Off Your Mat

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


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The Judgment Pose

I’m most relaxed and focused in my yoga practice when I’m not worried about what other people think of me.

If I suddenly become self-conscious or worried that I might be judged, the pleasure I derive from my practice can drain away. I begin to see myself through the eyes of the people looking at me, and in my insecure moments I might imagine that they only see my flaws.

The reality is, the most critical eye in the room is the instructor who is looking to assist and he or she needs to use judgment to do so.

group yoga class

Tree Pose (Vriksasana)

Here’s a quick example. At first glance the above photo is of attractive people practicing yoga. However, as I look closer, I find flaws. I can spot three yogis placing their foot against the knee of their support leg. That can injure the knee. As an instructor I would gently remind my class to place the foot either above or below the knee. I used my judgment to identify a threat and then protected others by pointing it out.

Humans are hard-wired to judge, it is a survival skill. Thousands of years ago the first humans had to judge and assess most things in their environment for threat. They didn’t have the luxury of assuming changes and differences were ultimately good.

Akakus - Sahara Desert

Akakus – Sahara Desert

Fast forward to the present. We still judge. There are still physical dangers that we need to assess. However, we use our judgment in countless other ways. It is the way our minds work. We observe, we assess, we make judgments. It is what we do with those judgments that can either be helpful or hurtful. That choice is up to the individual.

People judge. It’s what we do. We cannot control what another person might do with their judgment. If a person makes judgments and uses them to degrade or humiliate an individual, then that is an example of judgment gone wrong.

So here’s the take away: Yes. People will judge you. No. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, it is your own judgments about yourself that should resonate loudest.

Maybe the best approach is to adopt the philosophy of Wayne Dyer and remember, “What other people think of me is none of my business.”

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The Powerful Pose: Practicing Gratitude

gratitudeThere is power in giving thanks.

The act of saying “Thank you” to someone acknowledges the effort or thought that person put into you. It makes that person feel appreciated. They understand that you understand what they did. It strengthens the relationship and paves the way for more positive interactions. ScienceOfRelationships.com does a good job of exploring that dynamic.

But, what about offering up thanks to the universe? Why is it so important to say “Thank you” to a higher power?

Expressing gratitude validates all the fate, luck, fortune, blessings that arrive at your door. When we stop to acknowledge what we have to be grateful for, we give ourselves the ability to see what is positive in our lives. Just being aware of what is good, draws more good to you. That is powerful.

Gratitude is not about the material. It is about training the mind to see what truly holds value. buddha quote

Practicing gratitude is a form of self love. It is a moment to appreciate all of the good in all of the winding ways it has come to you. Just like thanking people in your life for their help or thoughtfulness builds trust and love, practicing gratitude creates an ability to more readily recognize the positive. Like any skill, if it is not practiced it can become weak or forgotten.

If you don’t stop to consciously be grateful, you might very well overlook something worthy of your gratitude. That would be a shame.

Initially, moments to be grateful for do not always look like good fortune. They can arrive unexpectedly, sometimes in the form of a complete disaster. Often it is those disasters that shed light on tremendous strength or understanding or truth. Only when we stop to reflect and be grateful, can we decipher the value.

gratitude

Here are 6 steps to a daily practice of gratitude:

1. Pick or create a quiet moment.

2. Envision one thing for which you are grateful.

3. Let all other thoughts fall away.

4. Allow yourself to feel the joy related to that thought.

5. Say aloud (or form a complete thought), “Thank you for _____________.”

6. Repeat daily.

 


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The Tao Porchon-Lynch Pose: The Practice of Living

tao porchon-lynch

Tao Porchon-Lynch posing for Robert Sturman

Tao Porchon-Lynch. You have probably heard of her. She has become the yogini face of aging gracefully.

I have recently become preoccupied with her story. I watched a video of Tao speaking at a TEDx event. It was titled “There is nothing you cannot do.” She was fascinating. Her natural enthusiasm was contagious. Her lithe movements and physical ability defied her age.

I googled her and discovered hundreds of current photos and links to articles about her advanced age. But that wasn’t what I was interested in, I wanted to see her in her youth or middle-aged. I wanted to see a 30 or 40-something Tao Porchon-Lynch. What did she wear? How did she move? Did she care for children? Did she work?

I researched and got answers to my questions. I also came upon this photo.

tao porchon lynch

Wowza

I was delighted. I mean, this is a woman with some chutzpah. The more I read, the more I found her age to be the least interesting thing about her. Everyone is subject to aging, it is the decisions and the choices she made throughout her life that makes her fascinating to me.

