Sunday, August 29, 2010

Take it Easy

Today, on this beautiful lazy Sunday (a phrase I can never, ever say again without calling to mind that dang SNL sketch), I'd like to write an entry in praise of rest, relaxation, and one of my favorite ways in which to experience those things - Restorative Yoga!

I've loved restorative yoga since the first time I tried it a few years ago, but I never practiced it or went to restorative classes regularly.  I shared the mentality of most of us in the US, namely:  if I'm going to take the time to go to a yoga class, I'd like it to make me sweat.  We're so pressed for time that often workout time becomes very precious and very tight, and the idea of taking a class just to relax can seem to some people like a bit of a waste of both time and money.

I really lucked out, however, when I started as a Karma Yogi for The Giving Tree - working two shifts at the desk a week in exchange for unlimited free yoga.  My assigned shifts were Friday and Saturday evening, and one of the Saturday evening classes is Hatha Restorative, taught by the wonderful Dhyani.  Nearly every Saturday for several months, now, I look forward to Hatha Restorative as one of the highlights of my week.

I lovingly call it Naptime Yoga, but it's so much more than that.  This specific class offers about 45 minutes of gentle Hatha flow - yoga poses that never get quite so sweaty, intense, or quickly paced as Vinyasa tend to - and 45 minutes of restorative.

So what on earth is this Restorative Yoga?  It's a slow, gentle practice focusing on relaxation.  There are usually lots of props involved (blankets, blocks, straps, bolsters, glorious eye pillows - or maybe cucumber slices, if you're feeling extra indulgent) to completely support your body and deliver you into a state of complete comfort and stillness.  Poses are usually held a lot longer than regular asanas - anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes depending on what you desire.

Here are a couple of my favorite restorative poses, with suggestions on how to get into them with as few props as possible, as I know very few people who own tons of yoga props.  (You can also always substitute any folded blanket or pillow - no need to spend $30 on a special "yoga blanket" just to make yourself comfortable!)


Supported Supta Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose)
A more prop heavy version of this pose is pictured at the beginning of this post, but here's a simpler version if you don't have a million props laying around.  Sitting with your feet together in front of you, place a block under each of your knees and lay back, dropping your knees open so that the knees/thighs are supported by the blocks.  You can lay down on a bolster, pillow, or blanket situated any way that makes you feel supported and comfortable.  You shouldn't feel any straining or too much stretching in your hip flexors, but feeling an opening sensation is normal - and should feel good.  The hip flexors get a lot of abuse in our culture of sitting-at-a-desk-for-8-hours-a-day and should be gently opened up as often as possible to counter that tightness that develops as a result of prolonged sitting.

Supported Matsyasana (fish pose)
This is another laying-down pose.  Place a yoga block (or bolster, foam roller, or very firm pillow with a folded blanket on top) under your back so that when you lay down, the block is on its lowest level running lengthwise along the base of your shoulder blades.  The easiest way for most teachers to cue this is so that it hits right where your bra clasp would be.  (Sorry, guys)  Adjust as needed - and perhaps cover with a blanket if the block feels too hard - until you're able to lay down and feel a gentle expansion in the chest, collarbones, and shoulders.  If the neck is in any pain, you can always place another block or a pillow under the head for support.

Supported Setu Bhandasana (bridge pose)
This is very similar to support matsyasana except we're now raising up the lower part of the back instead of the upper back.  Move the block to your sacrum, that flat triangle-shaped bone between the tailbone and the lower back (if you practice yoga regularly, I'm sure you've heard the sacrum mentioned by your yoga teacher at least a half dozen times per class).  It should be on the lowest level.  This pose is beneficial in relieving digestive problems and can greatly reduce menstrual discomfort.

Supported Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold)
Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Place a rolled up blanket or pillow under your knees to bend them, relieving any potential strain on the low back or hamstrings.  Next, place a bolster, several pillows, or stack several folded blankets on top of your thighs.  You could even place a block or two covered in blankets.  Fold forward and adjust your props as needed so that you are resting your forehead on a soft surface and feeling a very mild stretch in the hamstrings.  Make sure your props are stacked high enough and that you have enough support under the knees so that you can completely relax and sink your upper body onto your props without any strain or holding.

Finally, my favorite restorative pose as of late:  Viparita Karani.  


This one deserves a picture.  Viparita means "inverted" and karani means "action," but its English name is Legs Up the Wall.  And that's literally what it is.


There's not really a graceful way to get into this pose, so you just kind of have to go for it.  There's plenty of grace to be found once you've gotten yourself there.

Sit down close to a wall - turn to the side so that one hip is right up against the wall.  Then - well, put your legs up the wall.  You'll find yourself laying down.  Place a rolled up blanket, pillow, bolster - whatever makes you feel the best - under your low back so that your sit bones pour off it.  You're basically supporting the natural curve of your lumbar spine.

