Sunday, September 28, 2014

Yoga Month: Mind Your Mid-line

Mind your mid-line. Balance brings with it the illusion of steadiness. The constant energy of extension in both directions, brings awareness to the mid-line of your body. When balancing, the key is core strength. Consider the core of an apple that runs through the middle of the fruit. Your core is actually the mid-line that runs through the entire center of your body. When you are balancing, notice the differences on each side, and where is your center. For the last blog of yoga month,  I have chosen to highlight the balance postures from the Bikram series of poses here: 

1. Bikram Chair Pose is extra challenging, for it requires the yogi(ni) to elevate onto the toes,  lowering the hips, while maintaining a straight spine. The key is squeezing the knees together at the midline. 

 2. Eagle Pose is amazing for the lymphatic system, and the key here is to squeeze everything at the center as much as you can. This targets all of the major joints in the body. You will notice that the more you squeeze, and involve yourself in the pose, the easier it is to do.
 3. Extended Leg, Head to Knee pose. This requires immense focus and flexibility. Notice if one side is different than the other. We all have imbalances in our bodies, and it's important to find out where they are. You may not ever be fully balanced, yet you can work with what you've got. Imagine straight lines of energy reaching out through and energizing your legs.

 4. Dancer's Pose. This Pose looks effortless, yet the key is to press the top of the foot into the back hand as hard as you are reaching forward. It's the opposition that will create the relationship of balance.
 5. Warrior 3. The gazing point and breath are key here. Again, reaching equally forward and back will create a dynamic, energetic pose. The stillness of the gaze will calm and focus the mind, while the breath gives you the connection to steadiness. The mind is not reliable, your breath is.
 6. Tree Pose. What better way to explore and become conscious of the midline, than palms pressing together in prayer. This is vital to the pose and to your stability.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Balance: Don't be afraid to Fall!

From SELF Magazine 2006. It helps to have a friend support you. Two Trees.
As Fall literally scatters its leaves in my path, I am reminded that yoga is a reflection the of what it means to fall. We can use this analogy when in a balance pose, like Tree Pose....finding the relationship of opposites is the key:extension as we reach, while rooting into gravity's earthbound pull is the first lesson. Inevitably, as we grow and this posture becomes easy, it is natural to want to stretch ourselves further. Turn the gaze upwards, or maybe even close the eyes and take a leap of faith into the dark! Notice in the pose, when you have no point of focus, it is much harder not to stand steady, and fall you may! In fact, the point is to fall!

Stowe Vermont on a Sunday walk.
Life goes in cycles, the seasons change and the leaves turn beautiful colors only to die leaving naked branches. Uncovered, exposed, bare... inviting renewal. How many times in life have I stood in perfect balance? For a moment it feels like I have it all together. My personal and professional life are in sync and bearing fruit, my family is running along smoothly, there is money in the bank, food on my plate and my body is healthy. This lasts for about a moment. I am extending myself with a fixed and relaxed gaze, consciously breathing when WHAM! SPLAT! I have fallen again. I begin anew, yet the experience I have gained during the fall remains in my muscle memory. I try again. The fall has given me new insight and experience.

 If there is one gift balance poses have given me, it is the willingness to fall out of a pose. Had I not fallen multiple times in Crow Pose, I would never have found that delicate balance of strength and relaxation that brings me the steadiness I have today. "Let's try hollowing the chest and rebounding off of the mat this time." "Let's try setting the gaze forward." "Let's try perching upon a brick to get the knees a little higher upon the triceps." Once I had mastered that to the best of my ability, how can I play and get out of my head enough to jump back right into a low Plank from Crow?

I am not a person who enjoys falling. I prefer to feel in control and masterful. Letting go of my beautiful leaves that I have watched sprout and grow feels like a loss, especially when they shimmer in crimson and gold just before the Fall! I am challenged cyclically to watch and be in relationship to nature, so that I can become like a tree.Yoga is a place where I can practice what I must learn in life. Patience. Persistence. Letting Go...and most importantly: "Don't be afraid to fall!"

Why not go down stream. Learning to let go and Fall....

Monday, September 15, 2014

Eight Limbs: Simplified

Many of us know the physical practice of yoga, commonly referred to as "asana". Traditional yoga engages more than just our physical body, but is an eightfold path. These guidelines are aspirational and something to keep in mind as you bring the physical practice of yoga off of the mat. I observe myself through the lens of these guidelines and find myself falling off balance, practicing imperfectly all the time. I know where to go to reset myself. Just as my pose may not perfect in one session, neither is my mind or spirit, but with my gaze is set in the right direction, over time I find my spiritual alignment and my energy moving fluidly with practice. 

