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[by Kathi Kizirnis]
I’ve heard Rodney Yee, co-director of Urban Zen Integrative Therapy™ program, say numerous times that we practice because we don’t know when we’ll be called upon to serve. Who knows what tomorrow holds? In the toughest situations, maybe “service” means just not falling apart. So, we practice being in the moment, for the moment, but also for an uncertain future.
Maybe you’ve heard about the professor who challenged his class with a glass of water. Rather than the half-full/half-empty question, he held the glass up and
students to consider how much it might weigh. Keeping the glass raised for a minute, he noted that the glass felt heavier. After five minutes, it was a strain to hold. Imagine, he said, the impact of holding the glass in position for hours at a time; not only would it feel much heavier, but the body would show signs of strain and, possibly, damage. Heart rate and respiration would increase. Clear thought would be difficult.
That glass, the professor pointed out, is your stress load. Train yourself to put it down. Save yourself from physical manifestations of unnecessary chronic stress. You can “condition” your nervous system with simple habits and restorative practice, so that when challenge arises, you’ve got the strength and presence of mind you need … or so that you can simply keep taking care of yourself, and drink that water when you need it!
Another fantastic teacher, Michael Stone, asserts “We’re either coping, or we’re training.” I love the lack of judgment in that statement; some days, maybe coping is enough. And training? It doesn’t have to be hard. I believe that most of us need lessons in softening. Resting. Putting it down, again and again….
There are so many ways to do so. All I know is that without practice and training, sometimes intense, sometimes just a few breaths at a time, I’d have fallen pretty far by now. I’d love to share some tools with you; hope to see you soon, either in class or in a private setting.
Thanks for reading!
[by Kathi Kizirnis]
Yesterday was one of those for me. Not awful. Not dramatic. Just slightly off-kilter. I felt like a skipping record … I’d play, but only with a great deal of picking up an finding another groove. You know?
One of the day’s ‘symptoms’ was losing things, and then … not; ie., frantically searching for and then finding keys/papers/Altoids exactly where they should be, and where I had looked just minutes before. GAH.
So the day’s very practical practice/mantra was “Pause. Look again.” It was helpful for finding the ‘missing’ iPhone, but much more meaningful in other ways.
On the spur of the moment (since my schedule was completely off-kilter as well), I visited a former Urban Zen Integrative Therapy™ client at a local rehab facility. This lovely lady has suffered varying levels of anxiety since her serious health crisis about a year ago. Naturally, her family and caregivers do everything they can to prevent and alleviate her panic attacks and generalized anxiety.
On the way in, I heard her crying from down the hall. She’d just received sad news from a visiting relative. An aide was trying to calm her down and was encouraging her to get in bed ‘to her happy place.’ Due to aphasia (impaired speech/language), my friend’s verbal expression is hard to understand, and 10 times harder when she’s upset.
The aide (who is also lovely) vaguely knows what I do as a UZIT, and that Mrs. J. (I’ll call her here) is very relaxed, if not sleeping like a rock, by the end of my visits. She was happy to see me and my ‘bag of tricks’ (calming movement, essential-oil therapy, reiki among them).
But this time, none of those tools seemed right or necessary. Mrs. J. was not having an acute panic attack. She could speak, and, honestly, it didn’t matter whether it ‘made sense’ to me or not. She could express, which she did, for quite awhile. I just listened (and, OK, gave her reiki, with my hand on her knee).
Despite my initial urge to ‘make it better’ (lavender oil, stat! grounding movements, etc.!), I did what I’d done all day: I looked again. Mrs. J. was fine. Her emotions were not a crisis that needed fixing or even soothing. She needed a friend.
In UZIT training, we learn a lot about bearing witness, true empathy and self-inquiry … how to be as present as possible with the person and situation in front of us as well as awake to our own habits and tendencies. These might well be the most valuable teachings for me. They reach deep into my daily life and relationships.
For many of us with ‘helper’ personalities and empathic leanings, it is hard — really hard — to override a seemingly natural urge to rush in and fix. To soothe. To make it better. To be, whether we’ll admit it or not, ‘in charge.’
For some of us there’s a lifetime of social conditioning and mental/emotional patterns to examine. Some questions that have helped me through situations, from being with Hospice patients and their families, to parenting two particularly strong-willed kids: Who is more uncomfortable or distressed when someone’s crying … the crier or the listener? If you could take away someone’s suffering, should you?
