Off Your Mat

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


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The Strongest Pose

Amy-Manta-I

I’m a fan of the woman pictured above.  She caught my attention in 2012 doing a photo shoot with plankton eating whale sharks in the Philippines. Now she has appeared again, popping up on my yahoo home page, floating in lotus pose above a giant endangered manta ray.

This visual act of beauty and bravery is begging the observer to pay attention. And we should. These activists are using yoga to send an important message.

That is one reason why I am sharing the picture here.  Sharks and rays are endangered. They are over fished and their numbers are dwindling. It’s difficult to see these well documented predators as victims and in need of our help. They do not appeal to our empathetic instincts. In short, sharks are the public relations nightmare of the animal kingdom. Regardless of their violent reputation, they are an important part of our ecosystem and need protection.

The other reason I shared this picture is because it draws me back to a very specific moment.

In the 1990’s, I was part of a small group of backpackers making our way through the Australian outback in a crowded Land Rover.

red center

Gathered at Australia’s Red Center

Setting up camp next to our vehicle

Setting up camp next to our vehicle

On one leg of our tour, we crossed the 1700 miles from Adelaide to Perth across the Nullarbor Plain. The Nullarbor is a flat, almost treeless, arid area between southern and western Australia, located on the Great Australian Bight coast.

I took this photo on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain with a disposable camera.

I took this photo on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain with a disposable camera.

I snapped this photo on the other side of the tree pictured above, peeking over the 200 foot drop of The Great Australian Bight.

I snapped this photo on the other side of the tree pictured above, peeking over the 200 foot drop of The Great Australian Bight.

We had stopped on a deserted peninsula in Southern Australia and were wading into the waters of the Indian Ocean. The closest town was about an hour away – and when I say town, I mean gas station. We were up to our hips in the clear, crystal blue water when a large dark form appeared, swimming about 20 yards away from us. Two of my fellow travelers grabbed their snorkel gear and headed straight for it. I headed for dry land.

Exploring the peninsula.

As much as I am a supporter of the shark’s cause, I’m terribly afraid of them. I’m not interested in swimming with them, photographing them or bumping into them under any circumstance.

Turns out it was a manta ray.  It stayed in the shallows, letting them observe it closely for about 15 minutes, then it disappeared back into the deep. When my friends returned to the ankle deep water, where I had staked my claim, they were exhilarated. They talked excitedly about the connection they felt with the creature and the gentleness of the giant fish. I was so excited for them.

But never, even for a moment, have I regretted my decision to leave that dark looming figure alone.

I love the ocean and adventure, however I will not subject myself to that level of vulnerability. The probability of that large swimming shadow being a Great White was a little too high for my taste.

Which brings me back to the amazing picture of the woman and the manta ray. She is so obviously vulnerable. It reminded me of a quote my sister brought home from a yoga class, “You are your strongest when you have made yourself vulnerable, because in that moment you are taking a risk for what you want.”

The essence of that statement is captured in the photograph of Amy Ippoliti and the manta ray. She took an enormous risk to raise our awareness. Her drive to bring attention to the plight of these massive animals gave her the strength to be vulnerable.

So many times we look at vulnerability as a weakness, when really it might be the strongest pose we can take.


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Yoga Practice 101: The Competitive Pose

I have a freakishly competitive nature. It will lie dormant for months then suddenly erupt, usually during a benign activity that doesn’t require the intensity I bring to it. Once, after a game of dominoes, my good friend Bob said he would rather break his own arms than play with me again. Others (including my husband) have shared similar sentiments, thankfully without the violent imagery.

 I spent 12 years in sales. There, the competitive spirit is encouraged and rewarded. I was in competition with my team mates, other offices, divisions and states. Not to mention the competitors. The corporate language gave value to blood sport. We were encouraged to kill our numbers. We were also reminded in meetings, with heavy handed analogies, that sharks die if they stop moving. So, I moved. I really hustled.

Until I didn’t want to anymore. I grew weary of chasing an ever growing quota. As competitive as I am, that is not all I am. So I made a change. I got my teaching degree and went to teach High School English. Turns out, competition comes in many forms. Drop a competitive person into any environment and they will find a competition. This is not a bad thing.  My last year at the school, the seniors voted me and the math teacher “Co-Teachers of the Year.”  I’m proud of that.

