Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My goals in 2014

image compliments of ashcash
My goals for 2014:

I do The Work in writing when things get tough to handle at least five times in 2014.
I give myself a Reiki treatment at least once a week in 2014.

I attend both sessions of Viniyoga Therapist Training in 2014.
I say no to two "extra projects" at my day job in 2014.

I easily wear size xx clothes in August of 2014.
I easily wear size xx clothes in December of 2014.

Here's hoping!
(And planning, and activating...)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sitali Pranayama practice with a friend

Image compliments of
Usually, I post a picture of a flower.  Today it's bergamot, a wonderful citrus used often in aromatherapy.  I have "bearing fruit" on the brain.

Last night I shared some time, in practice, with a friend.  In preparation for my yoga therapist training with The American Viniyoga Institute, I've been asked to work with three different people over the course of four sessions to develop a home practice.

A dear friend has volunteered to step into my lair (insert evil laugh here).  We spent our first two sessions together developing a rapport, and building a vocabulary of Viniyoga asana.  Viniyoga is incredibly special in many ways but I'll focus on the training it takes to understand movement as an extension of the breath.  We have a seven posture sequence that we've crafted together.  The initial intention was to address tightness in the hips and psoas.  As we work together, I sense other needs, bubbling below the surface.  I rely heavily on my intuition.  I pick up on a general "flavor" from an early conversation and feel a path stretching out before us.  However, at any one point, I'm continually setting aside that path and listening for new clues, new cues.

What is most important to me is being present and listening to the words and feeling the feelings of the person I'm with.  The words that I give in return are spontaneous, though rooted in the tradition through my teacher.  It's a joy to have the rigorous training that allows for complete freedom and confidence in this work.

Last night I did something very special.  I initiated my friend into pranayama.  (This ain't no Bikram pranayama, for any who do that practice!)  I gave her the "entree" of a breath technique called Sitali pranayama.  Entree means that I gave my friend just some of the instructions that accompany this technique.  We did the tongue curl and ujjayi exhale but skipped the head lifting.  This technique can be done with exhale through alternate nostrils as well.  These aspects (head tilting and alternate nostrils) will be added our pranayama practice next week.

Here's a nice rundown on the technique from Yoga Journal by Kate Holcombe:
The Cooling Breath
Sitali Pranayama is often translated as "the cooling breath" because the act of drawing the air across the tongue and into the mouth is said to have a cooling and calming effect on the nervous system. To practice Sitali, you need to be able to curl the sides of your tongue inward so that it looks like a straw. The ability to curl the tongue is a genetic trait. If you can't, try an alternative technique called Sitkari Pranayama, which offers the same effects.
Benefits: Can improve focus; reduce agitation, anger, and anxiety; and pacify excess heat in the system.
How to: Sitali Pranayama: Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor, with your shoulders relaxed and your spine naturally erect. Slightly lower the chin, curl the tongue lengthwise, and project it out of the mouth to a comfortable distance. Inhale gently through the "straw" formed by your curled tongue as you slowly lift your chin toward the ceiling, lifting only as far as the neck is comfortable. At the end of the inhalation, with your chin comfortably raised, retract the tongue and close the mouth. Exhale slowly through the nostrils as you gently lower your chin back to a neutral position. Repeat for 8 to 12 breaths.
The most rewarding part of the session, for me, was giving someone a teeny tiny anatomy lecture on the way the breath works inside the body.  The balloons, the meat bag, the fact that we don't "drag the air in" to our bodies... we actually expand the musculature which creates a small vacuum effect.  The pressure inside the chest cavity is lower as the intercostals and diaphragm contract, which means the air all around us just rushes in to fill the space (equalizing the pressure).  On exhale, everything returns to neutral (not contracted), which pushes the air out as the chest cavity gets smaller.

It's truly enlightening to learn how the air around us nourishes us without our effort.  It can create a new sensation of the activity inside.  I saw this knowledge change my friend's practice completely - bringing it out of the head and into an intuitive, body-sensing exploration.

Talking about the anatomy at the beginning of the practice allowed us to sink into the practice and stay inwardly directed as we moved from asana (through a brief savasana) to pranayama, sitting in chairs.  We brought the knowledge from breath in movement to breath in structure, allowing my friend to feel deeply. I noticed my friend feeling the natural expansion that makes the head feel a little bit like a bobble head (I LOVE this... the head starts rolling around on the top of the spine as the spine grows taller...).

Then we brought a gentle ujjayi to the breath, making the slight constriction in the back of the throat that makes the breath gently audible, like an ocean sound.  Finally, we took the air in through a curled tongue, and out through ujjayi contraction in the throat while the tongue folds back on itself to re-wet.  This allows the air coming in through the curled tongue valve to be cool and moist, bringing a sense of calming and wellbeing to a student with a naturally wonderful, strong, fiery and intense pitta constitution.

I've been a little bit of a wuss when it comes to teaching pranayama, choosing to work with people who've already had some instruction.  This is my first time bringing the practice to someone who hasn't touched the stuff - though she had an experience of breath practice with someone a long time ago, it's not something that's really in her vocabulary.  What made it a good fit was her willingness to learn and discover uncharted territory.  When someone is hungry for tools to help herself, the learning comes quickly.  What a pleasure it was to watch the breath blossom and the mind still.

I give thanks for my position as a conduit of this knowledge and tradition.

