Monday, November 21, 2011

All things in Brahmacharya

Thanksgiving is without a doubt my favorite holiday.  Food and gratitude are two of my favorite things, and I always know I'll be seeing wonderful family and friends.

Last night I had the joy of gathering with a whole bunch of my dearest friends from college who all are living in New York now for our second annual (second of many more to come!) CNU Thanksgiving.  There was turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, cornbread, biscuits, pies, wine - the whole nine yards.  I tried not to go overboard, but it was a Thanksgiving dinner, after all, and by about 8:00 everyone in the room was helplessly slumped against the couch and their chairs, full to bursting with delicious food.  We all never wanted to eat again, but we all wanted third helpings at the same time.

It got me thinking about Rolf Gates's passages in Meditations from the Mat concerning the fourth yama, Brahmacharya.  Now, people mostly equate this yama with celibacy or chastity, but the literal translation is "to walk with God."  Gates (and others who study the sutras) look at brahmacharya as, "a call to practice moderation."

When it comes to talking about food, Ahimsa is most likely the yama that will be brought up when discussing with yogis.  Vegetarian and vegan yogis cite this first yama, meaning "non harming," as a reason for not eating meat.  The subject of a light, moderate diet is also a big conversation point in yoga, but I've never really looked at it through the lens of brahmacharya.  We've all heard the phrase, "Moderation in all things" (often tagged with "especially moderation").  Gates isn't suggesting that brahmacharya is unrelated to sex, he's saying that brahmacharya extends as wide as does the concept of moderation.  Both can be applied to food, sex, drinking, spending money, sleep or lack thereof - the list could go on forever.

As Marc and I get ready for the long trek down to my grandma's house in Florida, where rich, glorious, southern food awaits us, I'll be doing my best to remember these following wise passages from Rolf Gates.  Moderation is not about denying yourself from enjoying the food, wine (if you drink), and company - it's about mindfully keeping your body and therefore your mind and spirit happy, healthy, and comfortably nourished instead of overindulged and overtaxed.  It's about slowing down, savoring every bite, and stopping before you get that too-full feeling.

Gates elaborates:

Brahmacharya...gets a very bad rap in our culture.  Most of us associate moderation with repression.  The hero of the story loves the fair maiden, loves her passionately, and then the repressive forces come in to wreck the day.  No one ever seems to dedicate poems, screenplays, or odes to the joys of moderation or the rewards of passionate balance.  As a species we seem unable to see the forest for the trees.  Despite the staggering amount of evidence that excess destroys our dreams, there appears to be a human blind spot when it comes to the possibility that our most passionate existence might actually be accessed through balance and moderation


As we practice moderation, a wind begins to fill our sails.  We find that the ever-present anxiety that accompanies immoderation evaporates.  We realize that our fear, which grew out of a specific behavior, has contaminated every aspect of our lives.  And as we finally walk away from the food, the sex, the alcohol, the debt, the fill-in-the-blank, we leave our fear behind as well...We are no longer making up excuses for our reality....We find that when we do right, we fear no man.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tis the season...

...to be stressed out!

Don't get me wrong - I love this time of year.  And there are two kinds of stress - positive and negative.  But both are called STRESS for a reason!

This is the time of year when things get, as my best friend Lisa might say, insane in the membrane.  Aside from the obvious holidays, my family has a lot of milestones in November and December.  My big sister kicks off the season with her birthday on November 1st (right after Halloween, which you can also count if you put a lot of time and mental energy into your Halloween), then it's my anniversary with Marc on the 13th, then Thanksgiving, then my birthday on December 13th, his on December 15th, then before you know it it's Christmas and New Year's.

Whew.  I'm tired just typing that - and I wouldn't be surprised if I had left something out.

All of these days and events are happy, exciting, positive things.  I look forward to each and every one, but they come with a lot of planning, anticipation, preparation, and often involve travel.  I think this time of year can get so many people bogged down and zapped of their energy, aside from the major sugar high/crash we all get from the extra sweets of the season, is because our minds can get stuck in that anticipatory mode where we're always thinking about the future.  Or perhaps, a holiday party was stressful and you can't stop thinking about how it went.  It's a season of major highs and major lows, and as a result it can feel impossible to get anchored into the present.

To prevent what sometimes feels like inevitable burnout this time of year, go on the offensive - go through your calendar and carve out 10 minutes a day to chill.  Not to zone out in front of the TV (although I'm not denying the fact that that can be an EXCELLENT way to destress), not to get lost in the labyrinth of facebook, but to put yourself into a restorative yoga pose.  Or to just lie down on a mat or on your bed, whether you want to call it savasana or a catnap.  Maybe write in your journal for ten minutes to make a little space in your chattery mind.