Of course, there are times when patients (and kids) need to be calmed. Relieving anxiety can help reduce pain and other symptoms, and, often most importantly, support communication. Nothing works when the ‘lines’ are down. But in our rush to provide comfort at any sign of upset or unease, we can miss the bigger picture, and some opportunities for healing (more on that oft-misunderstood word later) and connection. This affects not just the ‘hurt’ person, but everyone around them.
Integrative medicine aims to treat the whole person: body, mind and spirit. The integrative therapies and ‘tools’ of UZIT are designed to work seamlessly with each other, and with medical care, and with the flow of daily life, to support the specific needs of the individual.
To be integrated is to be accepted, experienced, even welcomed, as part of the whole. Pain is part of life, so it’s fair game. But here’s the magic: When you see the whole, the pain becomes just a piece. Maybe it’s a big piece, but it’s not everything. And that, whether you’re terminally ill or ‘just’ chronically stressed, is huge. It’s, well, everything….
Mrs. J. was asleep again when I left yesterday. (Sometimes I think I just have that effect on people She isn’t my client anymore; her insurance doesn’t pay for integrative/complementary care. But she’s my friend now, and that’s great for both of us.
Thanks for reading! — Kathi
>> The next accelerated UZIT training (for medical/allied health and/or yoga professionals) in Columbus starts this September, and information sessions are happening soon. Visit YogaonHigh.com for more information. I’m happy to chat about my training experience; feel free to drop a line! <<
[by Kathi Kizirnis]
The last time I got a pedicure (ages ago), the nail tech shook her head as she sloughed my poor, neglected feet and said, “You know, self-care is important!” Tsk, tsk … the shame.
I, in self-righteous yoga mode, smirked at the idea of such a superficial luxury being “real” self-care. I’d just finished a five-day training in Urban Zen Integrative Therapy,™ learning about restorative practices including reiki, essential-oil therapy, yoga therapy, contemplative care. I knew the power of integrating these practices into daily life; the support and sustenance of a like-minded community. Toenail polish … pshaw.
Sure enough, nail lady read my face and added, sheepishly, “Well, I guess there are other ways to do self-care.” Needless to say, I felt like, um, a heel.
Self-care, like mindfulness, is a bit of a buzzword these days, so naturally its meaning is diluted. My unofficial definition: Intentional practices or activities that promote or support well-being in body, mind, spirit.
My kids seem to think caring for themselves is endless lounging with their nose in a wireless device. (Let’s call this Self-I-Don’t-Care). Many grown-ups think of self-care only in terms of diet and exercise: the more steps, reps, cleanses, the better.
Both of these approaches, though, can lead to a burned-out, frazzled nervous system, energetic imbalance, dis-ease. Too much of anything is too much, no matter the label we give it. (Go here to read about the gunas, or qualities of nature.)
Self-care is not self-improvement. It’s nurturing, and nourishing, and healing. If it moves us toward sattva, the guna of balance and peace, it’s self-care. If it fuels feelings of striving, inadequacy, separateness, it’s not. Self-care creates space (for creativity, productivity, whatever).
So if having your nails done makes you slow down and gives you some space, there you go. If you can add some conscious breath (try sama vritti) and body-awareness meditation, it might be even better.
Let’s not get in a rut of self-flagellation about self-care, or make it one. more. thing. to worry about. That defeats the purpose. In other words, don’t beat yourself up for not meditating/practicing/being ‘good’ or even pampering yourself today. Sniff some lavender oil, or amazing coffee, and get on with it. Under ideal conditions, we’d have unlimited time for daily asana, savasana, pranayama and seated meditation. (When reindeer fly, right?) But five minutes of each might be workable. Maybe just Legs-Up-the-Wall pose.
In addition to our addictions to busy-ness, distraction and speed, I think a big obstacle to effective, honest self-care is self-compassion (maitri), and the willingness to trust that you know what you need and when you need it. Cultivating that trust does take discipline, though, via a practice of self-inquiry: yoga, sitting, contemplation… whatever works for you. We have to create the space for that. See how that works? Create the space for self-care, which creates space for …. !
A simple question to ask regarding self-care (ie., is it the right thing right now?) might be: What’s the balance between effort and attention? Maybe pounding out 10 miles to numbing effect isn’t the best for mind or body today. Or maybe it is. Maybe there is no way you can sit still for 10 minutes, or maybe that’s all your body can manage today.