Edited to add the testimonial:

Anna's gentle, caring and intuitive guidance during our yoga training sessions raised my personal experience with yoga to a higher level than I could have ever imagined.  I am so grateful for the skills and gifts that she offered to me during our practice and I have been able to develop them into a powerful regular practice that not only helps keep my back issues under control but has also connected me to other levels of myself.  Anna beautifully combined the teaching of the physical postures and actions with the energetic and spiritual insight into the practice as well as encouraging me to be comfortable in creating things in my practice that feel right for me.  I have learned so very much during my short time with Anna and am so impressed with her gifts.  I love that I hear her voice in my head during my practice "there's always room for expansion".  Thank you so very much Anna, and I would be honored to work with you anytime!

Monday, October 7, 2013

My pleasure to teach: Viniyoga asana, pranayama, sutra chanting, and meditation

image compliments of
In a recent substitute teaching venture, I had the chance to teach a full, deep practice.  The asana instructions were minimal as I taught a group familiar with the positions, and moving with the breath.  We could wrap the experience in the deeper aspects of yoga practice, such as Yoga Sutra study and chanting.  The intention of the practice was to encourage an open and frank experience of meditation, with full preparation.

I, myself, have a difficult time with meditation.  It's becoming a less squirmy thought for me, as I put it into practice more, and experience a deeper peace more willingly.  However, I need a great deal of encouragement through proper preparation to drop into the pocket sans resistance.

We explored Sutra 2.11
SwamiJ quote:
2.11 When the modifications still have some potency of coloring (klishta), they are brought to the state of mere potential by meditation (dhyana).
(dhyana heyah tat vrittayah)
  • dhyana = meditation
  • heyah = to be overcome, reduced, abandoned, destroyed
  • tat = that
  • vrittayah = operations, activities, fluctuations, modifications, changes, or various forms of the mind-field
I've heard a very short and sweet translation of this sutra.
Deep meditation burns the seeds of suffering.
                                                    My teacher - Gary Kraftsow  
I shared how difficult meditation is for me, and how, at the same time, I have a great deal of conditioning and habits that do not serve me (don't we all?).  Instead of battling the habits like a warrior, I've decided to turn things over to my practice.  Using a regular practice, I am trusting in the power of the practice and letting go of my identity as a battle warrior.

We practiced some asana after chanting the sutra together.  I used a three posture sequence (with variations) that the students were very familiar with.  Most had used it at some point as a home practice.  It is designed by Ellen Fein and can be found here:

We added some standing postures.  The sequence focused on right/left/together variations to prepare for Nadi Sodhana, a breathing practice through alternate nostrils.  I chanted the sutra at different points along the way, and the practice conculded with vajrasana, bringing us down to a seated position.  We did five minutes of Nadi Sodhana, which the students already knew and had practiced recently (this is such a rarity!!)  Some of use used chairs, some used a supported seated position.

To begin meditation, we used hand-counting to do a round of yoga sutra chanting, sort of like a mantra japa practice.  I reminded them of  the sutra in Sanskrit and in English, and invited them to use what worked for them.  Also, I encouraged them not to let "getting around the hand" to be a race, and to take full and even breaths between repetitions.

After some time of unstructured meditation, we came out and released into savasana for another five minutes.

It was such a gift to work with this group.  The instruction was minimal.  It was a very deep learning experience for me, to see what happens when you can create a true Sangha.  I hope to be able to continue to support this group in practice.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A fantastic post about Bikram-style Pranayama

This article compliments of click the link to read the full article.
It features images, which I love!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

First experience as a yoga therapist (w/Testimonial)

image compliments of
A four-session series with a student is complete!  We co-created a sequence for home practice.  I couldn't be happier about the experience.  I was so engaged with the process and felt fulfilled at the end of each session.  For privacy, I've shared little information about the student.

It was just the last few moments of our intake part (a good 20 minutes) that I realized, hey - we're going to get started after this!  My favorite part was the wonderful flipping through the catalogue of the mind to find appropriate postures while listening and taking notes at the end of the intake session.

What will we be doing?

The one-hour time slot is certainly challenging, especially during the second session, where there is still a good deal to talk about and a good deal of posture learning involved.

The series built on itself, starting with a few (six) postures and a savasana (the client chose legs up the wall at first).  These were primarily forward bends and backward bends with a focus on not putting weight on the hands, while creating movement and circulation in the shoulders.

We built into it a lateral bend, and modified some of the postures the second week.  We did some krama (segmented) postures, and switched out cobra for salabhasana (low to the ground locust, not bikram locust!)  We took the last two postures and combined them in a simple vinyasa.

Third session we switched the location of the krama inhale and introduced krama exhale in vipariti karani (legs up the wall).

Fourth session we added a one line chant at the beginning, kept the series the same, and came out of legs up the wall to do a seated krama exhale practice, followed by a chant repeated from the beginning.  I suggested that savasana or legs up the wall would be good, and that it was up to her to decide what she needed.

By the end, the practice is more complicated than a short ten minute practice.  But the student has copies of the practices all along the way, and knows that there are multiple shorter-form practices she can do.

And finally, my light of my heart - my first testimonial.

