Wednesday, November 26, 2008

the heart in the head

I am fascinated with traditional concepts, philosophies and practices that have informed lives and cultures for thousands of years, but continue to remain outside the measurable realm of modern western science. It is one of the reasons I love the ancient wisdom tradition of yoga. In western science there is a tendency to ignore or disparage any modality or path to healing that doesn't fit into the narrowly defined parameters of modern knowledge. In the same way that electricity existed before there were tools to measure it, there are also powerful energetic and etheric aspects to the body, mind and psyche that exist, whether they can be accurately measured by western science, or not.

Chakras, the seven wheels of spinning energy believed to be found in the subtle human body are worth examining as an example of my blog musings today. Can chakras be proven to exist using modern tools of discovery? Can chakras be discovered in an MRI, x-ray or CT scan? Again...unh-unh. Can chakras be biopsied, or examined in an autopsy? That would be a big N-O. Some might suggest that because Chakras can't be explored using any of our typical, standard scientific methods, it follows that they do not actually exist. Seems a bit closed minded to me, especially when I think about all the cultures and people who believe they exist, and utilize the knowledge of Chakras to support and sustain health and well being. Is it perhaps a bit like faith? For many, a belief in God or a higher power gives comfort and relief, regardless of whether there is any proof of existence.
There was a long period of time in my life where if a concept, system or mode of healing didn't fit into western science's protocol, I believed it was of less value, even if I experienced it as helpful and successful with myself or my massage therapy clients! I somehow dismissed it as less valuable than something that could fit neatly into our limited understanding of the world around us. Or, I found myself wishing there was an appropriate tool available to measure and catagorize it's power to prove that it was valuable--as if seeing, feeling and experiencing it's value just wasn't enough.
Over the last several years I've noticed a softening and acceptance around my need to comprehend everything through the lens of western understanding. The very questions I ask myself about something's value are intrinsically different than they were before. Instead of asking myself how something fits into the accepted format of science as I used to do, now some of my questions are, "Is this helpful?", "Does this support tolerance, acceptance and compassion?" , and, "Does this bring me from the darkness to the light?".
Perhaps one day western science will discover methods to measure etheric and subtle energy, including chakras, or perhaps it won't. In the meantime, I will focus my attention on my brow chakra--the third eye--and remember that the third eye is sometimes called the heart in the head, because it brings the sweetness and understanding of the heart upward to the thinking center of the mind-- combining the two to support open minded thought with love and compassion.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

thanksgiving & the grateful heart

Of all the things that the Thanksgiving holiday evokes in me, including my bliss over pecan pie with whipped cream and mashed potatoes loaded with butter, the idea of gratefulness and appreciation is high up there on my list. My interest in 12 step recovery philosophy and the yogic path merge beautifully around the concept of being grateful. It's easy in our lives to take for granted all we have, and instead complain and whine about things that really are just not that important. I know I fall into that mode, and at times struggle to come out.

Here is a lovely exercise to practice if you are feeling resentful, jealous, grasping, or victimized. Ready? Connect with your breath. Sit up tall, elongating your spine. Feel your sitting bones reaching down to the earth. Lift gently out of the waist, roll your shoulders back and down, float the crown of your head towards the sky. Close your eyes and bring your hands into Anjali mudra-- palms together, fingers extended towards the sky, and place the front of your thumbs against your heart space. In the western world, this mudra is often refered to as prayer position. With your eyes still closed, bring your attention to the things in your life for which you feel grateful.

Start basic-- you have a roof over your head, warm clothes to wear, food several times a day, and hot running water. You are likely minutes away from nature. Trees, birds, animals, and clean water are part of your daily life. You go to bed at night and wake the next morning fairly confident that you are safe and protected from bombs dropping, or war beginning in your neighborhood. Most people in the world don't have these things to take for granted.

