Category Archives: yoga practice

Respite

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Tuesday morning, I woke up, but barely. I was heavy all over. It has been raining for weeks in Austin, and this morning was particularly dark and wet. My body and my mind moved slowly and my heart felt heavy, too. The night before I watched a movie and I woke thinking about it. It made me feel so sad.

I went through my morning yoga practice but didn’t really mean it. Some days are like that. When I was finally at the end, I thought about the story of the woman in the movie who had suffered so much. I thought about women throughout history who have suffered in similar ways, and I started to cry. Sometimes the weight of these things feels overwhelming.

But then something happened. Peace came over me. It wasn’t just peace, it felt like God was there with me and all this suffering that was so painful a moment before shifted and I wasn’t holding it alone. This happened at the exact moment that the air conditioner kicked on in my practice space, and the cool air felt so good, I wondered if i had it wrong and it wasn’t god I was feeling.  Maybe I was just hot. For a moment, I considered going with the air conditioner explanation, but then I remembered that I have an old habit I have of denying anything spiritual. I took a few deep breaths, felt my body cool off, and I noticed that the relief was still with me. So was the feeling of peace.

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from ‘Philomena’, the 2013 film starring Judy Dench and Steve Coogan

A Quiet mind may be the ticket to a fulfilling life

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This morning I had a yoga class to teach. I’ve been teaching at this place for four years now so I’ve got a well-worn path from my house’s garage to the studio. I left on time, drove over, and parked my car in the employee section of the lot. I walked along the back of the building toward the loading ramp. I didn’t even notice the commute. Saṁskāras, patterns and memory, got me there.

As I walked toward the building, my mind was whirring with my plan for class, thoughts of my sister’s wedding weekend, the half-finished project I left at home and probably a few other things, too. I got to the edge of the parking lot and stepped onto the path and these two pigeons were right there, less than a foot away! The birds freaked out when my shoes hit the gravel and in a terribly disorganized escape effort they fluster-flapped off the grass, and toward the nearby tree. Their crazy take off startled me and I was jolted out of my head and into my body. I saw where I stood, felt my heart racing, and I became aware of the really loud low-frequency whirring noise of huge air conditioners.

I felt a camaraderie with these startled birds and started to think. Pigeons, like most prey animals, are wired to do one thing above all else and that’s survive—it’s in their nature. A main survival strategy for birds is staying a safe distance from predators. But that’s not what happened to these two. The noise of the machines made it so they couldn’t behave in the way that nature has wired them to respond. This background noise meant that I snuck up, undetected, and it wasn’t until I was way too close for comfort that they realized the threat. The noise meant they missed out on important survival information.

That struck me so hard.

I realized it is possible that, like the birds, the stories and thoughts running in my head are like the industrial air conditioners, keeping me from being able to hear to my essential nature. I might miss messages that are deep inside because of all of this unfortunate background noise. And like today, there’s a lot of time when I don’t even notice them running. They are there in the background having a dulling effect, and I’m just going along, unaware.

Virāma means “absolutely quiet.” It’s the word Patañjali uses in Yoga sūtra 1.18 to describe a highly refined mind. The sūtra goes on to say that in this state of mind, we aren’t run by saṁskāras and mental disturbances. We can be spontaneous and present without operating on patterns. Virāma. Absolutely quiet. I think this is so beautiful.  I have a strongly held belief that we are here, in these lives and the bodies we’ve been given, to do certain things. By doing them, we can have a fulfilling and meaningful life. But we have to get quiet, really quiet, and listen in order to know what those things are. We listen to the things that excite us, the things that satisfy us deeply and the direction we’re called to go. This knowing comes from within and we hear it best when we are our most centered, quiet, and calm selves. What a profoundly good reason to work toward an attentive mind and a calm system. This quiet, calm place can help us to know our true nature and essential self and just may be the ticket to a fulfilling life.

 

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Is balance and good self-care sexy?

 

amanda green yogaBalance has, in the past, seemed a little boring. Post-college I was not interested in all this self-care, self-reflection and routine that goes along with feeling balanced. It seemed much more fun, to be spontaneous and unpredictable. Read: moody and temperamental. Or maybe it was hard and I didn’t know how to do it. Self-discipline didn’t seem sexy or even accessible so I went to the other end of the spectrum making lack of routine and poor self-care (my body can handle anything!!!) my habit.

Last week, I confessed to some good habits that have slipped over the last few months. Hard won routines proved their worth as I made my way toward balance, but with the complications of sickness, travel and visitors, these things seemed to just fall away and brownies made their way into my late night life. When I’m not paying attention or not that mindful about how I go about my business, cravings and urges have much more sway over how I behave. Maintaining balance requires presence and a some effort.

