What makes yoga postures so darn special?

Relaxing, watercolor, Amanda Green

Introduction: Is yoga the same as stretching?

For a long time, my yoga practice was about mastering certain postures.  I worked really hard to stick a handstand.  I went to vinyasa class and wanted so badly to be able to defy gravity and float my feet from downdog to that forward bend at the front of the mat.  Fancy arm balances? Yes, please.  Bend further? No problem. Big, dancer-like transitions between postures that took me high and then low? Bring it. I worked out. I got better at all of these things and even had moments of of feeling that particular kind of strength, balance and presence in my body that I was seeking. I also got increasingly more sensitive, an enduring shoulder injury, way too much flexibility in important joints, and the realization that this kind of practice was not sustainable.

Was I doing yoga? Does the ability to hold a handstand for 30 seconds make someone good at yoga? If I look at a yoga postures in a magazine and try to do the stuff I see, does that count? How we answer these questions depends on how we define yoga practice and what we think āsana (aaah-sun-uh, the practice of postures) is for. In the next few posts, we’ll look at several definitions of āsana, considerations for structuring a practice, and a few of Patañjali’s yoga sūtras that will give us a sense of what postural practice is all about and what we can look forward to when practice is well established.  

Seventeen years after my first yoga class, how I practce āsana is really different from those early years. With the guidance of my teacher and support of peers, my yoga practice is now slow, safe, and satisfying to me in very deep and essential ways. I practice at home, in the quiet. Breath is way more interesting that balancing on my hands. In times when I’ve been injured or in pain, I have ways to stay connected to my practice. And most interestingly, my mind operates much more attentively and peacefully.  I can imagine doing yoga like this for the rest of my life.

Here’s the sneak peak for the series…

Part 1: Āsana is about being and becoming

Part 2: What we do in āsana is not normal or ordinary

Part 3: For Āsana to help us operate in a new way, we have to be willing to have new experiences

Part 4: Āsana reaches all parts of our being

Part 5: Vinyāsa krāma: start where you are and take the necessary steps to reach your goal

Part 6: Prevent future suffering (Yoga Sūtra II.16)

Part 7: Āsana should be stable and comfortable (Yoga Sūtra II.46)

Part 8: Āsana helps us loosen the knots and reduce resistance (Yoga Sūtra II.47)

Part 9: The result of āsana practice: we will not be affected by extremes (Yoga Sūtra II.48)

9 solutions for difficult times

Girl reading, watercolor, Amanda Green
Girl Reading, Watercolor on paper, Amanda Green

Yoga practice isn’t about rising above or rejecting our humanness. Instead, yoga can help us learn to accept, heal and develop our human nature. An amazing guidebook for this process is the Yoga Sūtras, authored by the ancient sage, Patañjali. 

The first chapter of the yoga sūtras dives right into one of the universal and unavoidable experiences of being a person on this planet… each of us will have some really hard stuff happen in our lives. At times, we may be able to move through these difficulties. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel the feelings, grieve, get angry, suffer or realize something about ourselves in the process.  What it does mean is that we aren’t stuck.

There are other times when the hard stuff will stop us in our tracks leaving us heavy in the chest, stuck with a negative outlook, a shaky body, breathing that is short and shallow and with a mind that is unable to focus. When we see these symptoms (Yoga sūtra I.31), we need help. Patanjali provides us with nine ways that we can seek support and balance during these times.