Move into your appreciations more deeply. Notice all the systems and parts of your body that function. Notice your keen mind and vibrant breath. Now, bring to your attention to those you love and hold dear, and those who love and hold you dear. Beginning to feel that you are unbelievably lucky and blessed? Let these feelings fill your heart, and your emotional body. Breathe the essence of appreciation into your very core. Gently open your eyes and proceed to notice the rest of your day informed by the beauty of thankfulness.

This Thanksgiving, as my family gathers around the dining room table, tucking into a delicious and nurturing meal, we will each take a turn and name a few things for which we are grateful this year. I couldn't feel more lucky.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

yoga for the intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment program

In addition to the residential substance abuse treatment component of our program, I also teach yoga to the intensive outpatient treatment youth. Our program director came in yesterday to take some pictures for an upcoming article in the Michigan Association of Drug Court Professionals newsletter about yoga as a treatment modality in our facility. Here are the youth in various stages of Tree pose. This class tends to be a little chaotic, but yesterday they all made a real effort to participate. I'm feeling pretty lucky to have this opportunity to share yoga in this way.

Monday, November 17, 2008

yoga laugh

Laughter was the theme of yesterday afternoon's yoga class in my home studio. Giggles, gawfaws and bubbling up from the gut laughs informed our whole practice.

For a very brief moment at the first outbreak of giggles I had an urge to contain the class and "get back on track". I'm happy to report that I was able to let go of my need to control our practice, and instead I simply relaxed into the spontaneous expression of the simple pleasure of a good belly shake.

After that, we moved from vinyasa to laughter, back to vinyasa, then more laughter right up into shavasana. The giggle fest started again when one of the students fell into a deep sleep and began to snore, but not enough to wake him.

Dr. Lee Berk and fellow researcher Dr. Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University in California have been studying the effects of laughter on the immune system. To date their published studies have shown that laughing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, increases muscle flexion, and boosts immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, disease-fighting proteins called Gamma-interferon and B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies. Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, and produces a general sense of well-being. Want more information about the practice of yoga and laughter? Check out this website:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

kripalu yoga class at Sun Moon Yoga

These roses are one of hundreds of flowers at the Brentwood Saturday farmer's market that I visited during my trip to L.A. I love the color, and there is nothing like the memory of sweet smelling roses on a day when it is raining, snowing and sleeting within the span of 20 minutes.

Tomorrow is the first of my kripalu yoga classes at Sun Moon Yoga studio in downtown Ann Arbor. The class isn't up on the studio website yet, but there is information about location and fees. The class starts at noon. Check out the website:

Friday, November 14, 2008

prayers of loving kindness

I just returned from a week in L.A. I flew out with my younger sister to spend the weekend with my parents, my brother, his wife and their two kids. The weekend turned into a week after my mom had a medical crisis and was hospitalized. I was relieved to be in a position where extending my stay was both easy and the right thing for me to do.

I had many opportunities to practice devotion and service. I also had many opportunities to receive care from those around me. There were times during the week when I felt worried, stressed, impatient and tired. There were other times when I felt trusting, calm, relaxed and content. There were many times when I turned to my "off the mat" practice of yoga to sustain me so that I could support others. And there were times when I breathed into letting others support me.

In my previous post, I wrote about feeling less than my best yoga self as time moved me away from my Kripalu YTT experience. This week brought me right back--grateful for the opportunity to be in L.A. when I was needed. My mom came home from the hospital yesterday, and I came back to Michigan. This post is a prayer of loving kindness: May you all be happy, may you all be healthy, may you all be free from suffering.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

yoga on & off the mat

Swami Kripalu said, "Seekers who believe they must practice yoga only in the meditation room are under a great illusion. They must practice yoga in society as well. Practicing yoga in the meditation room is easy because there are no external disturbances. The true yogi is one who can successfully protect his mental steadiness while in society."