The thing that I keep learning about balance is how good it really is. When I’m rested, nourished, and digesting well, I’m not distracted by the poor functioning of my body. My mind is more clear. I can be present with my family, students and friends. I feel connection more than isolation. I can stay with a thought or idea much longer. It actually can be really attractive. But then something happens and the seemingly elusive balanced state shifts. I forget how much I like it. I yearn for the familiar distraction of being under-slept or over-fed.

Moving in and out of balance is part of life. In the first Chapter of the yoga sūtras, Patañjali lists a whole bunch of things, called antarayas, that get us all at some point or another. Yoga sūtra 1.30 lists the following as interruptions to balance: Illness, mental fatigue, doubt, haste, physical fatigue, over-indulgence, having a view of ourselves that isn’t actually the case, failing to meet a goal, aging and regressing… these experiences can bump someone who is rocking a balanced lifestyle and good habits into a ditch.

If we know how good it is to be in balance, or if the discomfort of being scattered and distracted causes enough problems, we can and usually do come back. This process might teach us something about our own tendencies and help us to find deeper compassion for these human foibles we all face.

Piano lessons are worthwhile and an exercise in self-torture…

Here's a romantic evening shot of our sweet piano, and two of my mom's beautiful paintings.

Here’s a romantic evening shot of our sweet piano,

Do it well.

Do it with a good attitude.

Do it for a long time.

And you will become it.

Hazel and Nora started piano lessons a few months ago and it has been fascinating to see how they are each responding to the piano, the music, and a practice routine.  I’m watching their skills develop little by little each week. Hazel is a good student in all things. She keeps up with her work and doesn’t like to disappoint those that are counting on her. She also loves music. She practices, has a good attitude, and likes what she’s learning, which all help to make her a really good piano student. Nora, on the other hand, is not enjoying piano. It’s parental/child mutual torture to get her to practice even a few times a week. When Wes is here, she does her best to get him to talk about anything other than piano. He patiently keeps her on task. He might be a saint.

The girls have different attitudes about these lessons, but both are progressing. Nora is almost through her first book of songs and Hazel has moved on to some sheet music. Even though Nora is learning stuff and is getting better, there’s a notable difference (pun intended) in how much the music seems to be a part of each of them. Hazel likes it, owns it, and is really proud of what she has accomplished. Even though Nora is spending time at the piano, her real energy is going into avoiding the task. When she’s playing she’s really practicing wearing us down. On days we are very persistent, she focuses on cranking out the minimal amount of practice with as little effort and the least amount of attention possible. (True confession: As much as it annoys me, I can totally relate. I wasn’t much of a piano student and employed many of these tactics myself. )

Watching the girls learn this new skill makes me wonder about two things:

  1. What is my attitude when I practice yoga? Which kind of practitioner am I? Am I practicing with attention? Am I operating with a good and open attitude? And am I connected to what I’m learning? Or am I going through the motions but actually practicing  ‘avoiding what I’m really there to do’?
  1. Patañjali lays out the process of yoga and how we learn something new in Yoga sūtra 1.17 and it totally applies to piano lessons.

This sūtra says…

vitarka-when we first start piano, we have only a gross understanding of it

vicāra- as we practice, it becomes more subtle

ānanda- this process brings us joy

asmitā-rupa- eventually we know the piano so well that we become one with it.  We don’t have to think about correct posture or “every good boy does fine.”   It’s already there in our muscles and on the paper when we sit down.

anugamāt- It’s through this process over a long time that 

saprajñāta– our understanding of the instrument and the music that it makes, becomes a part of us. 

If we want to have more of something in our lives, then we need to spend time doing that thing. It’s not enough to merely go through the motions. We practice to have more of the kind of experiences we want and with an attitude that fosters a love of learning, ānanda. The experiences that help us to connect, earnestly and eagerly, to the things we want in our lives, are experiences that shape who we are and who we become.

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Ojai Women’s RETREATIMG0172

REAL LIFE. REAL TOOLS.

AUGUST 31ST TO SEPT. 5TH, 2016

This 5-day retreat is specially designed to teach you the art of unlearning and letting go of old patterns that have long since lost their usefulness while also providing precious leisure time which allows these new skills and understandings to become more rooted in your daily life.

We teach YogaAyurveda and the Alexander Technique in a practical and meaningful way so that when you return home you will have useful tools to keep this new, balanced relationship going—not only within yourself but with everyone around you.

Carol P. Prentice ~ Amanda Green ~ Sydney Laurel Harris

AGY readers receive a $200 discount on or before May 15th!  Enter the code *RENEW2016* in your registration form under questions and comments. (*cannot be combined with any other discounts)

Learn more at http://handson-retreats.com or contact me with any questions you may have.