Maybe you just need a freakin’ break. But you need to know it.
Yoga shows us that we are sensitive, complex creatures capable of amazing subtlety, discernment and intuition, and how to awaken, hone and develop those qualities. Use ’em or lose ’em. Attention versus effort. Which is easier? More on that in another post soon, I hope.
In the meantime, this Sunday’s Urban Zen Integrative Therapy™ workshop at Dayton Yoga Club (3-5:30PM) will offer plenty of space for restoration and self-care. It’s good stuff, and there are two spots left!
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 937-321-7676 to register. Hope to see you soon! kk
[by Kathi Kizirnis]
I’m just gonna say it: I need hearing aids. I am in my 40s, and will not let this spawn a mid-life crisis, probably. The tests report congenital hearing loss, but there’s also a constant, high-pitched “squeeee” in both ears. Tinnitus.
The only reprises from The Squee are ambient sound (music; TV; screaming children) and, sometimes, a really deep savasana, reiki session or sit (meditation). The first category is distraction, or covering-up; the latter, clearly something else.
The audiologist says “turning up” the sounds I “need” with hearing aids might DROWN OUT The Squee. HMM.
I get it. I sometimes think that yoga practices are simply tricks for directing our attention… look at this, not that. But not for covering up. I’ve spent lots of time lately practicing and teaching just the opposite; turning down and tuning in, not drowning out the unwanted. (And really, my 9 year old boy is loud enough, thank you).
My practice, and it’s hard, is to listen for what’s there to be heard (and to not freak out when I hear it). So why would I want to jack the sound up, especially if I want to know what’s REALLY going on? Surely, The Squee is trying to tell me something.
Jon Stewart, that great sage of Comedy Central, wasn’t talking about yoga when he said, recently, “WHEN WE AMPLIFY EVERYTHING, WE HEAR NOTHING.” We are news junkies, entertainment junkies, sensation junkies and masters of exaggeration.
We are bombarded by stimulus. Our poor nervous systems are on overload, attention spans shot to hell, senses working overtime (to quote a great song). And yet everyone yells, all the time.
I think what Stewart is begging for is a PAUSE. Let’s all shut up a minute and ask ourselves WHY we’re being so loud, so big, so MUCH, and figure out what the hell is really going on. Viveka means DISCERNMENT. It’s such a big deal in yoga, or used to be, that we’ll leave it at that for today….
Another astute observer, Rodney Yee, has said that “AMPLIFICATION ALMOST ALWAYS CREATES DISTORTION.”
He WAS talking yoga, of course; specifically, about the ways in which heavily manipulated breath and overly aggressive movement not only hide the truths we’re (hopefully) seeking, but also distort reality, to our detriment. Think injury, wrong perception, delusion … suffering.
Here’s what I want to know about our practices: Physically, mentally, spiritually and socially, are we creating balance and ease, or just making more noise? If our yoga tools are hearing aids of sorts (helping us know our outer AND inner worlds better), then the trick is to gain skillful control of the volume.
I don’t know what to do about crooked politicians, lame news media or environmental crises, but I’ll probably get the hearing aids. I promise not to turn them up too loud, and to keep listening.
[ If these ideas pique your interest and/ or you’d like to explore the quieter side of yoga and inquiry, please join me (and assistants Janet Sweeney and Joan Schiml) for our monthly RELAX + REBALANCE class, 3-5PM THIS SUNDAY, JAN. 25, and/or our WINTER RETREAT, Feb. 13-16 at Hueston Woods Lodge. ]
As the bright, noisy holiday season ends and the air fills with intention for the new year, how will you approach your practice?
Can you temper your ambitions and discipline (tapas) with some insight, discernment (viveka) and self-compassion (maitri)? (Click here for an article by Pema Chodron on maitri).
We at Practice invite you to embrace the stillness and quiet of mid-winter with classes, events and programs that build skills of observation and self-study (svadyaya), with practices that help us develop attention before intention.
Why? Because none of us can predict what 2015 will bring; but practice will keep us awake, present and steady for whatever comes. And best of all, we can do it together!