The people I practice yoga with include marathon runners, college athletes, financiers and CEOs to name a few. These are people that deal with intense competition in other parts of their life. They are not shrinking violets. Yet, as far as I can tell, none of us go to the studio to compete with each other. Speaking for myself, my time on my mat is for me.  If I am taking on a challenge, it is the challenge of an asana and it doesn’t matter what anyone else in the room is doing. Although, it wasn’t always like that for me.

When I first starting practicing yoga, I would have an internal conniption fit if I couldn’t perfect a pose. I was constantly comparing myself to my classmates. I saw it as a failure to take a modification. Forget taking child’s pose, I was going to push through my muscle fatigue. Before I built my upper body strength, I was furious that I had to use my knees during the push up in chaturanga. Don’t even get me started on my epic journey into crow. It’s hilarious looking back at myself. Did I expect to jump in at an advanced level?

I guess I did.

It makes me wonder, where else have I done that?  When have I grown frustrated with something because I wasn’t (what I perceived to be) the best at it?  The answer to that is a long and sometimes frighteningly petty, list.

I ask the question, not to beat myself up, but to make a point. Competition is imprinted in our human DNA. Competition is why people play sports and have game nights.  It is why people excel in their professions and hobbies.  It is why the phrase “the thrill of the hunt” was coined.  Competition is where we learn how far we can jump and dream.  Our survival as a species was successful because we are competitive.

But let’s face it.  I’m not out on the Serengeti trying to outsmart a lioness. Surviving, for a suburban yogini, is pretty easy.

That doesn’t make the competitive spirit go away and it shouldn’t. Competition is a good thing. We learn from it. Because in competition, there is a chance you might lose. Our life’s lessons are written in our losses. There have been some amazing trajectories born from significant setbacks.

Let’s go back to my first hyper competitive attempts at yoga.  My failure there was really only in my head.  But it was a real failure in my head.  I was missing out on the true nature of the practice because I was so busy trying to “keep up” with my neighbors.

There are many moments in life that we should relish the opportunity to jump into a competition.  There are other times that our drive should take a backseat to what is important in the moment.

The trick is figuring out which moment is which.

Obviously, in the case of Bob and the dominoes, I might have made the wrong choice.

 


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The Easter Rabbit Yoga Pose

Easter Sunday 2013 I attended the early morning power yoga class at my favorite studio.  I wasn’t thinking much about the class.  I had a full day ahead of me and this was an item I was checking off my list.  I was getting something done for myself before I went to celebrate Easter.  A lot of people must have been doing that because the studio was full.

I knew our instructor John, a little.  Previously we had chatted about becoming certified in yoga and teaching school in Camden, NJ, which we had both done.  A few weeks before, he shared with our class that he had practiced yoga with his granddaughter.  He had said he was so glad that she would have that memory after he was gone.  I always thought of that precious image when I saw him.

Starting the class, he announced we would be practicing Rabbit Pose for Easter.  The last time I had done the pose was when I dropped in on a Bikram class years before.  When he mentioned it, I wasn’t sure if I could recall the exact pose.

 

Class started. When it came to the inversions portion of our class we all took Rabbit Pose, then we moved on.  It was a great class.  I remember feeling good, every challenge was an opportunity. Mostly, I was really impressed with myself that I made it to a early class on a Sunday.

During savasana, which is normally a welcomed respite, my mind was racing.  I had an outside egg hunt planned with the neighbors for the afternoon and it was supposed to rain. My mom and mother-in-law were coming over. I had a lot going on.

We sat up from savasana, legs crossed, hands at heart center.  Keeping our eyes closed we raised our hands to our third eye, opening our palms to let in love and light. Finally we bowed, saying “Namaste.”  Upon opening our eyes, each of us discovered a shiny plastic Easter egg at the top of our mat.  We opened our eggs to find two baby carrots.

It is silly, but I was overwhelmed with emotion.  I was incredibly touched by this small, festive gesture.  The sight of a bright blue egg, appearing where previously nothing had been, was the first true surprise I had experienced in a long time.  Hiding my misty eyed emotion, mostly because it was confusing to me, I waved a thank you to John and left the studio to move on with my day.

I thought about that class often.  It finally struck me why the carrot stuffed egg pulled at my heart strings.