Thin Places

FullSizeRenderWe’ve all had the experience of hearing a song we haven’t heard in a long time and then it reminds us of who we were and the people we hung out with at a time when we listened to it a lot. And I had this experience yesterday.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who was killed in an accident. I still think of her often, but the thoughts don’t stick around for long and they don’t trigger a lot of emotion like they once did. But one day this week, Dave played a song on the guitar and it happened to be a song that Lori danced to in a talent show when we were in school together. As he played, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of Lori. This fullness of memory, images, feelings, colors, emotions, things I hadn’t experienced in years came to me in an instant – I closed my eyes hoping I could better watch what was happening —how she danced, the line of her perfectly even front teeth, the way she held her head a little sideways so her side-bangs wouldn’t hang in her eye, the weight of the bones of her shoulders. I could feel how she smiled and how funny she was. She was so bright and so nice to me. With tears streaming down my face, I could feel the wonderful 15-year-old love I had for my friend and I realized how much I love her still. This was such a gift.

Later in the day, with Lori still on my mind, I reflected on this experience and about thin places, an expression I came across in a reading about Celtic spirituality. These are places where the veil between the physical and spiritual realms is barely there; where sky meets water or where people worship, where we may sense the ephemeral and more easily move in and out of time. I love this and it resonates with me after having this experience, though I have to admit that I was sitting on my brown couch amongst a motley crew of hand me down furniture in my living room when I had my experience. This is a setting that wouldn’t strike anyone as particularly ‘thin’.

Yoga is mysterious. It starts out feeling like it’s about stretching, or breathing or taming the mind or maybe even finding peace, but then it so much more. It’s such a deeply personal practice. There’s a way that yoga practice helps me to feel more open to these moments. The separation between myself as a spiritual being doesn’t feel so separate from the rest of me because of yoga. Yoga has a way of letting my system be a thin place. Quiet attention to breath and movement and the intention of coordinating all of that in one direction might have started as a way to feel better, but along the way, this same simple work is so much more.  The other day, I stopped what I was doing and watched as time folded in on itself and something amazing came. I was so close to my teenage experience and to my friend and to love.

sensitive and cranky… Is it existential angst or just the holidays?

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I’ve been crying at everything lately. It’s not because I’m terribly sad, but it isn’t always joyful either. And it’s a little exhausting.

I guess I’m sharing this because most of the time, the things I write about are generally upbeat and positive. Or something happens in my life, related to yoga, and even if it was troubling or difficult at the time, I learn from it and it leaves me feeling hopeful and it’s easy to share. But I’m in a place that doesn’t feel easy. I’m sensitive and uncertain, I’m rebelling against the things that are good for me, and I feel like I’m waiting to know what to do next.

Practicing yoga makes my life better. No doubt. But it doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be times like these – times where the predominant experience is something other than unending bliss. Even in the cry-fest that’s going on right now, I’m comforted by the teachings. There’s a way that yoga helps with these times, too. Or maybe it’s better said that this can also be yoga. I can notice and reflect on what’s happening. (svādhyāya). I can make efforts to care for myself in a way that supports balance and attention (tapas). I can trust, that along with the bliss and the joy, this is a worthwhile and important part of my experience. This isn’t permanent. And the result of this experience is more than I can imagine. (Īśvara pranidhāna).

 

I love you all.

Who knew middle school choir concerts were such a good place to practice yoga?

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Last night, I attended Hazel’s middle school choir concert. I got there a little later than I’d hoped. A class I attended went long and then I had to fight some gnarly traffic on the way to the school performance hall. When I arrived, I found Dave and Nora in the auditorium easily but then I saw how far away we were from the stage and I almost cried. I snapped at Dave, “You’ve been here for 45 minutes and couldn’t get better seats?”  What a horrible thing to say. Let the traffic and the expectations go… apologize to Dave. I felt a little better and then the show began.

There’s a lot going on at school performances. There’s the very impressive stuff happening on stage and there’s also an impressive amount of stuff happening in the audience.  Younger siblings wiggle and talk, people move through the aisles a lot, and parents stick their phones up in the air to snap photos or take videos throughout the show.  I attempted to harness some yogi powers to focus on the performance and not the rest of the stuff.

With all the possible distractions and in my ragged emotional state, I did pretty well, but there was one thing that had the potential to derail my best intentions. It wasn’t the toddler bouncing on the chair next to me or being awash in light each time the door to the auditorium opened. Instead, I was sucked in by the quiet activity of the grandmother in the row ahead of me. She was on her phone compulsively scrolling through facebook the entire time.

I was unreasonably upset and irritated by this. “You come all the way here and these kids are singing beautifully and you’d rather be on your phone?” I’ll spare you the rest of the rant that was in my head. My own facebook usage has been under self-scrutiny lately. I’m on there way more than I want to be so it felt good to direct that criticism elsewhere for a little while. I interrupted my rant to point out to myself that she may be on fb, but I’m thinking about her being on fb so I’m not really here either. I knew that my attitude was more about me than her. I pulled my eyes off of her screen and back to the show.