[T]hanks for your highly detailed road map of my new yoga practice!  I love it.  It is both rejuvenating & calming. And it's becoming less of an "I should practice" & more of an "I want to practice."   
I learned a great deal in those 4 sessions we did.  Some of it was almost a paradigm shift, like the permission & encouragement to do what feels right for me rather than follow a proscribed practice. Some of it was emotional & personal, hard to articulate, but facilitated by your gentle, respectful attention & bits of personal sharing.  With your help I created something I'd never been able to do before --  a home practice that fits my particular needs & that I would actually do. 
Some of it was physical in the sense that I came in w/ an injured shoulder (which had remained painful despite other yoga work, physical therapy, rest, pain meds, etc. for almost 6 mos) & after 5 weeks of Yoga Therapy, it feels 90% healed. I also learned how to continue working on it without risking re-injury.  Thank you so much for offering me this opportunity.  You have lovely energy.  I'm very grateful & look forward to seeing your growth & success in this new field of healing.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bikram, without the heat

Image compliments of
When the heat is off, the teacher forgets her keys, and practice starts a good fifteen minutes late on a Sunday morning, it's a wonder that everyone is happy, grateful for the opportunity to practice.  Seriously, the room was full of people who got the benefit of the extra rounds of pranayama at the end of the second set.

Just a few extra rounds at a quick pace filled the body with heat.  There was pointedly little break between the postures and sets.  But the instruction was clear, calm, and challenging.  The teacher and I discussed her experience - she said that when she saw sweat beads - she knew she had done well by us.

I so rarely get to practice at a studio, with a teacher.  Usually the ultimate luxury of that practice is the heat in the room.  It's such a rich and juicy experience to get to bend and twist in the heat.  However, the luxury of practice yesterday was to be in a room, focused on the practice, given over to the practice.

My mother attended class (her first yoga class ever, of course she nailed it!)  It was comical to be driving back and forth with her, expectations for the morning rapidly changing.  I live pretty close by, so my mom and I drove back to my house to get my keys to the studio.  There was a crew waiting for us when we returned.  I jingled the keys through the window and opened the door.  A parade of happy yogis marched through to comments like, "We would have practiced in the park if we had to." and "I'm so happy to see you.  I was about to unroll my mat in the street!"

There was a true hunger for the practice.  I am one of those who enjoy my Sunday morning Bikram fix - it's a very positively addicting thing for some of us.  I'm just so grateful to have had the chance to practice.

But, Practicing without the heat has made for a different kind of soreness leftover sensation today.  When I woke today, I felt my ribs and intercostals as alive with sensation.  It's different with the heat, they open more easily and leave less trace in terms of soreness.

Bikram practice, practiced with the attention and skills I've learned in Viniyoga, is a tremendous tool for healing my bells palsy.  It addresses a number of cascading issues I'm passing out of to a much stronger place.  I now focus on keeping the right hip and jaw over to the right, so that the weight in my body is evenly balanced from right to left.  My postures may not be as deep as they could possibly be, but I'm much stronger in them and am getting fuller internal benefit of the practice (because spine is in better alignment).

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A confession about balance...

image compliments of
I am rushing.

I'm hurtling through life, throwing myself at one thing after the next.

I may need to reevaluate some of my goals to give myself a little more time... in my days, and in my weeks.

I believe that meditation, resting in the present, being not doing, is the key to a greater sense of peace for me. Meditation has been a gift to me recently.  However, in the hectic busy-ness of every day life, I rarely have true space for meditation.

 It's easy to get frustrated with the slow rate of true change. My resistance to meditation is slipping away.  I'm hungry for it now. I find that I miss it when I don't have a chance to sit for just a bit.

This has been a confession.  I remain accountable to my greatest good; I will add in the thing that may bring more joy!  I will celebrate each time I make it to the cushion!

image compliments of artween DEKORA ART GALLERY
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes, 
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes, 
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering, 
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.
- Compliments of View on Buddhism

Monday, August 5, 2013

Family time

image compliments of hubby
My son and I soaked, swam, and explored at the beach in Boston this weekend.  

Our entire weekend was an abundance of friends, lovely settings, and warmth.

My son's first trip to Fenway couldn't have been better!  The Sox won 4-0, we were in the shade, and the kids (our friends have a 1 year-old) seemed to have a genuinely good time.

I'm grateful for the ability to spend this time with my family and friends.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Morning Miracle of Self-Care

Image compliments of Graham Owen Gallery

I had time for a full regiment of self-care involving yoga, pranayama, meditation, chanting, abhyanga, and nasya this morning.  Why is this a miracle?  Because I have a two-year old and getting all of that in before he wakes is normally not in the cards.  Last night we took him to a baseball game and wore him out.  This morning I got to indulge in a full pass at self-care, yoga/ayurveda style.

I have written about my morning yoga practice here.  It is a practice designed to allow me to sit in meditation.  It is stimulating, balancing, and I've changed the pranayama I am doing to pratiloma ujjayi (read more about that here).  It involves some breaths in and out of alternate nostrils, some breaths through normal both-nostril ujjayi breathing... it's tremendously balancing and focusing, and it clears the mind of distractions.  It takes a lot to switch nostrils, moving the arm up and down for the normal ujjayi breaths.  I'm just beginning to practice this pranayama more.

I sat in meditation for about ten minutes, then chanted a few rounds of the Gayatri Mantra (learn more at Wikipedia).  This is a version I like, but when I chant at home in my bedroom in the morning, it's often barely audible, as I'm chanting to and with myself, not projecting very much at all.