These words of Bapaji have been on my mind a lot these last few weeks as I struggle to heed his advice. It has only been 3 months since I left the Kripalu center, but it feels much longer, and my ability to hold close to me Kripalu yoga philosophy and the way of life that I embraced so fully in yoga teacher training has begun to dissipate. Although I am continuing my daily sadhana, going to yoga class, and regularly teaching Kripalu yoga, I notice that my patience and willingness to really practice bhakti (devotional) yoga off the mat and out in the world has been lax.

I haven't exactly been the model of mental steadiness when confronted with the daily chores and petty burdens of what at times feels like a chaotic life. And, of course I see the ridiculousness of somehow experiencing my life as chaotic compared to how most of the rest of the world lives. And yet I struggle.

It's easy to be generous, compassionate, understanding and accepting when I am in the protected world of yoga, whether it's in class, or on my mat. I can meditate, calm myself and feel totally at peace when I am in my own little yoga studio, listening to Krishna Das chant on my ipod. It's a whole lot more challenging to open my heart with love and tolerance when I'm deep in the everyday tensions and stress of life with peace and calm in my heart and belly.

Lately I find myself wishing to be back in the protected cocoon of the Kripalu Center, with nothing to concern me but getting to the next yoga class. At the same time, I understand that finding a balance between living the yogic life while living in the modern world is the real goal. I think this is why we call it yoga practice! I just need to keep practicing living yoga off the mat as well as on it, and do it while keeping my self-talk gentle and forgiving when I am showing up less than my best self.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

hope & progress

Late last night, looking at the faces of people waiting at Grant Park in Chicago for Obama to arrive, I felt, for the first time in many years, excited and happy for our united states. The diversity of the crowd was striking and gratifying. Our new president elect represents a powerful future for our nation and for our planet. It's been a long and painful 8 years, and I am deeply satisfied to celebrate the change we have created by believing in the power of hope and progress. During Obama's acceptance speech, he said, "While we breathe, we have hope". I wholeheartedly agree. Inhale into a deep, cleansing breath, and exhale into hope and joy.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

green halloween

Halloween evening was fast approaching, and my husband wanted a costume. Our front yard garden is nearly done, so Jeff decided to combine his love of local food with dressing up to create a mostly edible costume. With a tarragon 'fro, chili pepper arms, arugala legs, and castor bean leaves covering everything else, he made the scene as locavore man.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

restorative yoga class at the juvenile jail

I teach yoga at the county juvenile jail to kids in the substance abuse treatment program. Some of the kids like it, and some dread it. They all participate, though, because it's a treatment program and yoga is one of the treatment modalities we offer.

For the last few weeks one of the kids in my Thursday morning class kept asking me if we could just have a class of Corpse pose. No warm ups, no special breathing, no asanas. Just flat on the floor, spread out arms and legs, eyes closed, Corpse pose. For an hour. He's one of the kids who isn't exactly in love with yoga. Since there were only 2 kid in the class today, and he was one of them, I decided to get as close to an hour of Corpse pose as I could, and I taught a restorative yoga class. The kid who loves Corpse pose is angry a lot of the time. He is also unhappy a lot of the time. I don't think I've ever seen him smile, and he tends toward sullen, one syllable answers when I talk to him. About half way through today's class, as he settled into a supported reclining gentle backbend, with blankets under his back and arms, blocks supporting his open knees, and his upper chest and heart opening to the sky, he looked me directly in the eyes and grinned a full on, joy inducing, toothy smile. Then he said, "This feels great". He stayed in the posture for the next 20 minutes, with his eyes closed and his body relaxed until it was time to wrap up class. This is the kind of thing that makes me love teaching yoga, and that will sustain me for days on end.

the yoga of knitting

I love to knit! I love to cozy up on the couch and start making something cool and wearable by simply taking an endless strand of string and mixing it up on some sticks. I love the string too!! Yarn is an amazing thing. Start with some funky, straw covered sheep's coat, a comb, some vegetable dye, and ohh lala, magically it becomes the essence of coiled fabulousness. I love the colors of yarn, the smells, the texture--I love the very yarniness of yarn. It's beautiful AND functional which is truly my favorite combo in the world. I especially like multi-colored sock yarn because it's like unwrapping a surprise gift as the yarn knits up.