  1. Connect to a belief or faith in a higher power.  Can we sense and be comforted by the possibility or even the knowing that something bigger than ourself is at work in our lives? In difficult times, we may not know how things will work out but if we trust that it will, this faith can help sustain us. Yoga sūtra I.23
  2. Go deep in one principle. Let your attention and your energy focus on one perspective or method for sorting through the stuff that’s coming up in your hard time. Yoga sutra I.32
  3. These attitudes will be very helpful in moving through the hard stuff: friendliness toward those who are happy, compassion for those who suffer, support for those doing good work in the world, and for those who are doing bad and upsetting stuff, maintain emotional distance. If that kind of emotional equanimity isn’t possible, then you may need to establish physical distance.  The point with this last one is for you to do your best to stay emotionally and mentally balanced. Yoga sūtra 1.33
  4. Practice breathing with a focus on exhale and pause after exhale Yoga sūtra I.34
  5. Notice how the senses are operating. Are they leading you or are you leading them? Yoga sūtra I.35
  6. There is a place inside of you that is full of light.  This place can’t be darkened by sadness or grief. If you know the feeling of this place and can connect to it during difficult times, it can be a relief and comfort. Yoga sūtra 1.36
  7. Someone who has come through hard stuff of her own can be a great support. Yoga sūtra 1.37
  8. Dreams can offer insight into a difficult situation. Yoga sūtra I.38
  9. Meditate on something that you like and that is appropriate for your difficult situation. Meditation is best guided by a teacher who you trust, and who knows you well. Yoga sūtra 1.39

The yoga sūtras acknowledge that there will be times when life knocks you down. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. When these situations arise, it’s tempting to spend energy imagining the ways they could have been avoided, to feel like it isn’t fair, or to dwell on how much we don’t like what we are going through. If we stay in that mindset for too long, that is a signal that we need some help. In realizing this and seeking a new way of working through a situation we learn about ourselves– about fraility and strength.  Of what we can endure and of the forces that are in waiting to help us to keep going. This list from the yoga sūtras may seem simple at first glance, but when we need help like we may not have needed before, the profound nature of these solutions shines.

… aaaaand we’re back

india ink portrait of child
I look forward to featuring some of my paintings on this blog. We’ll kick it off with this one…
Nora in line’ by Amanda Green

It has been about a year since my last post and almost three since I’ve blogged regularly. When I brought my blog to a pause, the stuff I was going through in my life seemed too vulnerable and personal to write about.  Back then, so much was changing and it felt as exhilarating as it was destabilizing. I guess I needed to let the stuff gestate for a while. I needed time to float in quiet, dark amniotic murk. But I seem to have outgrown the holding place.  It just isn’t cushioning me in the same way anymore.

My home life has a different vibe now that my girls are in middle and high school.  My personal yoga practice and relationship with my teacher have changed and developed. Marriage is the best it’s ever been and my work life has a nice rhythm. While lots of aspects of my life are steady-eddy, there are other things that are really stirred up. I’m grappling with the messiness of being human, trusting spiritual aims in the midst of life responsibilities, clumsy attempts at becoming more clear and present, and other stuff, too. Writing facilitates something for me. Feelings and ideas get integrated and understood a little differently when I make the effort to translate them into words. Seems like an interesting time to rev up the ol’ blog-engine again.

As I dedicate time to writing, I want to acknowledge that the shift isn’t a purely internal event. There are those of you who have contributed with your patient and subtle offerings of encouragement along the way. Thanks.

This platform is more for enduring messages and not so much for the time-specific offerings. If you’d like to spend more time together and hear about workshops, classes, special offers and invitations to take your practice to a new level, you’ll find those in my monthly emails. I hope you’ll sign up for that by clicking here or on the link in the blog sidebar.

Stay tuned.

More to come!

Grief, loss, and the changing season

This afternoon, I gathered up the shoes I’d left around the house and as I dropped the flip flops and sandals onto their spot on the closet shelf, I lingered to look longingly at my warm winter boots. Temperatures in Austin, TX are still reaching 86 degrees, but mornings are cooler and there’s a crispness to the evenings. We’re moving out of Summer and I’m yearning for the change to cooler, boot-wearing weather.I feel another kind of shift happening, too. We had too many deaths in our circle of loved ones this season. My grandfather, a friend, a beloved uncle. We miss these dear people. Though I continue to grieve, something is shifting. Like the seasonal change, the initial stages of grief are gradually giving way to the next. And I welcome that shift.I’m glad that time and experience allows for change and that yoga can help with the patience, the digestion and the expression of so much of what goes along with living life and loving people. I’m grateful for the practice but mostly for the many dear students and friends who keep showing up and help me to do the same.