I realized my son was STILL not stirring, and so decided to do nasya, which is good for vata imbalances.  I dropped a few drops of oil UP my nostrils and hung my head off the bed, face up.  The oil penetrates the sinuses!  It's the first time I've ever done it, and it's a strange sensation.  I want to give it a few more tries to see the effects.  I definitely feel like I've had some kind of sinus massage, and do have a little tiny bit of oil dripping in the back of my throat (just a teeny tiny bit, but enough to notice.)

I ended by doing a light abhyasa.  Traditionally, this practice is basically dousing yourself with oil head-to-toe then going into a shower to wash it off.  I toned it down a bit and just gave myself a light oiling all around, but not on the soles of my feet so I'm not slipping all day.

In general, these practices are designed to reduce or calm vata, to help me curb the resulting kapha tendencies that arise.  These tendencies (over-eating, not enjoying vigorous exercise regularly enough) have an effect on my general long-term health.  I really like seeing things through an Ayurvedic lense.  I'm just starting my learning, and am following some fascinating groups.  I even had a personal consultation with the great Debby Andersen to help me establish what practices might be helpful for me in my never-ending quest for balance and a sense of inner freedom.

I do feel quite pampered as I start the day!
What a treat.
A miracle, for a Mom!

Friday, July 26, 2013

On Ritual

image compliments of
This post discusses my ritual of daily practice, its functions, and its personal meaning to me.  I will also discuss its relationship to cultural patterns.

I practice yoga every day (unless I'm sick, or family is in crisis).  I have three regular practices that I return to and swap out.  I begin every practice with awareness of my breath, and end in some kind of resting position, where there is no focused attention.  One of my go-to practices is designed to help me sit in meditation, one of my go-to practices is designed to lift me when I'm down, and includes chanting, and the final go-to practice is a stronger, physical, asana-based sequence that includes inversions and really helps my bells palsy.

There is another yoga ritual, which is practicing Bikram at the (hot) studio.  However, I'm leaving that out of this discussion and sticking with the personal daily practice.

When I unroll my mat, many special things take place.  I connect with the breath, and that allows me to shine the light of attention inward.  As you might swivel a stage light, I switch from outward focus and instead check in with myself.  I ask myself how I'm doing by examining the quality of my breath, the tension level in my body, and the quality of my mind.  Often, I'm racing (vata imbalance).  This shows up as constricted breath below the ribcage, tension in the left side of my body, and a harried mind slamming with "should's" and "should-nexts."  But, as the mat smacks the floor (audio and visual cue) I know a break is here.  

As I practice, I'm completely in body-sense mode, and am guided 100% by my own breath.  What a wonderful break from all the should's!!!  The external world overstimulates me very easily, and so cutting the stimulation and moving gently in concert with my body's needs (expressed through the quality of the breath) cuts through the speedy, overstimulating world of emails, 24-hour news cycles, even family commitments that cause me to rush towards completion of the next task.

Having the ability to unroll my mat means that I've created enough space for myself to practice the art of self-care.  This has had a huge impact on my psychological health, and, I would say, my social health in terms of improving the quality of my relationships.  Psychologically, I have often in my life been taken into overdrive by my racing mind, and it has had very negative effects on my mental health.  Having a break, and knowing that there IS a way to take a break when I need it have given me a sense of personal safety.  My inner critic is incredibly strong and its words are tremendously painful to me.  Having a personal daily practice is an island, an oasis, a cabin in the woods to go to for retreat.  I have often thought of (and heard others speak of) the island of blue that is my rectangular yoga mat.  It means I can let go into myself and connect with something bigger, something greater than myself, and experience the mystery of this life.

Socially, I'm a giver.  I give till I bleed, which is not good for ANYBODY!  I naturally anticipate the needs of others, and have a hard time "hearing" myself in a social setting.  I'm naturally empathizing with others I am in contact with.  While, for many, the ritual of going to church is a very social one, for me, taking the time to be anti-social recharges my ability to serve others without resentment.  I'm probably different from most on this count. 

The meaning of this ritual is that I'm just as important and just as worthy as others.  The way I care for others is quite lopsided.  I am a naturally caring person.  However, I got a lot of messages when I was little that I wasn't good enough (ever, even when getting A's and winning swim meets).  I have a pattern in relationships of needing to prove myself, or to gain the approval of others.  Coming from a place of learned deficiency, I've had a very hard time considering my feelings and intuition to be valid sources of information.

It's taken a lot of time to unravel all of this, and a lot of supportive people around me to let me know that it's safe to do that work.  I retreat into my daily practice, into my body, into the given in order to explore what comes up, and what my intuition says.  When i'm in this "being" state (as opposed to constantly striving and doing) I have a deep connection with that which is greater than I am - however you choose to name it - and I can find gratitude and appreciate mystery without fear.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Yoga Therapy for Zombie Bites

image compliments of zombieresearchsociety

So you've been bitten by a zombie.  Is there a pose to cure your ailment?  Sorry to say, there is not one pose that will cure you of the pending transformation into a lurching, brain-seeking, brainless hulk.  However, you might try this sequence to manage your symptoms and ease your mind/body/soul/awareness in your last few moments.