Arms can go over the head, as pictured, for a nice shoulder opening.  You can also place them on your belly, by your sides, supported by pillows or blankets - truly, it's all about your pleasure.  I've recently discovered the joys of putting slices of cucumbers on my eyes in this pose in lieu of an eye pillow.  (It's a cliche, but it really does help puffiness!)


There's a great article on viparita karani online at YogaJournal.com written by Claudia Cummins; another appeared in the most recent issue but isn't online yet.  I'll definitely provide the link when it is!


To learn more about the practice of Restorative Yoga, YogaJournal has a great informational article on it, as does WikiHealth.

So the next time you come home feeling exhausted and in need of relaxation, resist the urge to sit on the couch in front of the TV or computer to attempt to relax.  Truly let yourself go and free yourself from any outside stimulation by luxuriating in some restorative yoga.  Your body, mind, and stress-level will thank you.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Settling in and pondering aparigraha

Last week I promised a more unpacked, settled, and firmly planted me, and I am overjoyed to say that me is indeed here.  I'm sitting at our desk in the nook (as we call it - our 2nd bedroom we're using as a practice room/office - it is teeeeeny tiny) and reveling in this moment of being home.

This current phase in homemaking that we're in - where the boxes are all unpacked and the bare bones are set up, but there's still a list of Things We Need to Buy and Organize and Wouldn't a Wall Clock be Nice to Have? - is really fun and exciting, amidst the occasional chaos and the fact that it costs money.

It's been a particularly interesting time for me, because I've spent the last few years of my life learning to live with as little as possible.  I've gone from tiny theatre-provided apartment to tiny theatre-provided apartment - not to mention first tiny New York apartment - and then being an unofficial 4th roommate at Marc's...

Well.  You get the idea.  Minimalism was the name of the game.  It kept things simpler if things could just fit in the back of my car or a pickup truck, and not buying a lot meant saving money that I didn't really have on hand to spend anyway.

So now suddenly faced with the prospect of "nesting," of living in an apartment that is completely mine and my partner's, of staying put in a place for longer than a year...it's gotten me thinking a lot about attitudes toward "stuff," materialism, and the yogic concept of aparigraha - commonly translated as "non-hoarding."

No doubt about it, we live in a major consumer goods based culture.  Especially living in New York, where you can't go anywhere without walking past a store of some kind that no doubt contains something you want or need or, more accurately, think you want or need.  We're absurdly blessed in this country to have ready access to anything we could want or need to make ourselves comfortable and sated, and it's just as absurdly easy to get sucked into mindless, harmful materialism.

How do you draw the line between being excited to set up your home and grateful for your comfortable surroundings, and becoming consumed with consumerism?

Stuff - and that really is all it is, no matter how shiny or chic or cute or practical - all too quickly and easily can become too much of a main focus in our lives, trumping more meaningful connections or being able to rest in gratitude with the abundance of what we already have.  Bringing it back to moving for a moment - it's truly amazing how quickly one's attitude will change toward their belongings throughout the course of a move.  When you're packing and planning out the move, who doesn't get to a breaking point where they just want to throw out or burn all their stuff because they're sick of dealing with it and transporting it?  And yet, as soon as it's safely unpacked and tucked away and back in that plastic bin in the back of the closet that you know you'll never use, it's important and precious again because it's yours.

Aparigraha, as I mentioned before, is a yogic concept that is part of the yoga sutras.  In it, Patanjali (the ancient sage who authored them) outlines 5 Yamas and 5 Niyamas - often viewed as a kind of "ten commandments" of yoga, although there's no smiting involved if you fall off the wagon. (As far as I know) Going with the commandment metaphor, one might interpret the Yamas as the Shalt Not's and the Niyamas as the Shall's.

Apart from being one of the most fun to say, aparigraha is one of my favorite Yamas because I think it has a really profound relevance to the way we live our lives in our present society.  How often, when cleaning out closets or drawers, do we find clothing we've either never worn or haven't seen in years and have forgotten about?  Yet having discovered this clothing, or whatever object it might be, how often do we cling to it, claiming to need it 'just in case?'

Nischala Joy Devi writes eloquently of aparigraha in her amazing book, The Secret Power of Yoga.  It's a must-read for anyone looking to explore the yoga sutras, and although she wrote it from a predominantly feminine perspective, men can get a lot out of this clear, engaging book as well.  She frames her definition: "Acknowledging abundance, we recognize the blessings in everything and gain insight into the purpose for our worldly existance."

She writes, "As a nation, our facade of abundance is possible because of what we imaginatively call credit, which in reality is debt...This masquerade is facilitated by our engorged belief in propriety and greed.  Creating a complex misunderstanding of the flow of abundance, we tend to overlook the premise that when money is owed, obligation is accrued.  Most importantly, we have distracted ourselves from the true happiness within by impeding the access into the spiritual vistas with material wants and needs.  If we are able to live within the material energy allotted us and generously use the word, 'Enough,' abundance cascades in our direction.  We become free."