It was John’s thoughtfulness, planning for a group of people who weren’t expecting anything except a class. In my case anyway, I was just happy to fit the class into my day.  There were probably a million reasons for John to not make the extra effort, but he did.  I pictured him at his kitchen counter or table diligently packing those baby carrots into Easter eggs.  How sweet!

Also, the shared experience of finding our eggs created an instant shared memory. It bonded the temporary tribe of our class. I remember giggling when I found it and looking to my neighbors.  When normally, I would have been hustling to roll up my mat and move on.

Lastly, he could have easily handed them out at the end of class or put them in a basket near the door, letting us know we were welcome to an egg.  Instead, as we rested, he silently placed one in front of each of us.  It was a whimsical act that harkened back to the wonder of egg hunts and the delight of finding an egg where you weren’t expecting it.

That is exactly what happened.  Without expecting it, I was swept up by the magic of that little plastic egg that held so much more than two carrots.

 


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The Cooking Pose: Clay Pot Practice

Clay Pot Cooking and Yoga.

They are ancient. They are earthy. They are delightful.

Both require patience and hydration.

The pots themselves are a lot like yogis.  They come in all shapes and sizes and each is unique.

I stumbled onto cooking with a clay pot when I came into the possession of a Romertofp Pot along with a little recipe book.  Having never seen one before I was intimidated, so I let it sit in its box, tucked away, until I uncovered it during a move.

My clay pot

My clay pot

At the time I discovered the pot, I was experiencing my own little cooking renaissance.  Until then, I had never considered myself much of a cook. Anytime spent in the kitchen was for organizing salads or reheating someone else’s dish. Throughout college and the years following, I depended on other’s culinary skills and the miracle of take out.

On New Year’s Day in 2005 I checked my office voicemail from home to learn that the company I was working for had declared bankruptcy and the entire workforce was laid off.  Suddenly, I had a lot of time on my hands.

Sitting on my couch, avoiding my job search, I thumbed through a macrobiotic cookbook given to me by my sister.  It was my jumping off point.  Before I knew it, cooking became a daily obsession.  I loved hunting down hard to find ingredients, bringing them home and following the happy formula of the recipe.  Nothing gave me pause.  I cooked with seaweed, umi plum vinegar, kuzu root and miso paste.  I got bolder and started examining other cookbooks.  Soon I was steaming my own bagels, roasting beets and whipping up chicken tamale casseroles.  By Mother’s Day I had the culinary confidence to cook a full meal for 10 people.

It was around this time I found the clay pot, never unboxed, sitting in a lonely corner of my basement.  This time, I saw it with new eyes.  Finding the clay pot, earthen and humble, all but forgotten, reminded me of getting my first bike.  I had never ridden before, but I was dying to take it for a spin.

What does this have to do with taking our practice off our mat?

First, the word practice. I had weeks of cooking practice under my belt.  My practice gave me confidence to try something new, something that had previously been indecipherable and intimidating. Just like yoga.  As we build our practice on our mat, the impossible becomes possible.

Second, one of my favorite yoga instructors has a great way of articulating an instruction.  In class we will be holding a particularly long pose and she will invite us to take the pose to the next level by saying “because you can.” For example, we will be in a side angle bind, holding through a long count of 5 and she will say “Let your heart shine to the ceiling, because you can.”  Speaking those three little words, she is empowering us to take advantage of all our abilities. You’ve got muscles, strength, flexibility and will. Use it. Because you can.

Looking back, rediscovering my clay pot was a “because you can moment.  I didn’t worry about my lack of experience or the baffling simplicity of the pot itself.  I had the pot, I had an oven and I could cook.

Taking your practice off your mat isn’t always a conscious thing.  It is something you just do  – because you can.

Click here to check out an unbelievably delicious Clay Pot Indonesian Beggar’s Chicken recipe.


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Advanced Yoga: The Swimsuit Pose

I was 40 minutes into my interval strength power hour at my local gym. Twelve other women and I were completing a series of walking lunges followed by weighted squats that left my legs quivering. The teacher called out, “You all know why we’re doing all these squats, right?” Right on cue, in breathless unison we answered, “Swimsuit season!” Privately, I was a little disappointed in myself.