First, find a seated position (maybe a chair?) and listen to, and quietly chant along with, the
Gayatri Mantra.

video of Deva Pramal from Youtube

I've heard it translated to:

We meditate on the glorious radiance 
of the self-luminous light
may that light inspire and illuminate my heart

Gayatri Mantra is a vedic chant, which means it's been used for over 3,000 years.  I have heard it said that this is a strong and protective mantra.  It was originally only used in male populations but it has, thankfully, now been seen as accessible to all.

Here are some other interpretations, so you know what you're chanting.

From Wikipedia:


The following is a list of English paraphrases or free translations.
Sir William Jones1807"Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun, the god-head who illuminates all, who recreates all, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, whom we invoke to direct our understandings aright in our progress toward his holy seat."[15]
William Quan Judge1893"Unveil, O Thou who givest sustenance to the Universe, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, that face of the True Sun now hidden by a vase of golden light, that we may see the truth and do our whole duty on our journey to thy sacred seat."[16]
Sivanath Sastri (Brahmo Samaj)1911"We meditate on the worshipable power and glory of Him who has created the earth, the nether world and the heavens (i.e. the universe), and who directs our understanding."[17]
Swami Vivekananda1915"We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may He enlighten our minds."[18]
S. Radhakrishnan1947, 1953
  1. "We meditate on the effulgent glory of the divine Light; may he inspire our understanding."[19]
  2. "We meditate on the adorable glory of the radiant sun; may he inspire our intelligence."[20]

If you've got a zombie bite, I suggest you take the protective mantle of this mantra and wrap it around you.  It's important to chant calmly and quietly.  It's important not to increase your blood circulation too much in your condition, lest we hasten the onset of zombification.  Sit up in a chair, towards the front of the chair (not leaning back).

Chant quietly, or silently.  You can mentally chant alongside a recording you like to keep the stimulation, and ensuing blood circulation, low.

After chanting, notice how you feel.  Pay special attention to any sensations of blazing white light protecting you.

Now, a chair posture to calm your system, and hopefully, 
your mind and emotions.

Remain sitting in your chair.  Bring your hands to your heart.  Notice your breath becoming slow and gentle.
On an inhale, open your arms out to the side, palms facing forward.  This is an arm position I like to call Cactus Arms.
image compliments of

On a long, slow exhale, tighten your belly and drape forward over your legs.  Relax your neck.  Close your eyes.

On inhale, return to sitting, hands on heart.

Repeat this movement (inhale - open to cactus arms, exhale - tighten the belly and drape forward over your legs, then return to hands on heart on inhale and exhale in place)  up to ten times.

You may choose to weep over your fate in the draping position.  I would.  Did I mention I have a terrible zombie phobia?

Next, come down on all fours for cakravakasana, 
or ruddy goose pose.  

This posture can be used for a LOT of purposes, but for you, potential zombie, it gives you a chance to say goodbye to your relationship with your spine in a loving way.
image compliments of the awesome Tracy Weber, who owns wholelifeyoga, a community yoga center, in Seattle, WA
By focusing on the exhale and slowing the exhale down, we make this a calming posture.  This posture offers the opportunity to connect with the spine, vertebra by vertebra, from bottom to top, on the way down (exhale).  If you want to get fancy, you can connect with the vertebra of the spine from top to bottom as you lift forward with the chest, on inhale.  But when you begin focusing on the inhale, you increase the stimulation, circulation, and hasten your own demise.  (So use it carefully!)

Now, find your way into corpse pose.  (Fitting ending, eh?)
image compliments of yogaforharmony

Let go, rest, and dissolve into the unknown.

Good luck.
I hope you remember me when you're out brain-hunting.  Maybe skip my house?

Check out this HILARIOUS video: it is the inspiration for this post.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Powerful Night: Craft Short Documentaries – Yoga for Health and Healing

Streams of brilliant sunshine poured generously on a vibrant Vermont evening in June. 

Ellen Fein, the evening’s host, and genesis of the project, mirrored the sunshine with her chartreuse top and jewelry, which complimented her open and enthusiastic manner.  Jennifer Szymaszek, the project videographer, hustled around, lovely in kelly green, with an abundant smile, as she oversaw the nervy moments before her series of film shorts came to life.

I wandered outside the Montpelier Senior Center to direct fellow community members to the screening room.  Upon my return, the room buzzed with palpable excitement and authenticity.  I recognized some of the film subjects as they arrived, some nervous, and some beaming, to see themselves writ large, on the big screen.  The Montpelier yoga community was represented, as well as friends and family.

Where are all the people?

Oh, here they are!!

Yoga for Health and Healing is a series of short films documenting individual’s use of yoga in their own healing journeys.  Ellen introduced the project to a packed room.  She wanted to show how real people use the personal practice of yoga as a means to manage real issues in their lives, and how the tools can be learned by anyone.  These films affirm yoga’s status as a learned, personal, healing tool as opposed to a spandex-fest for 20-something ballerinas. 

Ellen Fein brought the gift of Viniyoga, amongst her other therapeutic methodologies, to our small community, starting in 2004.  She has worked with people of all sorts.  Some of her longest student relationships came to life, and we all had the pleasure of sharing in these candid, loose, and spontaneous interviews, artfully captured by project collaborator, Jennifer Szymaszek.