:: If you’d like to explore those italic words a little more, stay tuned for news coming soon on Winter Study / Immersion … deeper than a “challenge,” more soulful than a training, and a great way to connect with your fellow students. ::
Have a wonderful, safe New Year’s, and thank you for another beautiful year at our little shala!
Peace (and quiet), Kathi K.
Mysore (pronounced, to borrow an old joke, like “oh my god, am I sore”) is the name of a small town in India that’s home to the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, the birthplace of Ashtanga-Vinyasa yoga. It’s also the name of a teaching style, unique to Ashtanga, that’s practiced in Mysore and shalas (yoga schools) around the world. We’ve been offering Mysore classes for a while now, 9:30AM Sundays, and many of our Ashtangis are “hooked.”
Starting July 7, we’ll offer Mysore starting at 6AM every morning Monday through Friday. Class ending time is flexible (haha) until 8AM, depending on each student’s needs. Practice for 30 min. or two hours; totally up to you. Our Month of Mysore ends Aug. 1.
So what makes Mysore different? Think private lesson in a group setting: just you, your mat, some other sweaty yogis, and a kick-ass teacher (PYTT grad Ross Stambaugh) who’ll quietly guide you individually (with words and assists/adjustments) through the Ashtanga Primary Series. Your practice is self-led. We’ll have cheat-sheets for those who don’t know the series, which is a specific and complete sequence of poses. Of course, our instructors will offer guidance on what to practice if you like.
Be not afraid of the Ashtanga! If you’re new to this style, Mysore is perfect for you; no feeling like you need to “keep up” with the rest of the class or do anything the guy next to you does. If you know a sun salutation — any sun salutation — you can come to Mysore class.
Consistency, dedication and rhythm are the powerful pillars of Ashtanga, and they’ll certainly support anything and everything else you practice. Mysore practice cultivates independence and a sense of ownership of our practices, our bodies and minds. It’s exciting, in a quiet way. It wakes us up, literally and figuratively.
Drop-ins to Mysore class are welcome, but signing in online (below) saves your spot and helps you commit!
To read LOTS more on Mysore practice from a very reliable source (renowned Ashtanga teacher Richard Freeman), click here. Please note that the Mysore protocol in Mr. Freeman’s studio is a bit different than ours … don’t sweat the details.
See you in the morning! — KathiRegister for Mysore classes
[ Joan Schiml, RYT, is a graduate of Practice Yoga’s 200-hour Vinyasa Teacher Training, Class of 2012-13, and creator of the YogaPLUS series of classes, designed to empower and inspire students of all levels who are carrying extra weight — whether weight-loss is a goal or not. Though the program was created in response to many who expressed trepidation about coming to group classes that include myriad body types, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of a separate class for those with bigger bodies. We’d love to hear what you think. Please share your comments below. Sincerest thanks, Kathi + Joan ]
It was Jan. 5. Rachelle, Laura and I had just done our usual Saturday-morning Slow Flow yoga class. We had all been on winter break and were eager to reconnect with each other, with yoga, with the especially comforting sour cream that only Chipotle can dollup.
I had spent the majority of December feeling uncomfortable. I work in the fundraising field, so December is always chock-full of last-minute gift solicitations, anxious stakeholders wanting daily updates, and me biting my nails while I pray to the Goddess of Open Wallets.
When I finally unfurl into the bliss of unstructured days off, my body usually arrives last. Still in high-alert mode, it takes much sleep and standing on my head to activate the relaxation response. And once it clicked on this year, what did I find? More discomfort. Son of a motherless goat.
Rachelle’s words pestered me: “There’s a me that’s not showing up.” She was right. There is a me that’s not showing up. To yoga. To life. To myself. To others. Truth is, it hasn’t shown up in all its glory for several years. Somewhere between 40 and Fabulous and today, I have managed to accumulate 50 pounds of more Joan to love. That is uncomfortable. And it’s time to do something about it.
Never fear, my beloved yogi readers, I won’t implore you to just ”put your mind to it” or love yourself “just as you are” and all will be euphoric. That, as the Irish say, is blarney.
Because the reality is that when you are carrying extra weight, your mind can play tricks on you, and loving yourself “just as you are“ can mean embracing the part of you who wants to punch in the head the first skinny waif who says, “Oh. My. God. I. Am. So. Fat.” And that serves no-one, least of all you.