Swimsuit season. I have mixed feelings on the subject. It is right around this time of year, the snow melts, we start walking outside without coats, the trees begin to bud and this phrase gets used over and over again. You turn on the TV or open a magazine and someone is gleefully letting you know with a heavy hint of trepidation, “Swimsuit season is coming!!!! Are you ready?”

Every time we reach for a second helping or decide to skip the gym, we hear it. “Tsk. Tsk. Maybe you ought to rethink that,” a well-intentioned friend might intimate with a knowing tilt of the head, “you know, swimsuit season.” Or maybe, like me, it is just the voice in your head.

I’m assuming that you too, have a voice similar to mine that will occasionally bark out your worst fears or weaknesses. It might murmur at you about your lack of industry during a binge watching marathon. Or it might nag at you about your terrific ability to procrastinate when it comes to cleaning the bathroom. Swimsuit season is the voice’s time to shine. The voice, unfortunately, focuses on the negative and is not much fun.

This is one of those moments that I lean heavily on my yoga practice to stop myself from giving too much power to the voice. I could spend and have spent an enormous amount of energy berating myself and my ancestors for my short-legged genetics.

Instead, this is a perfect opportunity to take our yoga practice off our mat. It is important to recognize when the negative chatter in our minds is causing unneeded anxiety. Let’s use our yoga practice to turn this negative ship around and head for kinder waters.

“Practice gratitude”

How do you become grateful while we are baring it all in a swimsuit, under the brutal glow of fluorescent lights in a department store dressing room?

You do it by practicing gratitude.

Think of all the amazing places your body has carried you. Your body has been there for you. It might have stretch marks or be thicker than you wish, but think about all it has done for you. It has fought for you through illness, tingled for you during pleasure, hustled for you to keep your schedule, wiggled for you when you wanted to dance and let your heart pound when you fell in love. Thank your body for being there. Don’t shame it for showing signs of the life you are living. So maybe your arms aren’t perfect or maybe your hips are wider than they were when you were sixteen. So what? Honor your body by throwing back your shoulders, straightening your spine and letting it enjoy the summer.

Nice, right? It feels good to feel good about you. But maybe that little voice isn’t ready to surrender to positive thoughts. Maybe it has some more ammunition.

You have been there, sitting by the pool and she walks by. It doesn’t really matter who she is. It’s the fact that she looks stunning in her bikini and to add insult to injury, she is carrying her nine month old child on her cellulite free hip.

In a flash, the little voice can gain the upper hand. It might cause you to question your choice of swimsuit. You might start to shame yourself for not covering up your belly that day or choosing a suit that showed your thighs. You might suddenly feel embarrassed on your walk from your chair to the water.

How do we tap into our inner yogi at that moment?

“This is not a competition”

Swimsuit season is not a competition. Let me repeat. Swimsuit season is not a competition. This can be a confusing statement because here in America, we have been brought up on bathing suit competitions. (Thank you Miss America, Miss Universe and countless other pageants.) Everywhere you look online or on TV people are being judged on their appearance. It is the reality of our culture.

Yes, that woman at the pool has been dealt the perfect hand in the genetics department. You might not have been. But unless you have the celebrity status of Gwyneth Paltrow or Hillary Clinton, no one will be comparing pictures of the two of you on the pages of a national magazine. You are the only true judge in your life.

When you enter the yoga studio you learn very quickly that different people have different abilities. There are some poses that will come naturally to you, there will be others that you will always be working toward. For example, arm balances are a challenge for me. I marvel at other’s ability to effortlessly tilt into crow. Their ability does not make me feel less about my practice.

Let’s take that attitude to the pool. Do you really want to follow the negative train of thought that somehow, on some level, this lovely woman is better than you because she looks better in a swimsuit? No, you don’t. You and your body are better than that.

Think about the favorite people in your life, the people you truly admire. The people who changed your life for the better or made you who you are. Picture them in your mind. Think about why you love them.

Are any of them your favorite because of how they look in a swimsuit?

I’m hoping your answer is a definitive “No.”

Let’s take this swimsuit season off your mat. Practice gratitude. Remember this is not a competition. Our bodies deserve that and so do we.

You or your little voice might be thinking, “Easier said than done.”

That’s true, but aren’t most things worth doing easier to talk about than to actually put into practice?