The subject of our first story is a breast cancer survivor, who lived her whole life as a Type-A personality.  She became unable to practice as she always had, with severe restrictions in her neck and shoulder due to cancer-related surgeries.  Her warm and measured words rang through the room, and a ripple of laughter erupted as she described how she now chants in Sanskrit in the shower.  She embodied a sense of contentment and reflection, and noted how she seemed different to herself – in a positive way.

audience perspective

In the second vignette, we viewed the story of Linda, a survivor of chronic pain.  She was plagued by injury and terrible hip pain throughout her life.  It’s hard to imagine the transformation she had gone through as she appeared so vibrant, happy, and truly radiant in the film.  Her enthusiasm abounded, seeming to spill out over the edges of the screen.  She was full of giggles as she described herself as pain-free, able to move, and “just a kinder, gentler person.”

image compliments of -
this is just a model of what scoliosis looks
like in some cases
Patty, the third subject, shared her story living with severe scoliosis from childhood.  She recalled the two years after spinal fusion, where she was first in a full body cast, and then a full body brace.  As she shared that she uses large amounts of naproxen to manage her pain, a sort of empathetic groan and gasp was audible.  The hope and wonder in her face was infectious as she moved on, to discuss a moment in class where she was able to sense her right shoulder, usually so tense and twisted, as free.  She portrayed so much strength and determination, and seemed to enjoy her practice of asana, chanting, and meditation.  She learned how to support her body in everyday life by working on the right side of her body.  Her eyes shined as she talked about how she is developing skills that allow the right side of her body to share in supporting her bodyweight.  Her hope for her ability to manage her condition in the future hung in the air as the film faded to black.

The tension in the room mounted with the story of a student who experienced severe trauma, in the loss of family members in a fire that she witnessed.  Personally, as the mother of a two-year old, I wept.  I wept at the pain she must have felt and the terribly hard and long PTSD recovery that is still ongoing.  We heard her account of developing a home practice that helped her keep her nervous system in check.  She had lived in “fight or flight” mode (sympathetic nervous system activation) for quite some time after the event.  The practice she and Ellen crafted together became a means of feeling safe in her own body again.  She was able to create more parasympathetic nervous system activation that helped her with her sense of panic. 

This story has had a profound effect on me, and my sense of human survival in the face of grave trauma.  This story may not be shared publicly due to privacy concerns.  But I want to write about the power of hearing a mantra put to use.  She spoke of a mantra that I’ve heard from Ellen before – It goes something like this:

image compliments of

                 May my heart be open
          May I dwell in my heart
          May I find healing
          May my healing inspire 
              the healing of others

She said, “That’s why I’m here, talking with you – to be true to this, and to help other survivors.”  This is the true meaning and use of mantra.  It had seeped into her consciousness and body through practice, and became the way she got through her days of heaviest grief to “continue to put one foot in front of the other.”  As the lights came up for intermission I reached out to Jennifer, sitting next to me, and my friend and colleague Linda, for supportive hugs.  It took everything I had to hold the huge heaving sobs inside my body. 
It was mostly dark, by intermission, and the room was full of humanity.  Attendees were so moved.  Even the interviewees had not seen the finished product of their own interviews, and showed a tremendous amount of curiosity toward the other stories.  It was hard for me to say anything more about intermission, as I was trying to hold it together.  I can say, with authority, that many delicious cookies, warm tea, and other delights were enjoyed thoroughly.

We returned to our seats and shared our time with Dick, the next subject.  Dick describes himself as an empiricist, and a lover of unexpectedly beautiful moments in life.  His jovial manner provided a sort of companionship.  He talked about yoga as a tool for helping him rise comfortably in the morning, as an 80-something year old.  He said that yoga has helped him be present to discover more of those special moments that mark our journey as humans.  And, he was another voice in support of the practice of chanting in Sanskrit, in all its mystery. 

We then witnessed Andy’s story.  He worked with Ellen before he developed intestinal cancer, treating more everyday injuries, like knee pain that kept him from running.  Ellen was able to continually adapt his practice as they chased his pain around his body.  After a short while of working together, Andy found himself in the hospital repeatedly, and ended up with intestinal cancer, requiring removal of a few feet of intestine. 

image compliments of wikipedia
Andy shared how Ellen visited him in the hospital.  He said that he missed practicing, and she encouraged him to practice in his mind, moving the energy around.  Andy comes from a family that has strong healing traditions, and described his mantras used in practice, and the effects they had on him.  His breathing practices in the hospital granted him a sense of peace.  He used a visualization technique Ellen taught him, of imagining himself, then the room he was in, then the hospital, the state, the country, the earth, and the galaxy.  It helped him in the face of the unknown, his possible death from this serious illness.  As he slowly returned to health, Ellen continued to modify and adapt to his condition, and the effects of different medication on his ability to practice, or even to stand.  Andy, today, is the embodiment of childlike wonder, housed in a grown-up’s body. 

Finally, the story of Ondis graced the screen.  Ondis is living with breast cancer, a disease that closes in on her daily.  She practices “yoga for dying,” as she refers to it, with a wry smile.  Her wit and her love shine through as she talks about her conception of the end of her life.  She brings mantra and gesture into her practice, even when sitting behind the wheel of her car in daily life.  The yoga Ellen has taught her has given her dignity and grace, in the face of a terminal illness.  She hopes to leave this life without struggle.  She was in the audience, with a friend, and imbued the qualities she discussed in the film even as we watched her story.