I was in Chicago over the weekend visiting my Kripalu Y.T.T. roommate Jodi. Jodi and I lived together during our training for a month in a dorm room the size of a large broom closet. Needless to say, we started out physically close, and we developed a lovely friendship that brought us to an emotional closeness as the month progressed. Jodi and I visited Loopy Yarns on Polk St. in the old Dearborn train station building. Loopy yarns is one of the sweetest, friendliest, way cool yarn shops around.

I like to think about the relationship between knitting and yoga. When I am in my knitting groove, I feel much as I feel in yoga practice: I am deeply in the moment, my mind not ruminating on the past, nor yanking me into the future, but instead here in the NOW. Simply breathing, deeply focused, hands and fingers moving, moving, moving in their own little mudra dance.

Monday, October 27, 2008

yoga & time slows down

Listening to NPR this morning on my way to work, I heard a story about a new children's book about physics, gravity, and gravity's effect on how we experience time. Since the story is geared towards children, even I could understand the concept that the stronger the gravitational pull, the more time slows down. The book is called "Icarus and the Edge of Time", by Brian Greene. Listen for yourself if you like:
In the book, Icarus is a young boy who secretly leaves the safety of his father's space ship with his own little explorer space ship to check out the edges of a giant black hole. Icarus, thinking he has managed the calculations perfectly to keep himself safe, believes he is gone for about 2 hours. Unfortunately for him, he negected to factor in the gravity and time equation. Due to the powerful pull of gravity near his ship, he loses not 2 hours, but 10,000 years of time. Bummer!
Immediately, my mind turned to the same odd (but lovely!) sensation I sometimes experience while practicing yoga-- It feels like I've been practicing for just a brief moment, but when I look at the clock an hour or more has passed. Frankly, I love the sensation of misinterpreting time, as it usually means I am deep into something that is powerful and pleasurable. Some call it "being in the zone", and it happens when I am practicing yoga, but it also happens when I am doing other things I love too---when I knit, when I'm lost in a good read, or when I am making art.
Here is the funny thing though. It doesn't feel like gravity is stronger during these times. In fact, for me, it is the opposite sensation. I feel that gravity has lost hold of me for the moment. Instead, I feel as light as light can be.

Friday, October 24, 2008

everyday life yoga

Yesterday was a big yoga day for me. Along with my morning sadhana which was a nice long hour, I taught a class at work (residential substance abuse treatment youth) and later, a private evening class at home for two.

This morning, I woke up at 5:30, but instead of staggering into my yoga studio per usual, I found my attention moving in other directions. This isn't particularly unusual--there are plenty of mornings when I'm up, but my brain finds all kinds of ways to try and distract me from my practice. Nothing very interesting. The typical low level vibration of "I don't feel like it". I ignore that vibration, knowing that how I feel about starting my sadhana has little to do with what happens after I land on the mat.

No, this morning was different. My brain wasn't resisting yoga, and my body wasn't complaining either. I made a cup of hot chocolate, mixed up some muffin batter and got it baking, but instead of heading up to my mat, I sat down in the kitchen and began to breath, relax, feel and watch my experience. I wasn't being harsh with myself over not doing my practice-- I was doing it! It was kitchen yoga! It felt just fine. After a while, I got up and started a load of laundry, then went into my closet and put away two baskets of clean clothes that had been collecting for the last week. I was still relaxed, breathing and meditative. Laundry yoga! It felt fine. Eventually, I started getting ready for work, and my "regular" yoga practice never unfolded. Instead, it was life-yoga unfolding. What a great reminder that whether I am on the mat every single day, or not, the beauty of yoga is the ability to practice it anytime, anywhere. Yoga on and off the mat.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"The Prudent Mariner", by Leslie Walker Williams

"The Prudent Mariner", by Leslie Walker Williams is a quietly powerful story that begins in coastal Georgia in 1913 and moves forward to the 1970s, and it has gripped my brain, heart and gut with a tenacious hold since I started to read it a week ago.