The Yoga of Stand up Comedy

My husband, Dave, is hilarious and he has a great appreciation for comedy.  His sense of humor made me fall for the guy back in college and it’s a big part of why our relationship and our family life is still so much fun. One of the things Dave looks forward to each year is the Moontower Comedy Festival. It’s a weekend of mostly stand up comedy acts and with our passes around our necks, we get to see a variety of shows over the course of the festival.  Some shows showcase up-and-coming comics who each take the stage for a five-minute set. Mid-size venues feature a line-up of comics who are onstage for ten or fifteen-minutes.  And at the end of each night, the headliners, the comics who have been in the business for a long time, get an hour on stage to stand there and talk…and be funny… with only a microphone. I’m convinced that this is one of the hardest things that anyone could attempt to do, but somehow, the comedians make it look easy.

All the people in the festival are good, but some are really amazing, and those amazing ones always make me think about yoga. We have this idea that yoga happens on a colorful rectangular mat and involves pretzel like postures, but that’s not the real story. Yoga is a way of being and the comedians who flow with their material, timing, and audience embody this state. They are also themselves. Who they are comes through, and they aren’t trying to be anyone else. The Bhagavad Gita says that it’s better to do your own dharma imperfectly then to do someone else’s perfectly. This is true in comedy. In the best acts, the comedian is coming through.

When I’m in one of those audiences, time passes differently. I laugh because I’m connected to the person on stage, the jokes and the stories, and I can relate it to something I know within myself. I’m not the only one who feels it, either. These comics draw the biggest crowds. When we can feel the flow, the yoga, we know it and want to be around it.

How do these comedians get to be so good?  How do they reach this state of yoga?  They don’t get good by standing in front of their bathroom mirrors trying out all their jokes on themselves. It involves hundreds if not thousands of hours practicing their particular craft. They get up in front of crowds for five, and fifteen minutes at a time until they have the chops, the nerves and the material to deliver. They practice doing what they want to be able to do.  Patton Oswalt started doing comedy in 1988.  Colin Quinn – 1984. Chris Hardwick – 1991. Maria Bamford – 1998. I bet all of these people have had moments early in their respective careers in which they felt this flow, this state of yoga. Almost all of us have. But the cool thing is, with practice, it can happen with much more predictability and regularity.  Do it enough and eventually, it is possible to be in this state nearly all of the time.

Yoga’s definition holds a meaningful truth for each of us. We might not aspire to be comedians, but many of us do want to achieve a level of comfort, focused attention and flow within ourselves.  We want to get out of our own way and be ourselves, even if it’s a little messy and imperfect sometimes.  And here’s where our definition of yoga has to expand even further beyond mats and pretzels. The way that we move toward this state of being, a state of yoga, is through practicing yoga. That practice can involve rubber mats, but it doesn’t stop there. Practice supports us most when we bring that way of being in all that we do – into our relationships, the situations we encounter, and the way that we relate to our very own needs, desires, fears and passions. It would be nice if we could watch someone do something amazing and then decide to be there ourselves, but it doesn’t work that way.  We can’t will ourselves to have mastery of a skill or way of being.  The only thing we really can ‘do’ is practice and give ourselves the experience, again and again, of the way we want to be.

Yoga is a consciously created experience

I have a memory of sitting on the floor in my elementary school library, listening to a special guest who was there to talk to us about dental hygeine. I guess she was a hygenist from a local dentist’s office because she wasn’t someone from the school. Her hair was neat and she had an overly enthusiastic, “talking to children so they’ll be interested” voice, but I still liked her. She sat on a child-sized chair, which meant when she brought out the model of perfect, plastic, bright white teeth and a giant toothbrush they were right at eye level. She showed us how to brush the teeth and gums in circles. She even let a few of us take a turn. After that, she brought out the dental floss and went through that routine. That’s the first day that I ever remember hearing that I should floss my teeth.

In my twenties, I got married and moved to Seattle. I went for a dental check up at a new office. I didn’t like the dentist, but I had a great hygenist and she was a committed advocate of flossing. I think she talked about it for half of my cleaning. She said something like, “Do you brush your teeth twice a day?” I made a sound something like aaah-haaa. “Well, it would be better for you to replace that second one with flossing. You’re only cleaning two sides of your teeth when you brush! People are shocked when I say that, but it’s true. The floss gets the other two sides that your brush can’t reach.” That made as much of an impression on me as the lady in elementary school. Still, I remained only an occasional flosser.