If it's one of those days where you're truly swamped from the time you get up to the time your head hits the pillow, find little moments to take a mini break.  A 3 minute meditation on your breath while waiting in line to purchase gifts can make a surprisingly big difference in your mood, or maybe try taking 5 minutes to throw your legs up the wall while your coffee or tea cools down and your bread is in the toaster.  Whatever it might be, make yourself a priority, and notice if you feel like you're being run ragged.

The last suggestion I'd have is to comb through your to-do list and look for anything you can possibly eliminate.  I'm no fan of procrastination, but because of that I often overwhelm myself with tasks that really aren't that urgent.  This season, with all the gift buying, travel plans, party plans, holiday cards, et cetera, to-do lists that are full on a normal day can often balloon to an unmanageable size.  Give yourself a break and look for things that can be done another day - or even another month!

I'm hoping to snag a bit of each of these suggestions for myself for a more peaceful, less mentally frantic holiday season.  The most important thing is to remember the greater meaning behind all of these special events and occasion.  Focus on the positive aspects and remember, above all, to have fun!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pranayama Power: Kapalabhati Breath

The discovery of so many different kinds of breathing techniques was one of the coolest things about my 200-hour teacher training for me.  The most commonly taught, ujayih or victorious breath, was something I was familiar with, since about 90% of my yoga teachers cued that breath to be maintained throughout the class as we moved through our asana practice.  You may be familiar with it too even if you don't recognize the name - it's simply a deep inhalation and exhalation with a slight constriction of the throat.  It makes what some teachers call a "deep ocean sound," and others (me) call a Darth Vader sound.

Rarely, in my classes in beautiful ol' Virginia or Florida, we would do another technique, like slow three-part breath.  Perhaps the teacher would throw out the Sanskrit name, and I'm sure it went in one ear and out the other.  Now, however, I regularly reference back to my old manual to review all the different techniques (and pretty sounding names) we learned.

My number one favorite is Kapalabhati, or Skull-Shining Breath if you want the equally awesome English name for it.  I've been practicing this technique every morning as part of my daily meditation practice to help clear away some of the chattery cobwebs of my brain and help my body sink into stillness.  It works like a charm.

To start, you want a steady and comfortable seat.  Normally I'm just in a regular cross legged seat for my personal practice, but whenever I teach kapalabhati in a class I usually have my students sit in supported virasana as the picture demonstrates.  I think this is the best seat for the practice because you're higher up, your hips are both level, and your spine can be taller than if you're just in cross legged (even if you're sitting up on a blanket).  You can also just sit in any chair where you can place your feet flat on the ground and your spine straight.

Take a deep breath in and a full breath out.  Start to pull your navel in towards your spine as you exhale, but keep your spine tall - resist the urge to hunch forward or slouch.  Imagine there's a string tied to the top of your head pulling up gently up to keep that length.

Take one more deep breath in, and exhale all the air out, as much as you possibly can.  Once you're empty, take a small breath in (think "halfway inhale" or even a third) and begin sharp, rapid exhales, bringing your navel and your lower abdomen in towards your spine.  The inhales will happen naturally - the focus in kapalabhati is entirely on the exhale.  One of my teachers this week taught this in class (the day I decided this would be my blog topic for the week, in fact) and she often calls out "Tap, tap, tap, tap," both to help us find a rhythm and to also keep our focus on the physicality of our exhale.  We imagine that our navel is tapping the spine, that it's giving our internal organs a vigorous massage.

Those are the basics of this practice.  You can do it for one minute, you can do one round or three, you can even slow down the breath so it's not quite so rapid.  Or you can play with the speed and see what works for you.

My favorite part of kapalabhati, though, comes when you add breath retention in between rounds.  For example, after I finish my first round (I don't time myself necessarily but I'd guess I go for about a minute each round) I exhale all the air out again, and then take a deep breath in and hold my breath for as long as I comfortably can, trying to relax my body around the holding.  If you're familiar with moola bhanda, uddiyana bhanda, and jalandhara bhanda, I engage them.  If not - well, that's a whole other post!

Once I've had enough of the holding, I take one more tiny sip of air in, release the locks, and slowly breathe out, then either returning to normal breath or taking a couple more rounds.

I love this practice because it never fails to leave me with a tangible, physical feeling of peace and stillness.  It's really remarkable.  The first time I experienced it (with the breath retention), it was mindblowing. This is a great breath to do to help wake yourself up or calm yourself down (although it's usually the practice of retention during and after that brings about calm).  I also love it because it's actually a great way to tone the abdominal muscles.  Drawing the muscles in close to the spine does you a lot more good than a typical crunch or sit-up.

As far as the subtle body goes, this practice is very much associated with the 3rd Chakra, Manipura.  Manipura is located at the solar plexus, and is associated physically with our abdomen and our digestive fire.  It's also associated with fear, courage, power, steadfastness, and is considered the store house of our emotions.  The element associated with it is, not surprisingly, fire.  Kapalabhati is a great way to stir up the fire, or agni, of the third chakra, but if you're already feeling pretty fiery, it could be overkill.