Ridley Cross, a nine year old girl who sometimes sees ghosts and is compelled by the salty river water near her home, her senile grandmother Adele, who told a lie as a little girl that inadvertently caused a black man's horrific lynching, and Carver Varnell, a woman painter and reluctant southerner, are drawn together over, among other things, a postcard souvenir of the terrible event that Ridley discovers while looking through her recently dead grandfather's possessions.

The story unfolds through the experiences and understanding of nine year old Ridley, which gives the story a gentle, sometimes bewildered sense of the world around her. Leslie's ability to capture the voice of Ridley, while exploring the deeply complicated relationships between both Ridley's family members, and blacks and whites in 1970's Georgia, while bathing everything in the oppressive heat and deep seated shame of the southern past is extraordinary.

Please consider purchasing this book, AND call your local library and ask them to order it for their collection!

Check out Leslie's website for more information:

heart opening yoga

One of the things I love about Kripalu yoga is the focus on opening my heart through intention, movement and breath. For me, it's easy to be open-hearted when I am in a situation where everything is going well, where I am getting what I want, where my experience is pleasing, orderly and fair. It's a whole lot more of a challenge to be open-hearted when things aren't going my way, or when I am being treated unfairly or misunderstood. During those times, my breath is tighter, my diaphragm constricts, and my heart feels like being open isn't safe or welcome.

Practicing opening my heart in daily sadhana prepares me for just those difficult times, by allowing me to remember, in a deep body memory, that returning to intention, to breath and to stretching and opening my thoracic spine will support and sustain me through anxiety, disappoint and anger. Learning to be open-hearted means being emotionally generous--even when it feels like it may make me vulnerable and open to criticism or judgement, or that it won't be accepted or appreciated.

Some may wonder, why is it even important? I can't answer for anyone else, but since I started to intentionally connect the loosening of my thoracic spine, the release of the muscles around my chest, shoulders and middle back, and the subtle opening of my own heart space, I have deepened my experience of the utter happiness found in the simplest of things--a steaming cup of sweetened black tea, the deep red of sliced beets as they drop into the steamer basket, the smell of the fall leaves, wet and glossy in the backyard, the enormous cawing of birds as they settle into the trees of Eberwhite Woods, the sensation of ease and well being after a yoga practice, and the comfort of love from family and friends.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

lucinda williams & audrey simon

On April 15, 2007, Lucinda Williams rocked the Michigan Theater in downtown Ann Arbor. The show was powerfully spiritual, emotionally rich and full of the feminine aspect in all it's complexity. Walking home after the show, deeply moved by the intensity of Lucinda's performance and the power of a woman who can sing soul, blues, country, rock and roll and songs that go right for the heart, I got a phone call that changed my life. My dearest friend Audrey Simon had died suddenly of a ruptured aorta. Through the next several weeks of becoming accustomed to the loss of Audrey, my thoughts turned again and again to Lucinda Williams. A few days before Audrey passed, we had dinner together to celebrate Audrey's recent birthday, and as Audrey shared with me all the things in her life that were giving her pleasure and contentment, I said to her, "You've found your joy". Audrey agreed, and we laughed over how much we both loved the song that line came from--Lucinda William's "Joy". Check it out here: Lucinda had played the song only a few days later, that night at the Michigan Theater, while, without me knowing, Audrey was leaving this earth.