Looking at the way she lives her life, it doesn’t surprise me that she is thriving at 96 years old.

At the age of eight she came across some boys practicing yoga on the beach in India. She joined in. At the time, her Aunt (who was raising her) discouraged her from practicing yoga, stating that it was for boys and not a proper activity for a girl. She didn’t listen and pursued the practice anyway. Was she just being a defiant child or did she intuitively know the direction she wanted to take? I don’t have the answer and I’m not sure it matters, but that decision began a pattern.

Each time she was given a standard or an expected limitation, she disregarded it and carved her own path. She made choices that allowed her to defy statistics and beat odds. She is amazing and not just because of her age.

She inspires me to reflect on my own choices and ask: When have I let other’s expectations set my standard?  Have I blindly done what was expected of me simply because it was expected. Or worse, when have I decided that I couldn’t do something because of someone else’s limits? These questions are helpful. Especially now, with middle age settled resolutely on my doorstep. Often there is a predisposition to consider pushing boundaries the territory of youth. Tao Porchon-Lynch reminds me that healthy rebellion and good gut instincts can thrive at any age.

I think the lesson we should be learning from Tao is not how to age, but how to live.


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The Uncopyright Pose: The Practice of Sharing Wisdom

I wish I could take credit for what is written below, but I can’t.

What I can do is share a valuable list that I find myself revisiting over and over. It comes from Zen Habits written by Leo Babauta.

Today I found myself reading through his list of 12 Indespensable Mindful Living Tools again.  I decided I would reach out to him and request permission to share it on my blog. Searching through his site for contact information, I came across a tab that read: uncopyright. I discovered he has released his copyright and put his work on the site into public domain.

Amazing. Refreshing. Delightful.

Thank you, Mr. Babauta, for making it so easy to share your wisdom.buddah

Leo Babauta’s 12 Indepensable Mindful Living Tools

1. Meditation. Meditation is where mindful living starts. And it’s not complicated: you can sit still for even just 1 minute a day to start with (work up to 3-5 minutes after a week), and turn your attention to your body and then your breath. Notice when your thoughts wander from your breath, and gently return to the breath. Repeat until the minute is up.

2. Be Awake. Meditation is practice for being awake, which is not being in the dream state (mind wandering into a train of thought, getting lost in the online world, thinking about past offenses, stressing about the future, etc.) but being awake to the present, to what is. Being awake is something you can do throughout the day, all the time, if you remember. Remembering is the trick.

3. Watch Urges. When I quit smoking in 2005, the most useful tool I learned was watching my urges to smoke. I would sit there and watch the urge rise and fall, until it was gone, without acting on it. It taught me that I am not my urges, that I don’t have to act on my urges, and this helped me change all my other habits. Watch your urge to check email or social media, to eat something sweet or fried, to drink alcohol, to watch TV, to be distracted, to procrastinate. These urges will come and go, and you don’t have to act on them.

4. Watch Ideals. We all have ideals, all the time. We have an ideal that our day will go perfectly, that people will be kind and respectful to us, that we will be perfect, that we’ll ace an exam or important meeting, that we’ll never fail. Of course, we know from experience that those ideals are not real, that they don’t come true, that they aren’t realistic. But we still have them, and they cause our stress and fears and grief over something/someone we’ve lost. By letting go of ideals, we can let go of our suffering.

5. Accept People & Life As They Are. When I stopped trying to change a loved one, and accepted him for who he was, I was able to just be with him and enjoy my time with him. This acceptance has the same effect for anything you do — accept a co-worker, a child, a spouse, but also accept a “bad” situation, an unpleasant feeling, an annoying sound. When we stop trying to fight the way things are, when we accept what is, we are much more at peace.

6. Let Go of Expectations. This is really the same thing as the previous two items, but I’ve found it useful nonetheless. It’s useful to watch your expectations with an upcoming situation, with a new project or business, and see that it’s not real and that it’s causing you stress and disappointment. We cause our own pain, and we can relieve it by letting go of the expectations that are causing it. Toss your expectations into the ocean.

7. Become OK with Discomfort. The fear of discomfort is huge — it causes people to be stuck in their old bad habits, to not start the business they want to start, to be stuck in a job they don’t really like, because we tend to stick to the known and comfortable rather than try something unknown and uncomfortable. It’s why many people don’t eat vegetables or exercise, why they eat junk, why they don’t start something new. But we can be OK with discomfort, with practice. Start with things that are a little uncomfortable, and keep expanding your comfort zone.

