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.