Off Your Mat

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


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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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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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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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You Can Lead A Husband to Yoga but You Can Not Make Him Practice: The 7-Year Pose

I believe everyone should have an opportunity to practice yoga. I dream of bringing a regular yoga practice into our public school system. This is a long-term goal of mine filled with some obvious and some surprising obstacles. I am not discouraged because yoga is a constant in a world of variables.

In the short term, I encourage the people in my life to practice. Because I know it will help to keep them healthy both physically and mentally. I do not persuade saying you should, you should. It is more of a how about? or would you like?

Surprisingly, it was the person closest to me that was the most challenging recruit.

When I met my husband I was practicing yoga 5 to 6 times a week.  While we were dating I often suggested he take a class.  He declined, saying he really didn’t think it was his thing. After we got married I continued to suggest he try it. He continued to decline.

I would rattle off all the benefits of the practice from improved brain function to better lung capacity. It interested him, but my husband has conservative roots. The stereotype of bearded yogis in flowing outfits sitting very still was an image he couldn’t shake. After perusing a yoga magazine of mine, he was further concerned about what might be expected of him.

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You will not be required to wear this outfit or take this pose.

Regardless of his misconceptions, I was convinced he would love yoga. One of his sports in school had been wrestling. I knew it required the same flexibility and stamina needed in power yoga.  I was sure he would love the strenuous work out of the Baptiste practice. I just had to figure out a way to introduce him to it.

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Wrestlers warming up. Look familiar?

While I was earning my yoga teaching certificate I practiced instruction on anyone I could get my hands on: Fellow high school teachers, willing friends. I even talked the high school basketball coach into letting me run the team through asanas before their practice.

I was so excited when my husband offered up our daughter’s nap time for me to practice with him. I thought this would be the turning point and he would become hooked. What really happened was a disappointment.

The dynamic of the two of us in our basement rec room did not accurately mimic a real class. I had my nose in my notes, stopping and repeating parts of my instruction that I wanted to improve, our dog wandered about, often laying down on my husband’s mat. I had not orchestrated the ideal introduction to this cherished, ancient practice.

I know a lost opportunity when I see one and I stopped pushing for him to go to the studio with me.

I was content to have yoga be my thing. It didn’t have to be his too.

It was Mother Nature that changed everything.

The winter of 2014 brought some of the worst weather the East Coast had seen in a long time. We were pummeled by snow storm after snow storm, followed by icy winds and impassable roads. It was relentless. We spent more time than ever indoors. The cold seeped into our bones. A couple months into our temporary tundra I found my husband arching his back over the arm of the couch. Hanging upside down, he said, “I really need to stretch.”

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I suggested yoga again for the first time in over a year. He seemed unsure about the studio, but he was willing to try an online class.  I found one that was filmed in a real studio to give him an idea of what it would be like. Feeling like this bubble of interest could easily pop, I was careful not to get too involved as he found his way through his first practice. As I expected, he loved it.

For two weeks we had a standing 6pm yoga date. We would bustle in from our icy commutes and set up our mats in front of the T.V. where we streamed different online classes. I watched as his form improved without much help from me. He was a natural. I was ridiculously proud of him.

One freezing Sunday morning I took him to his first hot yoga class at my favorite studio. The class was packed and full of good energy. He immediately took to the intensity of the workout and the heat of the studio.

It was almost 7 years between the first time I suggested he try yoga and the first time he stepped into a yoga studio. Now, he gets himself to class without any suggestions from me.

That is the great thing about yoga, it is a constant, continuous rhythm of inhalations and exhalations that is always there when anyone is ready to jump in.


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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.