So this is my invitation to you to consider what part of “you” might not be showing up. For me, what is not showing up is my natural ease and grace. It takes more effort to move a heavier body around. Your back hurts more. Your knees hurt more. And don’t even get me started on low-rise jeans. Most tragic, though, is the loss of your core as your compass and main source of movement. I can’t feel my core anymore, and that scares the you-know-what out of me.
Through gentle yet mindful movement, I’ll help you be still and listen. To breathe through any sensation that you perceive as separating you from yourself so that the “you” that wants to show up can peep out into the warm light.
Click below to register for the 4-week YogaPLUS series [ drop-ins allowed on a space-available basis ].
“There’s no real physical limitation to the practice of yoga. We helped create the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, and through this work, we’re realizing that even when you’re on your deathbed, sometimes you can do your most amazing practice.” — Rodney Yee
Just a few months ago, I’d have been perplexed by Rodney’s statement; or, more likely, glossed over it with a not-really-knowing nod, the way we do when we hear beautiful or astounding stories about transcendence, bliss or the Ashtanga Advanced Series … probably not in this lifetime, right? Intellectual grasping, but no real understanding.
An ordinary, amazing person changed that in his final few weeks at Hospice of Dayton.
Mark lived with stage-four throat cancer for four years. (If you’re a medical professional or otherwise familiar with the disease, you know how remarkable that is).
He’d attended classes at Practice Yoga semi-regularly for about a year before his diagnosis. He was characteristically candid and stoic in sharing the news and utterly pragmatic in response, devoting many hours to researching and practicing something called Accupressure Yoga; diet, essential-oil therapy and probably more.
He eventually rebelled against his doctors’ mandates for more surgery, more radiation, more misery and uncertainty.
One thing was certain, though: Mark loved his yoga. Even before his diagnosis, I was struck by his methodical, precise movement (he’d joke about this in Hospice: “Perfectionist? Moi?), but more by a focused attention that’s pretty rare among the yoga droves (though he’d always find the mental space to slip me the evil eye when I held a pose too long for his liking, or smirk at one of my bad jokes).
He showed up for class one day with a stoma and voice-prosthesis — a little box that made him sound like Stephen Hawking — with his usual dry wit and humor. No editing. No slowing down. Keep up or miss out, missy.
And the e-mails, OMG the e-mails. He sent updates to a handful of us every few months or so: several pages filled with the latest developments regarding his prognosis; details about treatments and their often-awful side effects; pertinent medical research; and results of his own meticulous research with yoga and more.
He sent hilariously cynical yoga-themed e-cards to me every now and again. He gave my business partner and I gifts each holiday season (including this last one, from his bed), and sent lovely lotus flowers on the studio’s fifth anniversary. I learned from his sister that he regularly took food to several elderly neighbors.
He offered tea, snacks and Red Hotz every time I visited, until he could no longer get up to fetch them. In short, from what I gather from our limited contact, Mark thought about people. He made time when he had very little to spare.
Months passed with no long-winded messages, and I regret not ‘checking in’ when I thought about it. Life, as we call it. Then came an e-mail from his sister. He’d been in Hospice for two weeks.
Though we weren’t “tight” in the usual sense, I knew I had to see him. I didn’t want to. Who wants to go to Hospice? Not much fun, from past experience. Scary and downright traumatic.
Guess who could make Hospice fun? Despite his physical condition — gaunt, frail, disfigured, pain-riddled — Mark at one point shook his bony hips, hospital gown and all, to a particularly saucy cell-phone ringtone. Believe me, if you saw him, you’d find it hard to believe one could laugh amid such suffering. But I did.
Writing slo-o-owly on a dry-erase board with bright-red determination, unable to speak now, Mark cracked jokes about the iPod in his room (“Club Med for the Dying”). He listed in detail his favorite dishes from Dragon City Chinese, and described his first reiki session (with yours truly and humbly) as “wunderbar.” Naturally, he included the umlaut.
He also wrote about his pain: excruciating, unimaginable headaches, usually at night. An arsenal of pain meds and sedatives were no help. Nor was crying, he said. It was heartbreaking.
Think of the worst pain imaginable. Then read that last quote again. “I want to escape the desire for less pain. I want to learn from it.”
That, folks, is yoga.
He did asana — yoga postures — in his final days, too. The nurses would find him on the floor and assume he’d fallen, when in fact he’d taken some bound variation of padmasana (lotus pose).
