Off Your Mat

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


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The Tao Porchon-Lynch Pose: The Practice of Living

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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.

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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 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 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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The Modification Pose

There are a number of asanas that are energizing, exciting and a little bit frightening to beginners. I can remember the first time I saw Bird of Paradise (Svarga Dvidasana). I wasn’t even sure of what I was looking at when I saw it.

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bird of paradise

For months I didn’t even attempt it. I stayed breathing in my bound side angle pose watching others move into Bird of Paradise. As I gained confidence in my practice, I began the awkward shuffle step out of my side angle pose pictured above in step 3. I was content to hobble up to the top of my mat with my arms locked around my thigh.  I felt silly crouched there but I wasn’t quite ready to stand. I was practicing alone at home when I finally stood up into Bird of Paradise. With the freedom of privacy, I floated right up into the pose. It gave me the heart to try it in the studio.

As with most things, yoga related or not, I didn’t just jump in at expert level. I modified the pose until I was ready to take the full expression.

In my experience, among beginners, one of the most commonly feared poses is Wheel.

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Wheel Pose – Urdhva Dhanurasana

This is often an intimidating pose to novice yogis. It requires flexibility, strength, balance and control. These are all areas where beginners might not have complete confidence.

That doesn’t mean they have to skip the pose! This is where the art of modification is most beneficial.

So many asanas incorporate the back bend and can be used to work up to a full wheel.

There is Cobra (Bhujangasana) that is a gentle and supported.

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Cobra

Or there is Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) that is particularly gentle on the shoulders.

Yoga (Bridge Pose)

Bridge

I use Wheel as an example, but all challenging poses can be modified, allowing yogis to progress safely to more challenging levels.

Modifications are most beneficial when building a yoga practice or coming back after an injury. The modification allows the practitioner to reap the benefits of the pose, while lessening the risk of injury. The human body needs to become accustom to new positions and challenges. Just as a casual jogger shouldn’t run a marathon without any training, novice yogis shouldn’t push their bodies beyond comfort.

That goes for our state of mind as well. If a pose is frightening, if you get nervous just thinking about it, take a modification. Work into the challenge over time. Our minds need the same progressive and gentle support as our bodies.

This week, I invite you to take the art of modification off your mat. If something is frightening, approach it step by step. Do not risk injury trying to jump in as an expert. Allow yourself to accept gentle support when faced with a challenge.

Modify until you are ready to float into your version of full expression.

 


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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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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 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.