank you, Hannah Storm, for landing on the right side of this terribly amorphous issue, thank you for passing that same critical eye for the truth to your daughter, and thank you, most of all, for using your platform to speak out with clarity on this issue.


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The Smile Pose: A Happy Practice

Are you happy? I hope your answer is yes. However, given the ups and downs of life, you might not find yourself happy at this very moment. Here’s the good news. Happiness is just a smile away.

In studio practice, I will find myself lunging into a deep warrior pose. The class will be holding for a very long count. The room will become intense with trembling quadriceps and focused pranayama then the instructor will say, “Remember to smile!”cardio-yoga-art

The first time I heard that I thought it was a joke.  I assumed the instructor was being pithy, poking fun at our collective effort.

That wasn’t the case. There is a real physical benefit to smiling when you are under physical or emotional stress. Go ahead and google benefits of smiling and you will find article after article giving you reasons to turn that frown upside down.family yoga kid smile

Here are four reasons to smile:

1) Smiling lowers stress and anxiety

Smiling during times of stress might seem counter intuitive, however studies show that it can be beneficial. When recovering from a stressful situation, study participants who were smiling had lower heart rates than those with a neutral facial expression.

2) Smiling releases endorphins

Endorphins are hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system that have a number of physiological functions. They result in feelings of euphoria and a higher pain threshold. So, when you find yourself stuck, stressed, or uncomfortable, remember to smile. It might not change your situation, but it can make you feel better.

3) Smiling strengthens your immune system

Smiling increases your body’s production of white blood cells that fight illness. One study found that hospitalized children who were visited by story-tellers and puppeteers who made them smile and laugh had higher white blood cell counts than those children who weren’t.

4) Fake it until you make it

Paul Ekman, PhD, a psychologist who is an expert in facial expressions, taught himself to arrange the muscles in his face to make certain expressions. To his surprise, he found himself feeling the emotions that he was mimicking. When he raised his cheeks, parted his lips, and turned the corners of his mouth up, he felt happier.

He conducted a study examining the feelings brought about by forced and spontaneous smiles. Whether the subjects smiled spontaneously or on purpose, the activity in their brains was virtually the same. They felt happy.

So there you have it. Maybe the key to happiness is much more simple than expected. Next time you find yourself feeling stressed or blue, remember, a smile can be the quickest path back to happiness.


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Join Us in the Fight For Net Neutrality

This is the first time I have ever clicked the Reblog button. Please read this.
I believe this legislation is a step in the wrong direction.

The WordPress.com Blog

“Net Neutrality” is the simple but powerful principle that cable and broadband providers must treat all internet traffic equally. Whether you’re loading a blog post on WordPress.com, streaming House of Cards on Netflix, or browsing handcrafted tea cozies on Etsy, your internet provider can’t degrade your connection speed, block sites, or charge a toll based on the content that you’re viewing.

Net neutrality has defined the internet since its inception, and it’s hard to argue with the results: the internet is the most powerful engine of economic growth and free expression in history. Most importantly, the open internet is characterized by companies, products, and ideas that survive or fail depending on their own merit — not on whether they have preferred deals in place with a broadband service provider. Unfortunately, the principle of net neutrality, and the open internet that we know and love, is under attack.

Net Neutrality under…

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The Quiet Pose: A Silent Practice

Yoga studios are quiet places. Instructors might complement the class with music but for the most part the sounds you hear are verbal instruction and the rhythmic pranayama of the class.

The quiet allows for focus. Without the distraction of conversation, computers, TV, traffic, and electronics the practitioner can begin to hear what the body is asking for and meet those needs. It also presents an opportunity to observe to one’s own thoughts. The quiet allows for meditation.Benefits-of-meditation-2

I find in my life, quiet and silence are often hard to come by or challenging to attain. At home I listen to talk radio constantly. I go from task to task through out the day listening to disembodied voices discuss the world. I am always listening to other people’s ideas, thoughts, and beliefs. Similarly, I know people who always have music playing and people who always have a TV on in the background. We all know people who constantly have their noses in their phones. This external noise blocks the mind’s internal chatter.

All of these distractions are a staple of modern living. However, we should take time to be silent and let those easily drowned out internal voices and feelings have their moment.

For a long time I did not want to try meditation. I was intimidated by the idea of “clearing my mind.” I thought I was expected to stop my thoughts. What I didn’t understand was: Meditation is not the absence of thought. It is the observation of thought. Observation without judgement and reaction.

imagesThat is the tricky bit for me…without judgement and reaction. The initial challenge for me was to step away from my thoughts and emotions and just observe. Through yoga, I gradually learned this delicate and subtle skill. As I began to grasp the concept, it became easier. Quotation-Osho-existence-meditation-Meetville-Quotes-189437If you do meditate, terrific. If you have before and wandered away from the practice, go back. If you have never meditated, try it. If you would like to have a better understanding click here and here.

Wherever you might be in your practice, allow for quiet in your life. Turn off the computer, phone, TV or whatever is buzzing, beeping or flashing. Let your environment be quiet. Settle into silence and see what happens.


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The Truthful Pose

A lie has many variations the truth noneIt is so important to stay honest in yoga practice. When yogis and yoginis are not honest with themselves about their abilities they can risk injury or disappointment. When we practice, there is an inherent responsibility to be truthful with oneself.

This responsibility extends way beyond our practice into our lives. Unfortunately, in everyday life, people can be dishonest.

There are “white lies” that are often born from the intent to protect a person. There are blatant lies told to manipulate or to cover up a shameful truth. Either way, when a lie is told, it shows disrespect for another’s ability to handle or accept the truth. It also shows that the person telling the lie is too fearful to face the consequences of the truth. Every time a lie is told there is real damage done to trust and love.

So what does it mean when we lie to ourselves?see no evilAs humans, we have an amazing ability to adapt, survive and persevere through an untold range of challenges. Our minds have ancient coping and survival skills that protect our ability to function and carry out tasks on a daily basis.  If our prehistoric ancestors where so crippled with fear by their precarious position in the food chain, they would never have had the heart to pursue fresh drinking water and new food sources. Everyday they walked out into a potentially deadly landscape and did what they had to do to survive. Despite the horrible truth that they were potential prey.

Now, in our cocoon of modern amenities and considerable daily safety, our minds still have an uncanny ability to dismiss ugly truths. This is not always a bad thing. This little trick of our human mind has allowed some amazing things to happen. It has allowed people to beat insurmountable odds and flourish in desolate conditions. Think: Harriet Tubman, Hellen Keller, Ghandi, or Elie Wiesel. If they had focused on the hopelessness of their circumstances, they might have never have achieved such accomplishments.quote-even-if-you-are-a-minority-of-one-the-truth-is-the-truth-mahatma-gandhi-68003However, there is another kind of self deception that leaves the best part of ourselves hidden in fear. As people who need to get up everyday and walk into the world, often we can refuse to look things in the face and know them for what they are. Fear of change can keep us blind to many sad but true circumstances. That denial of the truth lays waste to the natural love we have for ourselves and trust in our own abilities.

The upside to this is that the truth never changes. It is always there, always available to visit, no matter how far one has wandered away. Despite our ability to lie to ourselves, despite the wreckage that can be created by the human ability to live with deception, there is always the resilience of the human heart. We can learn the truth, deal with it, heal and once again, find the strength to love and trust.