Within my own life, this is certainly something I always struggle with, particularly at this shop-happy time of setting up house.  I don't think there's anything wrong with getting excited about a shiny new tea kettle (nerdy, perhaps, but not wrong) as long as the tea kettle, the bedside table, the desk, the apartment itself - as long as whatever it is serves as a platform of comfort and care from which I feel free to pursue my dreams and cultivate happiness instead of the source from which I derive that happiness.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Vacation, Move-in, 22 Hour Day and Need for Metta

The day I published my last blog, Marc and I left the big city for beautiful Virginia to visit my family.  It was a wonderful visit, relaxing as well as fun and filled with the southern culture that I love so much and is so much a part of my being.

So I was going to write a blog about that.

The day we came back from that vacation - Tuesday the 3rd - was our first night in the new apartment.  We got home from the airport around 5:30 and immediately began the still-ongoing task of taking all of our belongings out of the "nook" (small second bedroom/practice room) and unpacking.

So then I was going to write a blog about that.

In the middle of last week, though, Marc got upsetting news from home.  A close friend's younger brother, who Marc also knew, had died suddenly.  He was only 22 years old.  We decided to attend the memorial service to be held on Sunday in Boston.

It was a day filled with every kind of emotion in the book.  We got up at 5am to catch a 7am train to the city and got home that night at 3am.  We had lunch and dinner and wonderful times with his parents, I got to see his beautiful high school (the service was held in the theatre) and, though we obviously wish it were under better circumstances, I met many of his old friends and his mentor, Brother Ron.

The memorial service itself was a beautiful experience too, along with the obvious sadness and grief (and many, many, many tears) it inspired, and I'd like to take a slight detour to write about it in more detail.

Brother Ron opened with the Prayer of St. Francis along with some really comforting words of his own, which struck a deep chord with me. 

The young man's Uncle Christopher spoke about using his memory to inspire compassion into our every day lives - nearly everyone who spoke emphasized that this young man never said an unkind word about anyone.  Christopher called for all of us present to stop and consider where someone else may be, emotionally speaking, the next time a person on the street or in the supermarket annoys you or does something to make you angry.  He or she could be feeling, "exactly as we all are now."  It really reminded me a lot of what Dr. Taylor wrote in My Stroke of Insight, and it's so important to remind ourselves of the importance of daily, constant compassion.

The final speaker, the young man's older brother - Marc's friend - was unbelievably eloquent.  He invoked Buddhist philosophy, which he had been reading a lot of the last week in search of comfort.  It was comforting to me that I was finding inspiration in everyone for all of the variety of things they were invoking - words of different faiths and words not necessarily derived from faith at all, but just from loving this incredibly special young man and hearing the stories of how he touched people and how he has inspired them to live their lives better because of how he lived his.

Major life events like funerals, births, any kind of extreme joy or tragedy, really causes us to take stock of what we have, what we're grateful for, and what we really want out of our lives.  Throughout these last turbulent, stressful, but ultimately great two weeks, my yoga/meditation practice, which is unspeakably important to me, has really slipped.  I let the circumstances of vacation or moving or fatigue or stress or whatever it was rule me instead of taking charge and firmly planting this beloved practice into my stubborn, inconsistent schedule.

Luckily, being back in town for a week has meant that things are slowly starting to fall back into place - I'm scheduling massages and sorting out my yoga teaching and, more importantly, my yoga practice.  My phenomenal Thai Yoga Massage teacher, Jyothi Watanabe, is coming to my new apartment this very evening for our one-on-one session, and I could not be more excited about it.

In preparation for that, and equally to shower Marc with well deserved metta (loving-kindness, which is the most important element of the philosophy behind Thai Yoga Massage as a healing art) and relief from Sunday's wildly uncomfortable train rides, I gave Marc the 90 minute Thai Yoga Massage in our new place Monday night.

It really cracked us open, emotionally, spiritually, physically.  On the heels of such an intense (and sleep deprived) Sunday, we were rather vulnerable to begin with, and the session truly felt like a marked beginning in our re-commitment to our practice.

For me, one of those things that I've felt like I just haven't been able to firmly plant into my life as a satisfying ritual has been this blog.  I feel like I have so much to say, and I feel like I have so much I can learn just by exploring it through here.  Now that I feel I really have a home that's going to be geared toward supporting that...well, it still is entirely up to me, isn't it?  Circumstances can conspire to make it easier to make good choices and to engage in self discipline, but it's still ultimately up to you.


I realize this has been a disjointed and more personal than generally yogic...but yoga is living, not just the philosophy and history and poses and terminology.  When you don't officially do your 10-20-45 minutes of seated mediation or yoga or journaling, when you're just living life...there's still yoga present in what choices you make, how you treat people, and how you treat yourself.  It's just a lot easier to access and keep present when it's rooted in a sadhana - a daily practice.

So with that, I leave you, World of Blogs, and will be back next week...a little more unpacked, a little more settled, and a little more firmly planted.