It’s Friday and I’m feeling a little silly. Here are my interpretations of yoga poses as emoticons. Can you think of any others?
Every yoga practice room has its own personality. Some are Zen-tastic with a soothing color scheme and just a handful of carefully chosen adornments. Others offer a little more to look at, or distract you, depending on your mindset. There may be a Buddha or two; perhaps Ganesh makes an appearance.
Whatever the decor, the best environments are ones that enhance your practice. This might be through a minimalist approach or, less likely, with a wall of mirrors for you to check your alignment.
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.
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.
Anxiety is a normal element of life. At its root, protective. Sometimes there is an identifiable source, sometimes there is a generalized feeling of unrest. Either way, the presence of anxiety is a message, a bit of information, that something unsavory is building up in you.
I’d love it if we could develop an immunity or get an anti-anxiety vaccine. That would be simple and neat, but a greater wisdom tells me this desire is a bit off the mark.
Sans vaccine, maybe we can just ignore anxiety and hope it goes away? As I write this, I’m hearing my mother say: “Just ignore your brothers and they’ll stop bothering you.” My brothers can attest that this strategy had a low success rate. Ditto for ignoring anxiety. Sure, you might bury it for a time, but I’ve had enough psychotherapy to know that anything repeatedly pushed away will eventually gush out in surprising ways. Have you ever struggled to neatly open a bag of chips only to have the bag rip apart causing a chipocalypse? It’s like that – unexpected and messy.
Why do you practice yoga? Is it for the exercise? for the relaxation? for the mental clarity that can come from releasing physical blocks? While most of us start out attracted to the physical aspect of yoga, the practice of yoga is integrative. It reaches out to all of us: body, mind and spirit. As we develop a level of comfort with the physical experience, there is room to explore what is going on with your thinking mind and your spiritual sensibilities.
This deeper exploration in your yoga practice can help emotions surface and open the possibility for insight. Some of these insights will relate to experiences on your mat, others to those off. Either way, your mat can be a safe place to practice working with your emotions. As a teacher, it is entirely appropriate to recognize this and include coaching students toward looking at what comes up.
One emotion I often run into is fear. I might hold back for fear of falling out of a pose. I might have anxiety about needing to come out of a pose early, thinking this will make me look weak. Then there is the popular fear of hurting myself. My list is longer, yours might be too.