This happened at least six times.

Each time I brought my attention back to the show, I made the effort to listen to the kids and the piano and it got a little easier to avoid that screen. When I tried to imagine how much courage it took for those soloists to be there, singing in front of a huge audience, a little more time passed without fretting about facebook-grandma. When the boy choir sang Oh Holy Night, one of my favorite Christmas carols, I was moved to tears. I was far from a state of samādhi, but I did leave the concert happy that I had been there, happy that I could pay attention to the wonderful music, the kids (all dressed up), the accompanying musicians, and the teachers on stage. Who knew middle school choir concerts were a good place to practice yoga?

As I think about the show today, I feel so much appreciation for the performers who gave it their all and the teachers and staff that made it possible. My heart swells with pride and gratitude to know that these kids get to have this kind of experiences. Hazel was exhausted and delighted when it was all over. I know because when she got home, she gave me one of those extra-long hugs where she closes her eyes and sinks into me. I’m grateful for that, too. I’m really glad I went to the concert and even happier that I could really be there.

Foolproof way to amp up your gratitude this Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is my long-time favorite holiday. It earned that superlative for the family, the turkey, and the day off of my regularly scheduled activities. Thankfulness is part of it, but historically, that part comes after the pumpkin pie and whipped cream and right before the nap. This year is different. Giving thanks has a deeper meaning for me than it has before and it’s been a pivotal piece in helping me to see that every moment of my life is a sacred gift. (How’s that for gratitude?)  It didn’t just happen. My yoga practice has made this possible, along with a special and ongoing meditation practice that I’ll share below.

I can now see that I can be grateful for every single thing in my life because none of it came from me. None of it is owed to me or is my due. It has all been given. Everything I enjoy, everything I do, every experience, my basic existence has been shared, lent, or given as a gift by someone or some power beyond my own. When I think about it now, it is so very humbling and my heart feels so big.

I’ve described the meditation below.  There are lots of places that this process can take you and you’ll make it your own. It’s wonderful to practice again and again and the cumulative effect is pretty darn sweet. (see above paragraph)

Think about something in your life. When you begin, that may be too broad. I think it’s nice to think about something that you are touching or even the room that you are in.   You might become aware of the floor or walls, an item of clothing, a ring on your finger, a chair, the air around you.

 We’ll start with the chair I’m sitting on.

 Notice how the thing feels .

It’s sturdy. The seat is firm. It’s a good height.

–Think about who made it or where it came from most recently.

 This chair belonged to my mom and dad. My mom gave it to me. I remember when the seat broke out of this chair 3 years ago. My mom went online and found a seat bottom that have a bird nest design. She got the replacement seat, stained it to match and repaired the chair.

Thank you online vendor and factory people. Thank you to the people that made the little nails that hold in the seat. Thanks to the craftsperson who designed the little bird in the nest. Thank you mom.

 —Where was it before that? Who was involved in that process and what happened then?

 This chair probably came into our family because someone sold it at a store.

Thank you person who showed up to work on the day that someone I know needed a chair. For helping in whatever way you did. For providing this service.

 —And before that

Someone made the chair. Someone with training and interest. Someone else who showed up to work (even though there are always so many other things that we might need or choose to do), and physically made this chair.

Thank you chair maker.

 —And before that

Someone designed the chair and came up with something that is both sturdy and beautiful.

Thank you person, who designed this chair. Who took time to learn what a good chair needs, what materials are involved and how to make something with tools, hands, and creativity.

And before that

The chair is made of wood. That wood came from a forest and someone cut the wood from the forest, made it into lumber so that it could become this thing that I am now using.

Thank you lumber people.

Before that it was a tree, growing. The tree could only grow with dirt, air, water and an ecosystem that supported it.

Thank you nature and ecosystem, air, and dirt.

 —Before that, the tree was a seed that had some genetic code that held all the information that allowed the tree to grow.

(There’s always a point in this meditation where people are no longer the connection and at this point, I think about Higher power. Seeds and genes and the miracle of life blows my mind and it isn’t something any person made or did and yet, there it is and here we are. I refer to the higher power in my life as God.  Your meditation might take a different turn. You might see it as nature, biology, evolution. It’s a bigger order. It still totally works.)

Thank you God for this miracle of the seed that grew this tree.

 So at this point, I’m usually crying because it’s all so amazing. On the rare day I’m not, I might just sit with this feeling of gratitude because it takes a while to let this stuff sink in: it’s not just the chair I’m sitting on that has come to me in it’s own amazing way, but everything. Everything I’m touching, along with the stuff I can’t actually touch but touches me, have come because of something other than myself. And I like the feeling and the reminder that I’m blessed to be touched by so much.

 

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. I’m so grateful for each of you.