Off Your Mat

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


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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.

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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.

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Trikonasana

There is also the self assist using a block…

Trikonasana with block

or a strap.

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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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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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Meditate on This: The Most Imortant Pose

When I first practiced yoga, I was annoyed with savasana.  I could not wrap my mind around laying still for close to 20 minutes with all the things I needed to accomplish in a day.  As a result, I was missing a huge point. ShavasanaThe purpose of the asanas is to arrive at perhaps the most important pose, savasana (corpse pose). A place where the mind settles as the body rests and there is a natural transition into meditation. Just to drive home the importance of the pose, here is a list of its benefits:

  • a decrease in heart rate and the rate of respiration,
  • a decrease in blood pressure,
  • a decrease in muscle tension,
  • a reduction in general anxiety,
  • a reduction in the number and frequency of anxiety attacks,
  • an increase in energy levels and in general productivity,
  • an improvement in concentration and in memory,
  • an increase in focus,
  • a decrease in fatigue, coupled with deeper and sounder sleep, and
  • improved self-confidence.

Savansana allows us to detach, regroup and reset physically and mentally.

Students at a Sankrit School in daily practice

Students at a Sankrit School in daily practice

Often western culture places a low value on down time.  There is pride in the ability to hustle and power through without much thought to what is missed without real rest.

In 5th grade, I had an unfortunate incident related to this exact concept.  During home room, there was always a math exercise posted on the board.  We were instructed to spend our free time working on that until the bell rang and attendance was called.  It was never collected or graded.  It was an activity to keep us busy and the classroom quiet. I rarely completed it.  I chose to spend that time staring out the ground floor window at the suburban morning that was unfolding outside of our school.  I loved the few minutes before the bell rang  and our bustling day began. Sitting silent and staring, I remember wishing I could hop out the window and lay down in the large rolling lawn and stare at the clouds.

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One morning mid-trance I heard my name being barked from the front of the room.  I turned to see Mrs. D’s trim, imposing figure at her desk, beckoning me towards her with the crook of her finger.

When I arrived at her desk, she leaned in close, treating me to the distinct smell of coffee and something rotten on her breath.

Her sharp pale eyes drilled into me as she asked, “Do you know what you are?”

I don’t remember having a response, except a sickening twist in my gut.

“You are a dreamer.” She sneered loud enough for my classmates to hear. Her tone implying that this was not a good thing. “I see you staring out that window every morning. You do nothing.” mean-19025194883_xlarge She paused dramatically, surveying the classroom, nodding as if this was a consensus, then leaned back in, “You’ve got your head in the clouds and it’s not going to get you anywhere.”

Looking back, it is no great mystery why I dreamed of hopping out of that classroom window.

At the time, I didn’t have the back bone or the independence to stand up to Mrs. D’s berating. I assumed, given her position of authority and her seemingly expert status on things such as 5th grade math and social studies, that she was right and I was headed down a road to ruin.

Terrified and humiliated, I committed to “keeping my eye on the ball” and “cracking down” by completing the free time math exercises.

Scurrying back to my seat, I was determined to tamp down my dreamer tendencies.

I quickly discovered that was nearly impossible.  The anxiety around the free time math exercises held a tight grip on my brain. I was terrified those eagle eyes would catch me dreaming again. The figures I scratched down on my scrap paper seemed shifty and elusive. In those few minutes before the bell each day, my gaze and my mind wandered outside again and again.  However, the delight had been drained from my morning reprieve.

Mrs. D was right.  I was a dreamer. I spent the rest of that year in the dark shadow of her disappointment.

As a former teacher, I am furious with that woman.  As a yogini, I am equally impressed by my 5th grade discovery of morning meditation.  I would like to gather up my 10-year-old self in my arms and tell her Mrs. D was unfair and possibly dealing with some emotional issues of her own. meditate_istock_000016078540smallI am happy to report I have moved on from the incident, but there are times when I do battle with my own internal Mrs. D. I have had stretches of time where I run myself into the ground striving to feel accomplished or silently shamed myself for low productivity.

It’s my yoga practice that allows me to reflect on these moments and find balance.

To put the importance of meditation in perspective, think of the daily global effort made to secure time to recharge cell phones, ipads, and lap tops.

Shouldn’t that same priority be placed on finding time to recharge our minds and central nervous systems?

I like to envision a world where everyone can silence their internal Mrs. D and carve out even 5 minutes a day to meditate.

I would love to know your favorite method of meditation.  How do you fit it into your day? Do you have a meditative activity that allows you to recharge? What are your challenges to finding that time?

Take a moment and share out in the comments below.


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The Strongest Pose

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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.

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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.