Then, the day came when I had my first cavity. It was two cavities, actually. They found some dark spots on an x-ray between two of my back molars. I’d have to get fillings. I went to the appointment and it was really unpleasant. Nothing hurt, exactly, but I didn’t like the smells, the powder that came off the drill, the grinding, the hands in my mouth or the ache of my jaw when hinged to extra-wide. I didn’t ever want to have to do that again. It wasn’t just knowing I should floss, it was having the experiencial knowledge of the alternative that motivated me to chage my behavior. I began flossing regularly.

Experience is a great teacher. Things that reach us or affect us at an emotional and experiencial level have a much greater impact on what we do and how we respond than mere theory, ideas, or principles. Sometimes things happen in our lives that change us for the better. Sometimes experiences do the opposite. How do we have the kinds of experiences so we’ll benefit and develop into the kind of person we want to become?

We can’t leave it up to chance. As my teacher says, we need to have experiences that are consciously created so that we can connect with what we need to grow. If we spend time each day in a state that lets us feel, understand and experience attention and focus, peace, balance, nourishment, or healing, then it will gradually change us. Sometimes we need the experience of patience so we can weather difficulties we’re facing. The experiences we have stay with us. Yoga is a practice of consciously created experiences. It’s a time-tested system that uses movement, breath, visualization and meditation and when applied in an individualized way, these tools become the means to changing our behavior and way of thinking so that we can have meaningful relationships and lives. If you’d like to know more about this practice and how it can help you, let’s get in touch. I’d be happy to help you experience your best self.

 

 

 

 

As my life shifts and changes … so does this blog

 

Let’s see what’s coming next…

Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking about this blog—how and why I started writing, the friendships and connections that have come because of it, how it has changed as I’ve changed, and where I am now. I’ve taken the last two weeks to see how it feels to pause my weekly writing practice and to reflect on what I’d like it to be now.

This blog started out in 2011 as a way to articulate and better understand things that were happening in my life as a result of yoga. I’d learn something then see it show up in my relationship with my kids or while I was driving or in the midst of an epic battle of house rats, and then take time to put it into words. The process of writing and reflecting provided me with the opportunity to spend more time with some whisp of intuition or to more carefully observe the slippery inner workings of my mind. By attempting to translate the experience or feeling into words, I had something of substance that I could work with and reflect on. It helped make manifest something important yet ephemeral. The process was exhilirating and meaningful. Nearly every week, as I wrote, published, read comments and had conversations my heart would pound in that way that confirmed how important this was to me. Blogging reminded me, in all the right ways, that I was alive, that writing is alive and that I am connected to the people, the ideas, the experiences and the feelings that I want to be connected to.

Flash forward to today, 2017. The experiences, feelings, and insights that were once ephemeral now have substance and staying power in my life. They are foundational to how I operate in my relationships and my teaching. I certainly don’t do it ‘perfectly,’ whatever that might mean, but I am more able to tune in, observe and listen to these more subtle aspects of myself and to operate from that place. Thanks to my friends and teachers at YATNA, my personal practice, and the individual guidance I receive from my yoga mentor, Chase Bossart, I have much of the needed language and framework for understanding what is happening in me and how to respond. Something else has happened, too. I’ve noticed that my attempts to write about all of this aren’t coming as easily. The personal work I’m involved in now is so incredibly intimate and I’m less willing or just less interested in putting into words the mystery of my unfolding spiritual adventure.  This inner work of yoga is really something.