A few nights ago, Lucinda Williams returned to the Michigan Theater, and I was right there-- celebrating Audrey, and honoring the power of a woman musican who more than holds her own with an electric guitar and a kick ass back-up band, singing her life from her heart and soul.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

expansions & contractions part 3

A final thought regarding expansions & contractions, and making it through the long cold Ann Arbor winter. As the quality of light thins, and sunset comes earlier each evening, create and nurture the light within you. Bow to the divine light in yourself, bow to the divine light in others. Light a candle, open your heart, send a prayer of loving kindness to those in need.

expansions & contractions part 2

The season has reached close to it's full expansion here in Michigan, with the harvest waning and leaves beginning to shift into deep hues of orange, red and yellow. Like the fullness of a brief pause at the end of a slow inhalation, the garden gives it's last burst, with brussel sprouts, squash, pumpkins, beets, turnips, potatoes and onions. And, like the long slow exhalation following the pause, we begin to settle in to the season's contraction of winter. How do we prepare? On a practical level for yoga, it means more pratapana (warm ups) before asanas. Let the body warm gradually, with breath, patience and acceptance of the muscle's need to move slowly at first. On a practical level for life, around our house it's putting the garden to bed, splitting firewood and stacking it in neat rows in the garage and along the driveway, pots of soup on the stove, and hunkering down with good books, warming food and drink and the company of loved ones.

expansions & contractions

After morning sadhana I wandered out to our chicken coop, opened the door to the laying box and nestled inside a circled dimple of straw was this little beauty. Our hens are still young, so daily delivery is still a new wonder. The egg was warm in my hand; a perfect orb.

This time of year, as we turn towards the shortening days with dark coming earlier and earlier, I am sharply aware of the expasions and contractions that inform our lives from the smallest to the grandest scale. I love exploring the idea of repetition and similarity in the natural world, and the concept of expansion and contraction is one of my favorites. I tend to think more about it when we are in the midst of a seasonal change, especially winter to spring, and summer to fall.

Of course, there is the obvious expansions and contractions in our bodies. The cranial sacral fluid's gentle push, the filling and emptying of the lungs, the muscles moving in and out of asanas. Thinking bigger? How about birth? That hen was certainly expanding and contracting when she laid her latest gift. Thinking biggest? The universe. Darkness, compression, pressure, contraction, then, the Big Bang, and we've been expanding ever since.

Friday, October 10, 2008

stillness & wobble

In morning sadhana today I found my mind turning to the concept of stillness. I often start the meditative part of yoga practice by "coming into stillness" in order to connect with my inner landscape. My body, mind, emotions and breath quietly explored, witnessed and accepted. I was happily aware on a conscious level today that even in "stillness", there is movement. On an obvious level, the expansion and contraction of my lungs, the beating of my heart, and the blood pulsing through my veins are all measurable expressions of movement. Then, on a more subtle level, the cranial sacral fluid's gentle ebb and flow informs a deeper experience in my body. Continuing towards deeper, less measurable sensations, there is the slight vibration in and around my body created in my nervous system as the 100 billion neurons in my brain fire messages through out my body. Sometimes when I look at photographs of fabulous yogis and yoginis in magazines and catalogues my ego gets sucked in, and a little undermining voice in my head starts in..."oooh, so pretty! So perfect! So flexible! So young!" Well, I'm not any of those things, but the voice comes up, and why does it? There is so much pressure on women in our culture to perfect the outer version of ourselves, often at the direct expense and hardship of our beautiful and complex inner lives. Just as our earth wobbles on it's axis, some days I wobble through my practice. When I remember that the "still" image of a photograph is as far from real as it can be, I am able to come back to my own body, my own self, my own internal experience of yoga. This inner experience of yoga, and the sometimes wobble-y outer expression in asana feeds and informs my inner light, opens and softens my heart, and gives me the strength to accept who I am everyday, on and off the mat.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Now, the inquiry of yoga

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes:

Atha yoga nushasanam
Now, the inquiry of yoga

Yogas citta vritti nirodah
Yoga is an opportunity to quiet the chatter of the mind

Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam
Then consciousness finds it's authentic nature

Sthira sukham asanam
May the posture be sweet and full of ease.

Sweet sukha yoga.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

sweet sukha yoga

'Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya'
My heart opens to receive the blessings of the universe