One amazing day, as he lay on his back in bed, he reached for his right foot (this took a few seconds). He weaved his brittle fingers between his toes, pulled his knee to his ear and proceeded to extend his leg, heel to ceiling. Supta Hasta Padangusthasana (Reclined Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose).
Twisted spine, sunken cheekbones, pale skin and all, he glowed. It was the most beautiful asana I’ve ever seen. He let me “assist,” and I swear I saw and felt energy, prana — life — shoot through us both. Breathtaking.
Soon after that, the letters on his board became smaller, harder to read and slower to emerge. Somehow, though, despite his body’s dimming life-force, Mark’s presence was as big as ever, especially during reiki, which he had been reluctant to try. (Read more about reiki here).
I realized what an amazing privilege it is to spend time with someone during their last days, and I realized how important it is for them, the dying, and us (also the dying). I saw how many people basically die alone, even in the lovely, gentle and caring environs of Hospice.
And I feel honored to have heard family stories from Mark’s sister. She said she regretted that Mark never became a yoga teacher. I nearly laughed out loud; little did she know how much he was teaching … one breath, one scribbled, impermanent word at a time.
Words can’t express the depth of what I learned by bearing witness to my friend’s soulful, graceful and uncompromising exit. This is the best I can do to honor him, I think.
Thank you, thank you, brave yogi, for teaching me so much about yoga, life, love and myself in such a short time. You are dearly missed. OM.Read the full interview with Mr. Yee and his wife, Colleen Saidman Yee, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eva-norlyk-smith-phd/yoga_b_4481965.html Kathi is owner and co-founder of Practice Yoga, a lovely community of yogis in downtown Dayton, Ohio. She is an RYT500 and Urban Zen Integrative Therapist-in-Training. Learn more about UZIT here.
“The authentic practice of yoga is an unremitting attention to present experience, whether in mind, body, or heart, with a baby on the hip, making breakfast, or balancing the breath in a headstand.” ~ Michael Stone, ‘The Inner Tradition of Yoga’
Or walking one’s dog. A dog doesn’t speak or understand English. A dog doesn’t remember with any clarity what happened yesterday, or even an hour in the past. Dogs do not engage in the pointless and endless becoming that is future think. They don’t plan. Canines live totally in the present. As one friend put it, “that is one of the things I love most about a dog. Everything is always new.” And everything is immediate.
My Rottweiler, Kaia, is my meditation teacher. Her natural gait is a slow trot, paw pads softly lifting and dropping, nails click, click, clicking upon the pavement. As we pad along, the plink, plink, plink of her tags sets our rhythm. There is quiet beauty being outdoors, among the green, vibrant things, sensing the sheer, yet calm, strength of the living being at the other end of the leash. Vibrant, alive, nothing but now. Kaia doesn’t know that there is strife in the world. Kaia doesn’t know that being jobless sucks. Kaia has never had to consider what she wanted to be when she grew up. Kaia never worries about doing the right thing. Yet, it is her nature to be given to reactivity. Suddenly the latent power in her eighty pound body is on full alert, ears and tail up, the leash taut like a bowstring, all of my physical power reining her back into the task at hand. A squirrel has crossed the path. Or another dog has come into view. Maybe a child riding a bicycle or a jogger has come out of nowhere and startled her. And, then, correction given, a sharp tug from my end of the leash and she is my calm Zen girl again. Most of the time.
Kaia is scary strong. Although I am able to restrain her, I realize that her strength lies less in her physicality than in her singular focus of attention and her unshakable determination. The fact that she exists in nothing but what is now the true source of her true power.
Knowing this, and being embodied in human form, I engage in future think and imagine what could happen if she were out of control. Yet, I know my dog, that she is a gentle soul, fierce in outward form only, and I wonder why I have so little trust in her. Then I realize that it is myself whom I do not fully trust. Vigilance ensues, I must empty my awareness of anything that is not the dog or our immediate surroundings. I must notice any change in the cast of her mouth, the shape of her ears, the direction of her eyes, any slight rise in the fur at the base of the neck. It is a constant dance, a continual seeking of equanimity.