So a change is a-coming. I’ll continue to reflect on what this blog will be for me and for us or maybe we’ll just watch it unfold together as I try out a different format for my posts or shift my focus to something that makes my heart do that thing again. I’ll still write and post, though on less of a fixed schedule. I do hope that we’ll keep in touch in a regular way, dear readers. If you’ve been considering deepening your yoga practice and would like to work together, let’s set up a time to talk – 20 minutes, no charge, and you can ask questions and we can see what we can do together. I’m in Austin, TX, but I’m also online (which means I can meet you anywhere!) CONTACT ME by clicking here.  If you aren’t already on my mailing list, there’s a button on the sidebar of the blog page or you can click here: SIGN UP FOR THE AGY NEWSLETTER  and you’ll get a monthly update on classes I offer, the annual Ojai Women’s retreat, links to yoga research, recipes that support a healthy lifestyle, or other offerings that I think you should hear about. Yay for change. Yay for 2017.

Until next time…

 

It’s easy to have faith when everything is going my way

Thomas Prior‘s heart-racing photographs from the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec. — Click image to check out more fireworks photos on wired.com

I’ve noticed that when things are going well, then I have no problem having faith in the order of the universe or believing that the direction of life is guided by a higher power. I can embrace the principle of Īśvara-pranidhana: we aren’t in control of everything that happens and yet we are held. The tapestry is bigger than the small part I’m seeing. I may not understand how things will work out, but they will. This is all very comforting during times in which I’m already quite comfortable.

When things aren’t working out the way I think they should, or something ‘bad’ is happening, then a very different mode kicks in. I become afraid. I start fretting and worrying. I read, read, read and think, think, think about whatever it is as if knowing more about the situation will change what’s happening. Then I begin to spin my wheels about what I am going to do about it. It reminds me of a time I was in Mexico and happened upon a saint’s festival in the town’s plaza. When it got dark, these young men put on what looked like back-packs made of twigs and then took a match to them. There were fireworks on these backpacks and once lit, they shot out blasts of sparkling white lights, causing parts of the backpack to spin furiously and for a few seconds, they lit up the whole plaza. The young men ran around, and we all screamed and cheered because it was exciting but also because we were afraid that they’d light themselves, or us, on fire. These were a glorious, emotional few seconds and then the fireworks were all used up and the show was over. That’s how it feels with me.

There’s no śraddhā or faith here. I forget all about universal goodness and comfort and the support I feel the rest of the time. I forget all about the bigger tapestry and I narrow in on the little part that doesn’t and can’t possibly fit in with anything else. I’m not plugged in to an infinite energy source, I’m burning through something limited and small. This shift makes hard times worse because even if I read and think and act out with every second of my day, some things aren’t within my power to change. Trying to change these things causes more grief and further extinguishes śraddhā.

Śraddhā and Īśvara-pranidhana, a sense of faith and trust, are comforting in the good and easy times. In order to connect with them during difficult times, I have to be willing to let go of this mode where I flail-around attempting to control things that are beyond me. There are certainly things I can do, but changing the outcome of an election, or curing someone’s cancer, or putting an end to a Syrian tragedy aren’t within my power. I have to be willing to accept that I’m not in control. But there’s more.  There’s also remembering that the power that is at work in the good and joyful moments is also working in the difficult ones as well. I’m finding that this takes a lot of trust to loosen my grip and find the feeling of faith in the order of the universe or believing that the direction of life is guided by a higher power even when things are difficult and scary.  It’s a different than something that burns fast and then burns out. It’s like moving into the flow of something that keeps offering light in a steady enduring way. Love. Faith. Trust.

We passed through the darkest night of the year and now welcome the growing light of the season. May we all bask in the enduring light.

Lots of love to each of you,

Amanda

Fear effects our thinking, actions and relationships

fullsizerender

There are times when we must endure life-threatening situaitons and fear is a part of our mechanism for survival. There are also times when something in our life feels threatened, and this, too, can arouse fear and the host of symptoms that go along with it. When fear is operating at the lower levels of the spectrum and the symptoms are more subtle, we may not even be aware of the effect it is having on our thinking, actions, and relationships. But it is. Fear is powerful.

There was the time when my manager thought we should change my class schedule and drop one class. I freaked out. I couldn’t even consider the proposal. I started to worry that I was less popular than the other teachers and no one would come to class ever again and how would I make up the income… I put all my energy into fighting to keep things the way they were. I couldn’t see it any other way.

