Have you ever practiced yoga in the dark? I’m not aiming for a clever metaphor here. I literally mean in a dark room. Pitch black; where there is a period of time as you transition from light to dark when your vision is temporarily useless. Real darkness.
Most of us start out on our yoga journey by taking group classes. This is a fantastic way to learn yoga. You will be in the hands of a trained professional who can teach safe alignment and keep you injury free. At some point, after you’ve absorbed the fundamentals, you might develop an interest in practicing yoga at home.
This is easier said than done. As hard as it may be to get yourself to a yoga class, once there you are mentally dedicated to staying. Barring illness or injury, it is unlikely you would ever get up and leave.
In contrast, the home environment is full of distractions that challenge our commitment to practice. Phones ring. People come and go. Kids and pets don’t understand the ‘Do Not Disturb’ edict you have laid out for them (I’m talking to you Seabiscuit).
I struggled for a long time to establish a home practice and I’d like to share a little about how I finally made it work. Here are a list of common reasons your home practice is nonexistent, followed by my tips.
At the start of each class, I ask students if there is a pose or body part that they would like to work on. One of the most frequent requests is for hip openers. It’s in the top 10 along with neck and shoulders. Hmmm…all places we commonly carry stress.
The anatomy of the hip is complicated to say the least and there is a spectrum of physical reasons our hips tighten. The desk jockey’s inactivity and the runner’s repetitive muscle contractions are just a couple.
There are also emotional reasons that cause the hips to feel closed off. In yoga, the pelvis is often referred to as the body’s ‘junk drawer’. It’s the perfect analogy. In it, we stuff experiences and emotions that we don’t know what else to do with. From an energetic anatomy perspective, the pelvis contains our first and second chakras, energy centers. The first chakra, muladhara, is located at the perineum and is associated with our root survival needs for nourishment and security. The second, svadhisthana, is just a couple of inches above muladhara and is associated with our sexuality and how we communicate with others. You can probably think of your own ‘junk’ related to these chakras that you have stashed in here.
- a person who aligns their body into yoga poses
- a person who acts like something they aren’t
From my perspective, we all start out being both. Now you might be saying, wait just one minute missy, I love yoga. I’m no poser! Let me explain.
Can you remember when you first stepped on a yoga mat? For me, it was at Innerlight yoga studio in Newport, RI. It was 1996. This was a traumatically whirlwind year for me. I started a new job as a software engineer with IBM. I had recently moved to Rhode Island, having renovated a small cottage on the Sakonnet River with my husband. It was to be our dream home. It was also the year my husband died of leukemia. Looking back, I don’t know how I made it through that challenging year.
Sequencing a yoga class is akin to choreographing a dance. Like a dance, a yoga class should have a sense of flow and feel coherent. At the same time, it should target a variety of postures to open energy channels throughout the body.
There are hundreds of basic yoga poses. Add to to those, the myriad variations of these postures and teachers have thousands of postures to choose from. Sorting through these variations to create a fluid and safe class sequence can be a real challenge. This challenge, luckily, doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Start with a basic framework and add variety from there. Continue reading
I was first introduced to the nuances of Om during my yoga teacher training. Beryl Bender Birch was a guest speaker and she gave a great explanation of the mechanics of chanting Om. She explained that it is actually 3 verbal syllables and 1 non-verbal: ah, oh, um and anahata nada (the unmade sound). The first 3 are associated with palpable energetic vibrations. Ah tingles the whole mouth. Oh moves the vibration to the back of the throat. Um lifts the vibration to the roof of the mouth sending energy up through the third eye and crown chakras (2 of 7 energetic centers in your body). The vibrations have the effect of dusting you off. Shaking up your thoughts and feelings to give you a clearer perspective. Anahata nada is the silence that remains after Om ends. It has no beginning and no end. It exists as a representation of the eternal nature of all existence, the universe.
The universe, naturally, includes us. So, when you are chanting Om, you are joining your prana, your life force, with all beings chanting with you and with the whole universe. You are putting energy back into this eternal system. Cool!
If anything symbolizes our interconnectedness, it is Om. When I chant Om, I am reminded that we are all more alike than different. We are all intimately connected through our prana. So, the next time you are inclined to act unkindly toward someone, remember Om. Remember you are part of the same universal energy as that person. Chant Om, feel the connection. Be universally beautiful.
A student came up to me recently and said: “After today’s class, I thought, Yes! This is why I come to yoga.” He was in his yogic happy place and attributed this to the class. Acknowledging that this is not the case with every class, we mused for a minute or two about what might have been so special that day. Was it something about his mindset? Was it the energy of the people in the room? Was it an approach I took? I don’t think we will ever know for sure. The real take away is that every one of us has a yogic happy place an an internal GPS route leading to it.
The route is surprisingly direct, but there are lots of distractions along the way. Let’s call these distractions our sh#&. The anger about traffic, the thoughts of To-Do list items gone undone, feel free to insert your own list here. I can make it to my happy place only when I have left my sh#& at the studio door. My practice begins when I step across the threshold of the studio. My mat is a sacred space, a place of solace Allowing things like worry and anger onto my mat guarantees a blemished practice. Better to leave these distractions at the door. Yet, we all know it is not easy to separate ourselves from our sh#&, so I’ll offer one way to try.
First, get to class 5 minutes early. When you step into the studio or the practice room, visualize leaving your sh#& at the door. Like a befriended stray dog, some of it will follow you. Mindfully try leaving it again. Whatever still follows you might be important enough that you need to sit with it on your mat. Acknowledge this without getting sidetracked by a self-guided psychoanalysis session.
Next, sit comfortably on your mat with eyes closed or take a soft gaze. Place hands in gyan mudra (pads of index fingers and thumbs lightly touching, other 3 fingers extended). Gyan mudra is said to ensure mental peace, concentration and dissipate tension. Set an intention to have a great practice
Finally, inhale a sense of fullness and exhale anything you are holding onto that doesn’t enhance your practice. For some reason I keep seeing the instructions on my shampoo bottle. Lather, rinse, repeat. Applying this to your practice, lather yourself with peaceful focus on the inhale breath. Rinse out negative feelings on the exhale. Repeat as needed – each time moving toward your happy place.
So, what happens when you recross the threshold on your way out? I’ll bet that most, if not all, of what you left behind is gone.
This past summer, I noticed thumb pain during my yoga practice and while gardening (my other job). Even with good alignment, poses like up-dog and wheel were starting to get painful. Being a type-A leaning human, my first instinct was to maintain status quo and see if it cleared up on its own. Being a yoga teacher, I knew better than to ignore it. It is one thing to have discomfort in your practice and another thing entirely to have actual pain. Discomfort is a warning to proceed mindfully while pain is a bright red stop sign.
Optimism in hand, I went to see an orthopedic hand specialist. I was sure he would tell me about a minor inflammation that would resolve with rest. Boy was I wrong! At 44, I was diagnosed with arthritis in my thumbs…early onset, no direct cause, perhaps hereditary. Gasp! Those words were swirling in my head when he said: “Your days of doing this (gesturing a plank pose) are over.” The swirling thoughts were drowned out by my stubborn inner child, who immediately threw a psychic temper tantrum. My inner child is a force to be reckoned with. She possesses all the tenaciousness and iron will of a 2 year old and does not like to be told what to do (my boyfriend can attest to this).