Kaia’s dog trainer emphasizes calm, stable energy. Dogs communicate with body language, and to a dog’s ears, my English sounds like I am also barking, getting in on the excitement, further feeding her exuberance. I must place stronger energy, in the form of my physical being, between the dog and the distraction, for that is the only way she will respond and follow my commands. I must be calm, assertive, stronger than her will. If I am in the future or the past, I fail to see her subtle shifts, and I react. If Kaia tries to look around me I shuffle to where she is looking, bopping back and forth as she turns her head. Much energy is present, but it is neither stable nor confident, serving only to exhaust me and confuse my dog. I realize that I am neither physically nor mentally balanced, nor am I truly aware. I am somewhere other than in this moment.
I take a deep breath and notice my feet and their connection to the earth. I allow the connection to inform the will of the legs. They are not frozen in tension, but vibrant in stillness. I realize that I am able to move in any direction easily, yet solid as stone. With thigh bones moving backward, chest slightly forward, I look at my dog. I use no words, just a simple hand gesture. She sits and directs her gaze to mine.
Tadasana. The best dog training tool ever. ~ KC
Awkwardly translated into English as the “head of the knee pose,” Janu Sirsasana is an asymmetrical seated forward fold performed with one leg bent and the other straight. While there are several variations of the pose, we’ll stick with Janu Sirsasana A, as it is the most accessible and most frequently encountered by students of all levels of experience.
It is easy to “zone out” in seated forward folds and hip openers because on a superficial level they may seem restful. Or, perhaps, as is the case with many hip openers, the pose may be locally intense, say, in the side of the hip or the back of the leg and the practitioner finds herself distracted by sensation, tolerating the pose instead of experiencing it, and focusing all of her attention upon the place where the most intense sensation is felt.
What would happen if we took our brains out of the obvious work of stretching the hamstrings of the long leg, and began scanning the asana? Observing how the pose is connected to the ground? Noticing that because the pose connects the upper body with the lower extremities, there is also an effect upon the lower back and shoulders?
Enter the pose mindfully, sitting on the floor, perhaps beginning with both legs extended in front of the body as in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Lengthen the sides of the waist away from the floor. First close the knee joint completely by bending the leg with the knee pointing to the ceiling. Draw the bent leg’s heel toward its sitting bone, closing the gap between the two as completely as is comfortably possible. Then allow the thigh to open out to the side, ultimately resting the side of the leg on the floor, with the heel pressing the groin and the sole of the foot pressing the inner thigh. If there is no pressure in the knee, perhaps refine the position of the heel by sliding your hips forward. Avoid tugging the heel and shin into place. Never position the bent leg in a way that causes tension or pain in the knee joint.
Once the base of the pose — the position of the legs — is established, enter the state of the asana by tilting the torso forward from the hip hinge (the spot where the leg meets the torso), folding only as far as you can while maintaining a long lower back. Reach for the feet with both hands, or grasp the shins with the hands. Lengthen both sides of the waist equally, lightly drawing the heart center toward the long leg’s knee. Allow the eyes to gaze toward the toes. Once you are in the pose, engage connection to the mat by rooting the heel of the straight leg and grounding the sitting bones to the floor. With the hands firmly, but not tensely, anchored to the foot or shin, draw the shoulders lightly toward your waist. Actively press the sole of the bent leg’s foot to the inner thigh of the long leg.
While in the state of the asana, observe the breath, keep the gaze steady and invite your awareness to move through the entire body. Notice which parts of the body feel sensation, and notice where there is no sensation at all. Are all parts of the body actively integrated into the pose, or is there a place that feels as if it has collapsed? Does the inhalation lengthen the spine? Is the breath steady? Are you able to observe these things without excessively evaluating or judging?
Exit the asana with the same level of mindfulness with which you entered it. Let the inhalation slowly lift the torso as the back of the body maintains its length. Release the foot or shin as you exhale.
When you first start to practice Janu Sirsasana A, don’t be concerned if your heel doesn’t reach the groin. Place the foot farther down the leg if this is the case. Healthy increases in range of motion happen very gradually over time through consistent practice. Eventually the thigh bones of the two legs will form a 90 degree angle with the heel of the bent leg pressing the groin and either the ball of the foot or entire sole pressing the top inner leg. When this happens, the shin and instep of the bent leg begins to naturally rotate toward the floor, creating the opening and foundation required for a healthy Padmasana (Lotus Pose).
Remember that your practice must meet you where you are!
Allow the challenges within the pose invite inquiry and provide an opportunity to be totally present with what is rather than what we would like it to be. When we start to inquire about our habits on the mat, we also deepen our the awareness of our responses and choices off the mat.