The lights came up again, and we all looked around, as if dazed by our human condition.  I think we were all inspired at a level so much deeper than where we live each day.  The stories of joy in the face of so much pain were profound.  After the films, a discussion followed about how much preparation had occurred before shooting, (none), and how both Ellen and each interviewee learned so much about the experience of the yoga by talking about it and documenting it.  I have a deep respect for Ellen, a professional mentor to me, and to Jennifer, a colleague and a tremendous video artist and storyteller.  Their clarity and openness created the atmosphere of acceptance; the field in which these seed-stories blossomed toward the light.

image compliments of

What is yoga therapy, anyway?

Check out Ellen's blog post at her lovely new site:
I was lucky enough to be interviewing - and Jenn Szymaszek of Opal Productions acted as videographer.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Herniated Disc in the Bikram Studio

Last night, at about two minutes before class began, a group of women showed up at the studio.  I didn't notice at first, but as one woman was signing a waiver, she mentioned that she had a herniated disc in her back (L5, S1).

Well, I smiled at her, I'll be close by in class tonight.  We'll need to work together to decide what's appropriate for you to practice.  She had just started cortizone shots, the injury was a few months old, and she definitely seemed to have modified her posture to accommodate the strong sensation.

We did:
Legs 6" apart for half moon
first backbend - hands on hips (in camel position), focus on lifting sternum towards ceiling
Deep knee bend on forward bend, relax chronic neck tension
First part awkward - hands on thighs
Second part awkward - hands on thighs
Third part awkward - hands on thighs, use floor to steady if you go down, feel free to not go down all the way into the squat
Eagle - only arms, legs are like chair pose, both feet on the ground.

First set of head-to-knee Barely lifting the foot, or keeping toe touching, and firming up belly as the focus
Second set of head-to-knee Stand tall, tighten belly, lift thigh parallel to ground
Bow pulling pose - stay in the setup and breathe into the chest  (second set, move at will)
Balancing stick - tight belly
Standing separate leg forward bend - keep the knees bent, tummy tight, and neck relaxed.
Triangle - take a break, kneel
Standing separate-leg forehead-to-knee - Tighten the belly, round slightly, place hands on thigh of front leg, and focus on breathing, belly tight, neck free of tension.
Tree - as usual, do not go into toe stand.  
(This student was actually on her back, drawing knees into the chest on exhale at this point.)

Floor series
Wind-removing - the long leg (leg stretched on the floor) instead has knee bent, foot on the floor, a comfortable distance from the hips (this takes a great deal of strain out of the low back)
Baby Cobra, viniyoga arms, reps
Locust, little lift, arms out by side for stability
Full locust no changes
Floor bow repeat full locust.

Fixed firm, as taught
Half Tortoise - use hands on floor to support going in and out of posture
Camel - as taught, but stay up instead of going back, look up, lift sternum, and just breathe, relax the brows and face
Rabbit - hands on floor palms down by the head to support the body
- student went to knees to chest at this point.-

I was able to support the student and run the class.  Whew - what focus was required!  I literally stood close by and monitored her every move - she was new, there with friends, and I could tell she was an achiever!  She achieved a terrific practice.

There were only two moments where she winced and I was right there with her.  The first moment was in standing separate leg forehead to knee, when, with her hands on her thigh, I asked her to further tighten the belly.  She just sucked a bit of wind and I had her back right off it, in a calm and quiet voice.  The second moment was when I asked her to stabilize the lumbar region in camel, which she did standing on her knees, hands on the hips, chest lifted.  I asked her to see if she could tighten and bring the hips slightly forward, and there was a small wince, and we backed off.

I felt good to be right next to her and help her through those moments calmly.  She was radiant as she came out of the room, saying she felt GREAT!  She had gotten a good sweat on, and had worked her body carefully, and had more ease in her demeanor, a bit of sparkle.  She still has a really acute disc situation. and I hope she comes back so that we can work together more.

There were a few moment, after class, where I repeated to myself, "Lord, let me be an instrument of your peace."  I wished her well with her spine, and hoped that I had used the scalpel of my words in support of her condition.  First, do no harm.  This applies to all of us, as yoga teachers.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Moving with Grace: Free Personal Practice Development

image compliments of Praiwun Thungsarn at

I'm excited to embark upon the satisfaction of program prerequisites for the upcoming Yoga Therapist certification program at the American Viniyoga Institute in January 2014.  I have offered two students free personal practice development packages of four hour-long consults, including an intake session.  I have a third offer out to fellow practitioners at my studio, Geezum Crow Yoga.  
Note, I'm not the studio owner or anything - it's my "home" studio. (Bless you, Linda!) 

A personal Viniyoga practice will be drastically different than the Bikram series we practice in the hot room.  Rather, Viniyoga is all about adapting asana, pranayama, chanting, and meditation to the individual.  I foresee an opening session that includes a good deal of discussion, finding out more about the student, and the students needs and desires.  

What is most important to you when thinking about building a 10-15 minute short sequence for daily practice?

We would conclude the first session with the practice of two postures, which will form the basis of the mini-sequence going forward.  Those two postures would be meant for daily practice.  Now these postures are not balancing stick or standing bow-pulling pose, mind you.  These are very different postures with focus on using the breath to move the spine, in and out of a gentle stretch.

Viniyoga uses the breath to guide movements.  I find it takes me to a much deeper place of connection; not just with my body, but with presence itself.