8. Watch Your Resistance. When you try to do something uncomfortable, or try to give up something you like or are used to, you’ll find resistance. But you can just watch the resistance, and be curious about it. Watch your resistance to things that annoy you — a loud sound that interrupts your concentration, for example. It’s not the sound that’s the problem, it’s your resistance to the sound. The same is true of resistance to food we don’t like, to being too cold or hot, to being hungry. The problem isn’t the sensation of the food, cold, heat or hunger — it’s our resistance to them. Watch the resistance, and feel it melt. This resistance, by the way, is why I’m doing my Year of Living Without.

9. Be Curious. Too often we are stuck in our ways, and think we know how things should be, how people are. Instead, be curious. Find out. Experiment. Let go of what you think you know. When you start a new project or venture, if you feel the fear of failure, instead of thinking, “Oh no, I’m going to fail” or “Oh no, I don’t know how this will turn out”, try thinking, “Let’s see. Let’s find out.” And then there isn’t the fear of failure, but the joy of being curious and finding out. Learn to be OK with not knowing.

10. Be Grateful. We complain about everything. But life is a miracle. Find something to be grateful about in everything you do. Be grateful when you’re doing a new habit, and you’ll stick to it longer. Be grateful when you’re with someone, and you’ll be happier with them. Life is amazing, if you learn to appreciate it.

11. Let Go of Control. We often think we control things, but that’s only an illusion. Our obsession with organization and goals and productivity, for example, are rooted in the illusion that we can control life. But life is uncontrollable, and just when we think we have things under control, something unexpected comes up to disrupt everything. And then we’re frustrated because things didn’t go the way we wanted. Instead, practice letting go of control, and learn to flow.

12. Be Compassionate. This sounds trite, but compassion for others can change the way you feel about the world, on a day-to-day basis. And compassion for yourself is life-changing. These two things need remembering, though, so mindful living is about remembering to be compassionate after you forget.


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The Opportunity Pose: A Less Stressed Holiday Season

Sometimes an opportunity is obvious, sometimes it can be cloaked by perception. Often opportunities can pass right by because they look like a problem. When fear comes into the picture it seems opportunities dry up all together.opportunity1

During my first few attempts at yoga I was afraid of looking foolish. The fear I harbored inhibited my confidence. I was thinking about all the things I hadn’t learned to do yet. I was looking at it backwards. I considered my newbie status to be a detriment, when I should have focused on the limitless opportunity of learning that stretched out before me.87577938

Luckily, I loosened up and figured it out. I relaxed into a practice were I can be realistic about my abilities, push my boundaries, try new things and understand that mistakes are not failures. As always, this lesson in my yoga practice allowed me to reflect on how I approach similar circumstances in everyday life.

I think the approaching holiday season is a great opportunity to take this yoga lesson out into the world.

keep-calm

There is a lot of anxiety that accompanies the approach of the holidays. People become stressed on so many levels. There are the logistics of gathering with family and friends, the extra expenses that come with gifts and travel, the extra responsibilities of cooking and entertaining and the less talked about family tensions that often come to a head at this time of year. It can be challenging.

But isn’t every challenge an opportunity?

Here are 6 practical tips to using yoga philosophies to create a less stressed holiday season.*

1. Acknowledge how you are feeling. The holiday season is built up to be an extra happy and festive time. For many people it is and that is terrific. However, if you find yourself feeling blue or down you should not force yourself to be happy just because it is the holidays. Do not bottle it up. Being human, it is normal to have a whole range of emotions. It is not normal to suppress emotions and pretend to be cheerful when you are not. Do not judge yourself and find a safe place to express yourself.

2. Be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones.

3. Practice acceptance. Work to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress, too.

4. Take a breather. Find some time for yourself, even if it is just 15 minutes. A little bit of time alone can recharge you enough to take on the next “to do list.” Here are some relaxing activities you can do on your own:

Take a seated position. Ideally, your knees should be slightly lower than your hips and your eyes should be closed. Sit up straight and inhale for a count of eight. Pause when your lungs are full and then exhale for a count of eight, emptying your lungs completely. Repeat at least 3 times.

  • Take a walk
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Read
  • Nap

5. Practice gratitude. Yes, this time of year brings added stress but it is also a time to count our blessings. Often our stress is created by expectations we hold that are not necessarily based in reality. Let go of that stuff, enjoy the people you want to enjoy, take in the beauty of the season and let it all unfold.

6. Give back. This time of year is the perfect opportunity to practice altruism. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing a check. This is an opportunity to start a family tradition of donating time around the holidays.

I hope you love your holiday season. But if you don’t, I hope you take the opportunity to make changes so that you can create something that you do love.

 

*For a more in-depth list visit The Mayo Clinic.


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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.

adjustments

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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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.