Monday, July 12, 2010

What are you cultivating?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend three afternoons with Robert Birnberg, yoga teacher and scholar of yoga texts. Robert taught me many things during his lectures, but something that really stuck with me was about joy. We are all seeking to have more sustained joy in our lives. In fact, we do everything that we do because we believe it will bring us more sustained joy. Yoga can do many things for us, but above all, it should bring us joy. How many times do you find yourself caught up in the alignment of the posture, or the tone of the instructor's voice, or the smell of the person next to you rather than paying attention to what you're cultivating throughout your yoga practice?

Most of us tend to rush through our lives with little regard for what affect our actions are having on our well being. We eat breakfast in our car, or at our computer along with our morning emails. We rush from one meeting or client to the next, scheduling friends and family into our calendars so that we remember to save time for them. Then we rush from dinner to yoga class, speeding through a vinyasa flow, and finally bring home a dinner prepared by someone else in a hurry. From there, we may eat in front of the television, exhausted from rushing and too revved up from the pace of the day to enjoy our food or those we're eating with.

Where is the joy?

These things may bring a sense of accomplishment, true; or create a standard to which we hold ourselves to daily. I have often based my sense of worth around how efficient I was in dealing with my day--how many tasks I accomplished, how many appointments I squeezed in, and how many postures I could fit into my asana practice. The problem with this type of standard, especially in yoga, is that it is not sustainable in the long run. The yoga sutras tell us that one important aspect of a yoga practice is that it is sustainable. How long can we expect to keep our hurried pace? Five years? Ten or Twenty? And when we realize that we can no longer go as fast, as long or as hard, how will we measure our self worth?

We live in a fast-paced world; we can't find a time machine back to 1950 or "the good old days," nor am I saying that we should. But we can learn to slow down enough to pay attention. We can take the time between or even during our activities--or in yoga, in our postures--to figure out and understand what we're cultivating in each activity, meeting, or obligation. If we start to notice that all we're cultivating at work is stress or boredom, then we may want to reevaluate our career choice and use yoga tools to find the confidence we need to make a change. If we notice that all we are cultivating in our yoga practice is the same frantic pace of the day, we may we need a different yoga class, a better instructor, or, most probably, to look at ourselves more deeply to try to understand why we can't find rest, healing or joy from our yoga.

Try this with your next yoga practice: Sit or stand quietly and let your mind settle on your breath. When the mind feels calm, think of something that brings you joy. You'll know you have the right thing because you'll have a big, sappy smile on your face. Don't judge what brings you joy--it could be a loved one, chocolate, watching your dog play, whatever. Feel the joy radiate from your heart center, and use your ujjayi breath to move the feeling into the rest of your body, until it's radiating from your core into every space of your body and even out into your aura. Begin your asana practice with this feeling in the body. Several times throughout your practice, come to stillness for just a moment with the hands at heart center: Feel the joy. Come back to the feeling of joy several times, and again at the end of your practice.

You can use this exercise with other emotions or states of being you would like to have more of, such as abundance, healing, love and compassion. Next time you step on your yoga mat, as yourself: "What am I cultivating?"

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Two weeks ago, I started working with an additional physical therapist, one who works with the mechanics of the spine. While her fingers were placed along the bony protrusions of the sacrum and vertabrae (the spinous processes) I stood and sat, arched and slouched. Diagnosis one: My pelvis is twisted to the left.

No kidding?!?!! That was interesting to learn and even more interesting to realize that I hadn't noticed it before. I had always had a much easier time twisting my torso to the left than to the right, which makes sense because when the pelvis is turned toward the left, it increases the range of motion in that direction. Twisting my torso to the right (to set up for Parsva Bakasana, for example) has always been more challenging. But range of motion wasn't the only place I could experience my twisted pelvis: when I stand with my toes on the same line, my right thigh is about 3/4 of an inch in front of my left thigh.

If that wasn't strange enough, let's move up the spine. The sacrum joins the pelvis at the sacroiliac joint. So while the sacrum may sometimes feel like a solid, unmoving protrusion of the pelvis, it is actually a joint that can tilt in four different directions: anterior right, anterior left, posterior right, posterior left. Because of the twist in the pelvis, my sacrum was twisted back the other way and anterior. When I stood with my feet hips-distance apart, toes lined up, and rolled my spine forward into a forward bend, my torso would get about half way to my toes and then sharply veer to the left. Talk about party tricks.

To reverse the twist in the pelvis, I started working to strengthen my right piriformis muscle (the muscle stretched in half-pigeon pose). When I went back a week later, my pelvis was still twisted, but my sacrum was now twisted anterior in the other direction. Which means that my sacrum is hyper mobile. Imagine someone with hyper mobile elbows or knees for example -- when they straighten their arm or leg all the way, it starts to bend the other direction (hyper extension; sometimes called double jointed). This, in a nut-shell, is hyper mobility, and all hyper mobility can put a lot of strain on the joint in question.

So what is the answer? Well, as yoga teaches, the answer is balance. When a very flexible person does yoga asanas, their challenge is to find their strength. For example, I've seen people with flexible backs and shoulders dumping into their armpits or shoulders during downward facing dog. Instead, they should try to create a long, straight spine, keep the ribs tucked into the body and find the strength in the core, shoulders, and legs. I've also seen students who are very flexible in the hips. During a lunge, it's easier for them to collapse into the hips, but rather, they should find the strength in the legs and lower abdomen by keeping the back thigh lifted and uddiyana bandha pulled in. For people with a hyper-mobile sacrum, like me, I have to learn to not compensate in my low back for areas in my body that are tight. For example, my shoulders are tight. When I raise my arms overhead in tadasana, I can't bring them all the way overhead while keeping my shoulders away from my ears . . . unless I arch my back and stick out my front ribs to compensate. I'm learning not to do that and like movements anymore.

I'm learning through my injury that, just as some people follow the idea of a perfect body or a perfect life, I had been following the idea of a perfect posture, one that mimicked pictures in the books. What I've learned is that my body is not ready for all versions of all postures, and that there is no such thing as one perfect posture. A better posture is one that is appropriate for the student and her or his body on that day. As the practice grows, so will the student and her or his body. As we say in yoga, practice makes practice. Practice doesn't, in yoga, make perfect.