The subsequent sessions would involve an honest review by the student of the efficacy and desirability of the practice.  If you don't like it, you won't do it - so it's my job to find positions that answer a question you've held inside for a long time - asana-s that bring you relief.  The second session, we will work to fill out the two-posture sequence that has been introduced, and to modify it completely if necessary.

I foresee the third session as a further modification of the series, with a possible addition of breath practice - ratio or technique - as directed by my interpretation of student desires (if any).

In the fourth meeting, based on the needs of the student, we might explore a Sanskrit mantra to add, and finding some spot in the sequence for a few moments of quiet reflection or meditation.  Again, the addition of all of these wonderful elements would only come as it serves the students.

I look forward to working with a select few of you.  I hope this becomes my career, as it is my joy, passion, and dharma to serve you in this way.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Giving away the milk for free.

Enjoy this sequence - it's my baby.
I regularly use this practice to boost my being.  It nourishes me mentally, physically, and the sound aspect seems to activate a deeper energy within.  Chanting is a very special practice, if you've ever considered it - it's not singing!

I'll share more about the chanting, but before the day begins, I'd like to give away some milk for free.

Please enjoy and let me know if you have any thoughts on this sequence.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Two Breath Practices for you... Settle & Refresh

©2013 Anna Van Fleet  Please cite me if you reproduce or share

I created this sheet for a friend who is feeling alternately tired and overstimulated.  The practices are meant to be used separately, not one after the next.

The Settle practice is Langhana, which means it is reducing.  It is an ideal practice for creating a little buffer zone between activities if you are rushing around and feeling pulled in a million different directions.  It's ideal for over-stimulation and racing mind.

The Refresh practice is Brhamana, which means that it is additive, nourishing, and will help revive your focus if you are tired or depleted.

Please enjoy.  Let me know about your experiences with the practices!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Yogic Skills" and Bikram

Though Bikram is called a beginner's series, practitioners clearly get more and more out of the practice as they gain "yogic skills".  I believe that Bikram, as an advanced yoga practice, can serve practitioners in a deeper way.

What are these yogic skills?  Is it being more flexible?  Stronger?

The skills I'm referring to are awareness and proprioception.  These are different skills, to be sure.  Awareness is the ability to see, feel, or to notice if there are misalignments, spots of pain or discomfort, or general ability to feel and notice what's going on in the practice TODAY.

Proprioception, per Wikipedia
Proprioception (/ˌprpri.ɵˈsɛpʃən/ pro-pree-o-sep-shən), from Latin proprius, meaning "one's own", "individual" and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.[1] 
So once one notices, through awareness, that things are "off" or "not working" in a certain pose, does one have the ability to identify parts of the body, and move in a way that is inclusive of that part of the body?

I recently read a terrific blog post on hypermobility.  Check it out here.  As a hypermobile person, someone with relatively loose ligaments, I found the post to describe a lot of what has gone on in my yoga journey.

Bikram is a tremendous practice for the body IF the entire body is under the mind's control and actively participating in the practice.  I practiced Bikram for many years with dead spots - parts of the body I could not direct my awareness into, nor could I sense or move with proprioception.  So not only was I using my instrument (the body) in a lopsided way, I had no idea that there was anything missing!

I feel that the way Bikram is frequently taught (not by me!) can be very harmful to a Type A hypermobile student (oh THAT is me).  The urging to push "past" flexibility, or push past limits, only exacerbated my "dead spots."  My theory is that when you tell the hypermobile type A person to push past a flexibility limitation, something's gotta give.  Usually that thing is the alignment, especially if there are chronic use injuries that have already limited the student's ability to sense the outer edges of the body.

This happened to me.

Now, as I've been teaching Bikram for four years, and have expanded my practice to other forms of yoga like Viniyoga, I've started to unwind and uncover those dead spots.  There is nothing more exciting than realizing there is a part of your body you HAVE NOT BEEN USING in your practice, then being able to activate it.  First, comes the awareness of the dead zone area, then comes the proprioception to effort with it.  This can take tremendous focus and determination, because if the dead zone has been cut off from body sense for a while, the body's natural sensing state will be to exclude that area from the neuromuscular feedback loops.  That feedback loop needs to be strengthened through regular use.

As I unwind the Bells Palsy that accompanied my dear son on his journey into the world, I've been unraveling sensation in my right neck and shoulder, and today, my right hip.  What a true joy it was to do triangle with new muscles!

Throughout practice today I kept bringing my sensory awareness back to the outside front of my right hip connecting to the 3B chakra point right side - think of the solar plexus in the front of the body, below the ribcage, and then think of its parallel in the back of the body.  Just to the right of that is a major dead zone for me.

I can get in there by focusing, on inhale, on the sensation of the lung tissue pushing against the ribcage in the front and back side of my right side ribcage.

An old injury caused the dead zones in the first place, a longtime RSI injury that I didn't really treat properly in college, when it happened.  When I first picked up Bikram, I was doing the majority of the work with the left side of my body.  How could I, as a beginner, could have known that my practice was exacerbating my situation due to my lack of awareness and proprioception?  The misalignment was too subtle for a teacher to point out to me.

Now, coming back to Bikram with better yogic skills in place, through Viniyoga training, I'm finally using the Bikram practice for good.  I'm able now to carefully keep both the right and left sides of the body active and engaged.  It makes all the difference.