Since the election, the same thing’s been happening. I’m freaked out, and I keep feeding this fear with news, news, conversations about the news, and more news. It has been obsessive and I’ve been distracted by it. I must also be uncharacteristically short tempered because last week my girls both asked me if I was mad at them. This made me stop and think about my tone of voice and my lack of patience. I pulled them in close and apologized and told them a little bit about what was going on (none of it is their fault). Then I turned off my NYTimes alerts on my phone and started to wean myself off of talk radio.

The yoga sūtras give us a list of five ways that we can incorrectly perceive something, the kleśas (YS II.3-8). Patañjali says there is a general misperceiving, avidyā, we mis-identify, asmitā, we let our likes or preferences decide for us, raga, or we let our dislikes to determine what we do or don’t do, dveṣa. The last one in the list is abhiniveśā, or fear. Patañjali describes this version of misperceiving by saying that when we experience it, it’s like it mounts us and tells us where to go. The rider is directing our action and behavior. The rider is fear and our body, system, mind, responses… those are the horse. (YS II.9)

And that’s totally how it is. That’s what this obsessive behavior feels like. Part of me is watching while I read another alarming article and it’s like the watcher has almost no power to stop the doer from doing it. Something else is in charge. The fear.

So what do we do about it? Patañjali offers two very useful suggestions:

  1. If you see a kleśa, take action! Do something to oppose the symptoms when they are small and make some effort to come back into balance (II.11). This might be yoga practice, taking a walk in nature, disconnecting from devices and connecting to a person you love, or taking care of something – your garden, your pet, your house, someone in need.
  1. Meditate on something that is appropriate (II.12). When you give your full attention to something, as with meditation, your whole system benefits. The appropriate thing might be something that helps you feel connected, safe, or loved. It might be something that gives you hope. If you have a prayer practice or a connection to higher power, this can be very helpful.

I’ve finally had some breakthroughs with my most recent fear. I’m starting to notice a cycle and a process that I go through when something seems new and threatening and that cycle takes time. Neither of the solutions above are instant fixes. They are ongoing and helpful practices. As I start to feel a little less afraid, the concerns haven’t gone away, but the fear-based responses have less of a grip. I imagine they aren’t gone for good, but I find it so helpful to remember and connect with these teachings from the sūtras. I hope you do, too.

Conversations with a tween

The girls are both delighted to be posing with their dad for the Christmas photo!

The girls are both delighted to be posing with their dad for the Christmas photo!

I have a tendency, these days, to talk less. I really value quiet. I like the pauses in conversation to be with what was just said. I like to listen to where people go with their thoughts when given the time. I enjoy being around people and noticing what that feels like, seeing what they do and what I do– maybe listening to breathing.

Though this has been really nice in a lot of relationships, I’m starting to see that it may not be the best strategy with my tween daughter. Hazel doesn’t ask me what I think very often. She’ll tell me something about a friendship or something that makes her laugh, but it’s usually brief and it comes when her mind is there, still with her friend or connected to the funny thing she saw on pinterest. In these moments, I don’t get the feeling that she really wants to talk with me and that leaves me unsure of what to do. If I just sit there quietly, then she’ll eventually wander off. Though she’s not engaging me in conversation with her comments or passing thoughts, she is talking to me. In order to help get a conversation going, I have to push past my enjoyment of quiet and the awkwardness of not knowing exactly what to say and I need to make the effort to engage her. It seems so obvious now that I’m writing it down, which is good. There isn’t much that’s obvious in parenting a tween.

This weekend, I tried it out. Whenever Hazel said something, I thought of it as an invitation to connect. I’d ask her a question or talk about what I thought or a time I felt that way. It rained all weekend, so we spent a lot of time in the house together and I had many opportunities to practice. I’m pretty sure I talked more in one weekend than I average most weeks. It was a different way to be together. I felt closer to her and I could see that this way of connecting was working for her, too. On Sunday night at bedtime, I bent down to kiss her goodnight and give her a big squeeze. She didn’t let go right away, and so we stayed there, quietly hugging, feeling each other breathe. And then, she told me she’d had a really nice weekend. I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that my heart swelled and I felt grateful for her, for the time we spent talking and for all the quiet moments in between.