Here is a simple breakdown of the eight limbs:

  1. Yamas: This is like the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Practice nonviolence, being truthful, not stealing, restraint, and noncovetousness.
  2. Niyama: This is spiritual hygiene. Embody: cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self study and surrender to spirit. 
  3. Asana: This is the physical practice: "Your body is your temple". We learn concentration and discipline. This is the one I am really good at!
  4. Pranayama: Breathing exercises. The mastery of breath control is so important. The breath is the bridge from the mind to the body, and is the pathway of the emotions. When we gain mastery of the breath, we strengthen the mind and learn to detach from the emotions in a healthy way. 
  5. Pratyahara: Detachment means that we observe, but pull our focus inward so that outward circumstances are not the basis for our contentment. "It's an inside job".
  6. Dharma: This is our spiritual purpose. We learn to detach from our thinking nature, by learning one pointed focus. This may mean stopping the mind for a moment.
  7. Dhyana: A sustained period of concentration when the mind stops.This is very advanced and comes with practice. It comes from regularly sitting.This is the one that  I must remind myself to practice imperfectly. Like any muscle, it strengthens with consistency. 
  8. Samadhi: Awakening! This can be translated in so many ways. Enlightenment is beyond time and space. If you could pull far away out of time/space, body/ are already awakened. The ultimate moment of bliss is available to all. 
While these guidelines may seem lofty, when we look at life through this lens, we can always return to good, clean living. When we fall off, we always have a place to which we can return. This is the yoga.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Yoga Month!

Yoga practitioners have chosen to celebrate yoga in September. Since yoga is best used as a daily practice, I promote its importance to your health and well-being all year long. If you haven't incorporated yoga into your routine yet, this is a great month to give it a try. Since there are a variety of  styles, I encourage you to try several different types until you find the one that works for you. Yoga balances your body and can support you in the ways you need.

Yin Yoga: This style of yoga is slower. The poses are held longer and is passive. The focus is on allowing the tendons and ligaments to stretch. This is a good style for those who are very tight or for those who have a very active exercise regime, for it will balance the muscle conditioning.

Kundalini Yoga: This style is based on moving the life force energy through the body with active breathing and movement exercises. Many of these yogis adopt a yogic lifestyle and your teacher may wear all white and a turban. Great exercises for energizing and moving energy and is for the open minded and open hearted.

Vinyasa Flow Yoga: This Hatha Yoga style connects the breath and movement in the dance of Sun Salutations, and sequences of poses strung together with the Sun Salute or Vinyasa. It's great for people who like movement. It's terrific for overall conditioning and toning and is the cardio version of yoga.

Hot Yoga: This is an offshoot of the Bikram series which is a series of set poses done in a heated room. Bikram style can be great for people who like doing the same set routine daily. This series does not require much upper body strength, so may be a good option for those with upper body injuries. Hot Yoga has taken the heated room aspect of Bikram Yoga, but varies the poses. This can be great for those who love to sauna or sweat. It creates a feeling of difficulty without too much complexity.

Restorative Yoga: Uses props and allows the body to be completely supported and relaxed, which enables the nervous system to restore itself. This is like nap time. You will never feel more relaxed than post-restorative class. I highly recommend.

Iyengar Yoga: This style of yoga focuses on proper alignment and uses props to allow this alignment. This will open the flow of energy in the body to be free. Iyengar was considered the father of Western yoga. I would like to pay my respects to B.K.S. Iyengar, who passed away in August at age 96. When I was a child, my father found the book Light On Yoga and passed it along to myself and my brother. Certainly Iyengar was a model example of yoga as a way of life.

"Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure that which cannot be cured."
~ B.K.S. Iyengar
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Monday, September 1, 2014

The Healing Benefits of Herbs

We know that herbs and spices give our meals flavor, but these home grown plants have natural healing powers. For instance, did you know that cinnamon is an anti-oxidant that fights inflammation, heart disease and can help with Diabetes as it increases insulin levels? Or that mint stimulates bile acid in the liver as well as provides the body with Vitamin C, shown to prevent cancer growth?

Even these simple, everyday ingredients that many of us have on our shelves have healing properties:

  • Black Pepper counteracts stress from a high fat meal.
  • Red Pepper stimulates bile acid and boosts metabolism.
  • Turmeric has anti-aging effects on the brain, and may help prevent strokes.
  • Garlic reduces cholesterol levels, blood pressure and cancer growth.
  • Basil decreases platelet aggregation and blood clotting.
  • Rosemary may improve memory and lowers risk of strokes.
  • Oregano is packed with antioxidants and is an herbal antiseptic

Back in the '70's, my parents turned to diet and exercise as a means towards better health. Initially my father introduced us to a book called Food Is Your Best Medicine by Dr. Henry Bieler. Later we became macrobiotic. My mother's job was to read each of the family member's faces. This is called: physiognomy. You can tell much about someone's health by the face. Bags under the eyes can be related to the kidneys. Swollen mouth or extra wet lips correspond to the intestines and digestion. The responsibility of the cook is that of the family doctor, modifying the cooking both seasonally, and for the individual needs of the family. Although it was an odd remedy, when I had a headache my mother brewed some bancha tea with a teaspoon of Tamari. My father's lower back pain was remedied with hot ginger compresses. It may have looked odd, but the results were remarkable. 

Today, it is the norm to look for the quick fix. Most of us have lives that require us to perform at the highest level at all times. There is very little time in our culture for the natural rhythms of life. The cycles rise and fall like the belly with the inhale and exhale of the breath. More sleep and rest, slowing down long enough to notice what the body really needs, regular regenerative exercise are all ways that we can prevent burn out and the need for a quick "cure" of the symptom. 

Perhaps your healing needs are much less daunting than you imagine. Your pharmacy may be growing in your own back yard Farmacy. To your health!