 Because of the drawing in of the belly and the rapid movement, yogis also categorize this as a highly detoxifying breath.  Good news with Thanksgiving around the corner!

Try integrating a few rounds of kapalabhati with your regular yoga practice and notice how it makes you feel.  With the winter upon us, this is a great warming practice to carry with you throughout these next few months.  Post your comments and feedback to let me know how it went!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beginnings

Sometimes the first five to ten minutes of a yoga class are my favorite.  Don't get me wrong, savasana is the icing on the yoga cake, but there is an amazingly simple joy in the practice of simply sitting, being reminded to pay attention to your posture and breath, and pulling yourself back from the past and the future to enjoy the present moment.

Not every yoga class starts this way - some teachers like to jump right in from standing to sun salutations, others will start in child's pose or even from savasana, which is always yummy.  However, I do find that a majority of the classes I take - and all of the classes I teach - start in that comfortable, meditative seat.

Especially lately, I've really started taking my time with the beginning of the classes I teach.  I'm mostly teaching Prenatal these days, with a few random vinyasa classes or privates thrown in every couple of weeks.  I have my students come to a cross legged seat, often sitting on a blanket to slightly raise the hips.  I teach them to rock their pelvis back and forth, or even in a circle, making the movements smaller and smaller until they find just the right position so that their sit bones are firmly rooted into the earth and that their lower back curve is present but not exaggerated.  I teach a slight drawing inward of the navel on the exhale, drawing together of the shoulder blades to open up the heart, and to slightly tuck the chin down while moving the back of the head back in space an inch or two.  (With all of us on our iPhones or reading on the subway, we tend to constantly lean our head forward these days)  Then once we're all snugly settled into our seats, the attention turns to the breath.

I take my time.  I cue little things, I take snippets from other teachers that I love and find effective, and I really want to make sure my students are as grounded and present as they can be in those first few moments before we start moving our bodies.

However, I've come to realize that in my own meditation practice that I always expected myself to just kind of jump into it.  I sit on my blanket, set the timer (I use the Insight Timer app on my iPhone - lots of different Tibetan bowl sounds.  It's a gentle way to come in and out), and boom - the search for peace or enlightenment or whatever it is begins.  A few weeks ago, I decided to add some pranayama (simply translated to breathing exercises, more literally translated to extension of the life force energy) to the beginning of my practice as a neat little switch to help calm my mind.  It certainly does help and provide plenty of other benefits, but I wouldn't take a moment before beginning to center myself, so I was still missing an important ingredient to my practice.  I think part of my tendency to rush into the practice is my eternal awareness of how much time I have - or don't have.  If I'm only going to meditate for 10 minutes, I better not waste a second!  I think I should start right away and hit the ground running, so to speak.

Now, I'm doing what I'm teaching in my adult classes - find my posture, scan my body for unecessary tension, and then relax into my breath and take my time. I always teach it and I always appreciate it in my asana classes, yet I almost never did it for myself!  It's a little crazy how long it took me to notice that.  One of my personal commandments is to "Treat myself as my best friend."  In this situation, I needed to treat myself with the same consideration as I treat my students.  Whether it's a seated practice or an asana practice, it's unbelievably beneficial to set the stage by spending a few moments grounding yourself in the here and now.

An issue like this on the mat is usually a good indication of a similar issue off the mat.  However, I'm usually pretty good about the beginning of things.  I'm not a procrastinator (about most things, anyway), I never had problems with the beginnings of papers in college, and I'm usually much more game to start a project than to complete one.

I searched a little longer, and the answer smacked me in the face.  I have a really hard time letting myself be a beginner.  I'm a fast learner in general, so when something takes me a little longer to integrate into my brain or body (or both, as with teaching yoga) it gets very frustrating.  There's a huge amount of vulnerability into letting yourself be a beginner, and I've learned over the years that it's very hard for me to be vulnerable in that way. 

I recently completed an absolutely incredible teacher training - Yoga Mom, Buddha Baby taught by Jyothi Larson.  It empowered me to address the specific needs of the post-partum woman in yoga class along with baby yoga songs and exercises.  I've been looking forward to being a Mom & Baby teacher ever since I found out the class existed, but I have to still remember to take my time and be patient with myself as I develop my teaching style for this very unique class.  I'm trained and qualified - and I am also a beginner.  Especially in New York, where the atmosphere is often so competitive, it sometimes feels like you have to keep any "beginner" status a secret.  How silly is that?

Experience is my best teacher for everything, and I have to accept that that experience will involve some mistakes and imperfections.  If this were my best friend having these feelings or frustrations, I'd tell them to take their time and be patient with themselves, and that, most importantly, it's a part of life to keep learning and to be a beginner at something.  Respecting the beginning goes a long way toward sustaining you throughout your practice - whatever it might be.