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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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.


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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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The Good Intentions Pose

Samuel Johnson

“Hell is paved with good intentions.” -Samuel Johnson

One of my favorite yoga practices is setting an intention before class.

I consider it a personal indulgence to be able to give my practice a meaning. The purpose is to use your intention to support you through the challenging asanas. It can take on any incarnation you give it. A mantra. An image. A dedication. It can be a place to dig a little deeper to go farther than you have before.  Or it can give you the permission to take it easy and not judge yourself. It’s a beautiful, mutable thing.

I taught yoga to students in an after school program in Camden, NJ. It was at the same high school where I taught English. Before practice, I would give them the option of sharing out their intention. They loved it.

I did too. It was an interesting window into teenager’s hearts.

My Amazing Students

pure hearts

Their intentions surprised me. They went big, setting intentions for their lives in that quiet little class. They shared goals that initially struck me as impossible to accomplish in yoga class and really having nothing to do with yoga at all. Intentions of degrees, fame, life-long comfort and wealth flowed from them in a river of youthful hopefulness.

It gave me pause. But instead of meddling, trying to drag the focus back to yoga related intentions, I let their dreams flower. Who am I to judge what inspires and motivates?

I realized my class was a safe place for them. It was a moment that they had complete control over the goal they wanted to set. Like most teens, my students didn’t always get to pick their goals in other parts of their day. I feel privileged to have been there to listen.

There was a lesson in that for me. Have there been times when I judged my own dreams? Have I adjusted my own intentions to fit my surroundings? Sure I have.

If I had to guess, I would think we all do that from time to time.

Even though I was the teacher, those students taught me a valuable lesson:

Don’t let good intentions, obscure the true intention.


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Garden Yoga: The Planting Pose

Gardening and yoga have a lot in common.

They both require focus, effort and sweat.  They both nurture a meditation where your mind can unravel and create.

They both can surprise you with spaces and places you did not expect.

For the past two years we have planted a garden.  I sprout the seeds in my kitchen bay window.  Much like my yoga practice, I have a routine.

It starts with seeds, coconut fiber growing pellets and some water.

sprouting Collage

 

I fashion mini greenhouses that end up looking like this…

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The window fills.

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They look pretty cool close up.

Close up seedling Collage

 

After a couple weeks they break free.

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Tomatoes. Snap peas. Jalapeno. Purple carrots. Yaya carrots. Zucchini.

 

The greens don’t need the mini greenhouses, they go straight into the soil.

seedling greens

Beets. Spinach. Arugula.

 

In the beginning of May the window seedlings find a home in the garden.

Snap peas. Tomatoes.

Snap peas. Tomatoes.

 

Everyday these plants will reach for the sun.  They will expand, flower and offer up food.  It is amazing and one of my favorite things to do.

Just like my yoga practice.

How does your garden grow?

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Buddha & Cilantro


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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.