May you practice fruitfully! Om Shanti. KC
“Every day, a little bit dying.” — Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Surprise, surprise: By popular vote, our first Pose of the Week is Corpse, or Savasana (aka Death Pose, Mrtasana). Everyone loves to lie down and bliss out!
But is that what Savasana’s really about? Not really, in my opinion, but no one will know if you do fall into bliss — or sleep, for that matter. Unless, of course, you snore. It happens a lot, and I think that speaks volumes about our frenetic lifestyles and lack of quality rest and relaxation. Really, if you can fall asleep soaked in sweat in a roomful of people on a hardwood floor, you’re TIRED!
It’s true: EVERYONE NEEDS MORE SAVASANA.
Pattabhi Jois observed that we crazy Westerners find “not waking, not sleeping” difficult, if not impossible. He might be right. But it might help to remember that Savasana is indeed an ASANA (POSTURE). The same guidelines apply, though there’s no physical, breath or, ideally, mental effort. You stay with your breath, albeit in a much different way than in, say, a sweaty power sequence. There, you’re controlling its rhythm, dancing with it, at times holding onto it for dear life. In savasana, we’re LETTING GO of it entirely… finding a little glimpse of death. After all, we can’t have one without the other.
Savasana is where, someday(s), sometime(s), after enough practice, the ‘do-er’ can truly disappear. The ego, or personality, surrenders completely and we feel ‘at one’ with all of existence (or so I’m told). This bliss, it’s fair to assume, is pretty far from the post-class check-out that often happens (and is totally OK). Ideally, we watch not so much the physical properties and mechanics of inhale-exhale, but its energetic movement and qualities. We observe the mysterious subtle body. IS IT MEDITATION? As someone who defines that word fairly loosely, I say yes. Maybe. There’s no room for certainty in Corpse Pose, as far as I’m concerned.
Regardless of your experience or ‘skill,’ this stillness allows all of the body’s systems, all of your layers of existence — body, energy, mind/emotion, intellect and spirit — to INTEGRATE, OR ABSORB, YOUR PRACTICE, whether it’s been asana, pranayama and/or meditation. Relieved of stresses of movement and thought, your energy’s freed up to recognize new neural connections and who knows what else. You’re allowing yourself the space to process and prepare for rebirth. (In this way, I think more of a pregnant state than death).
From Ray Long’s ‘Key Poses of Hatha Yoga': “Theta brain wave patterns predominate in Savasana, with electrical activity oscillating and vibrating at a frequency of 4-8 Hz. This state of brain function engages the intuitive unconscious mind, accessing deep seated memories and connecting to the collective unconscious. Healing occurs in this state. Deeper states of Savasana take the brain wave pattern into Delta (0.5-2 Hz frequency). This is brain wave state of dreaming.”
Others say dreaming is the last thing we aim for. Michael Stone: “While sleeping seems to be the most common experience of corpse pose (often dreaming is easier than surrendering to the pose), sleeping keeps us from the depth and subtlety of savasana.” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras say that sleep is a type of vritti, or fluctuation, of mind. We’re trying to still the vrittis and move toward pure awareness (samadhi).
So there you have it: no easy, clear-cut answers. Strip yoga of its mystery, its undeniable uncertainties, and I’d have given it up long ago. I suspect you would have, too.
ALIGNMENT: Lying flat on back, the body should be as relaxed and comfortable as possible, with feet wide, arms at sides, palms up or down — whichever’s more comfortable. Back of the neck long and soft, chest open.
MODIFICATIONS: Bolster or blanket under knees relieves low-back pressure. Use a blanket to support head/neck. Anything that supports your comfort is fine. Pregnant women should lie on their right side.
BENEFITS: Relieves stress, calms mind, helps balance nervous system. May help lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, fatigue and insomnia.
OFF THE MAT: Savasana’s easier for most of us after asana practice. BUT a 10-20 min. Corpse is more refreshing and rejuvenating than a nap! A simple body scan can help keep you “not waking, not sleeping.”
For more on Savasana from author/teacher/purveyor of fascinating viewpoints Michael Stone, click here.
I hope this is helpful. It is by no means comprehensive, of course. Be curious, explore and watch for more Pose of the Week blogs! We hope you’ll comment and/or post questions here.
Peace ~ KK
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