• Life Lessons From Yoga – Introduction

    I am dedicating the month of August to all the life philosophies I have learned from yoga.  I began practicing for fitness more than anything when I moved to Houston around 2005.  Since that time, my appreciation and understanding of yoga has grown considerably and I’m to the point I would like to share many of the wonderful things the practice has taught me about how to live.

    Like most people, I started yoga for the physical health benefits and, for that reason, I expected it to have only physical results.  What I didn’t realize is how profound of an effect yoga would have on my emotional and mental health as well.  It ushered forth realizations and helped me learn to be strong, tenacious and confident when those realizations brought me stress, pain, anxiety, or healthy fear.

    I also didn’t realize that yoga is a way to develop spiritually.  The asanas, or poses, subtly affect the body and allow transformations to occur, new ways of seeing things and growing.

    Read more

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #10

    Abandon your ego.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    One of the hardest things to get used to in yoga is that, unlike other physical activities, it’s not about coming to win, or to get the best time, or to stand out among the other students.  When we are on our mats, we are trying to look within, to focus our gaze, or drishti, on ourselves and improve from the inside out.  Sometimes the studio has mirrors to help you with your alignment but we aren’t using these mirrors to see how good we look (or don’t look) or how the other students are doing.  In fact, often times we’re instructed to focus only on ourselves and to respect the privacy of others.

    In some ways, it reminds of a concept in the historical fiction book, Shogun by James Clavell.  In that book (which is one of my favorite fiction books of all time), European sailors are shipwrecked in Japan around 1600.  They go through all kinds of transitions adjusting to the culture there and one of the things they have to get used are the thin rice paper walls and how the Japanese do not allow themselves to listen to the conversations they can audibly hear.  Learning to turn attention elsewhere like this brings great power of focus (it’s great for ADHD) and teaches us humility.

    Part of the reason we focus so hard on not focusing on anything in yoga is that the real work is going on inside of us.  As I mentioned in the other posts, you are learning to strengthen your weak parts and you are transforming yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.  It’s not a competition because we can’t always see or measure the million little ways in which we might be setting ourselves up for success.

    The other important thing about abandoning the ego is that no pose should ever hurt, as I mention in the previous post on listening to your body.  Injuries can occur when people become irresponsible by ignoring their body’s messages because they don’t want to appear like a weakling.

    Learning to abandon your ego can be a humbling experience in life.  Are there times you kept fighting in an argument even once you realized you were in the wrong because you didn’t want to lose face?  Are there things you could apologize for that your pride didn’t allow you to?  Or how many times have you hurt yourself or hurt others because you were trying to prove something?

    Every day, every breath could simply be bringing us to a better place.  We don’t need to do something medal-worthy to find this success.  We can prove it by way of the fluidity and lightness that honoring ourselves and respecting others brings us.

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons from Yoga: #9

    Listen to your body.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    In yoga we want to push ourselves every time we show up but we never want to do it to the point of pain.  There are a lot of poses you might see other people doing that look easy enough.  But if you try to twist right in to them, you risk damaging your body.  The people that are able to get in to those poses have probably been doing them for years, trying to perfect it day after day.  Chances are the first time they tried it, it wasn’t as easy as they’re making it look now.

    As I talked about before, yoga requires a combination of strength, flexibility, and balance of both the body and mind.  Sometimes the poses, or asanas, can be deceiving in that the things that look like they require flexibility actually require balance.  Or those that look like they require strength of the body actually require strength of the mind.  It takes a long time to summon what exactly the body needs to do to accommodate these poses.

    If you are taking your first yoga class, the instructor should tell you not to do anything that hurts.  Yes, sometimes we tremble trying to hold a pose ten seconds longer than is comfortable.  Sometimes we approach our edge and these are the ways that we grow mentally tenacious and strengthen whichever muscle we’re working, but that is different from overt pain.

    It is like this in life too.  There are so many times we don’t listen to our body, when we try to prove to ourselves or to the world how hardcore we are and we ignore our body’s message that we are pushing too far before we were ready.

    How may times have you ignored the crawly feeling a particular person gives you only to be hurt or disappointed by them later?  How often have you said yes to something, even knowing you were biting off more than you could chew?  How many times have you tried to prove how strong you were by staying up late to get everything done and look like a superstar only to find yourself absolutely exhausted the next day or completely burned out?  How many times have you tolerated a situation or lifestyle that gave you anxiety and ignored the warning signals when the life you want has started to veer off its tracks?

    Yoga has taught me that our body sends us messages and we shouldn’t ignore them.  Sometimes getting everything right takes years of interpreting just how to coordinate strength, flexibility and balance of body and mind to get everything how we want it.

    Namaste

     

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #8

    You might not know the story of others.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    In yoga, our goal is to be free of judgment, both of our selves and of others.  You might feel a particular way when you walk in to a yoga class but you have no idea what kind of day, week or life all the other yogis around you have had.

    Some people might have tight hamstrings and others might have über strong arms.  You might feel like you aren’t good enough because the yogi next to you is able to launch in to a handstand and hold it for twenty seconds while you are afraid to even kick up.  But maybe that person has been practicing handstand every day for 10 years, or maybe she was a gymnast in college.  Your tendency might look down on something who isn’t even trying, but maybe she just found out she’s pregnant.

    If you see someone overweight and unable to touch his toes, you might be witnessing the first part of their journey of transformation.  Maybe he has wanted to try yoga for years but was too intimidated to show up to class.  Or maybe he is recovering from an injury that benched him for months.

    Perhaps the person on the mat next to you is there for the first time since they experienced deep grief over a death or are coming to do yoga after a recent diagnosis that they or a loved one needs to begin treatment for cancer.

    We all have our strengths and we all have our weaknesses, and maybe one particular one is being highlighted at any one time.  Some days everything aligns and we might feel like the star of the class and sometimes we might look like the lazy or weak one if we’re recovering, having a bad day, or the class isn’t highlighting our strengths.

    Yoga reminds me that when we deal with people, sometimes it’s easy to forget in what context we might be intersecting their life.  Often times we just project our own way of assessing the world during a particular day and time on someone else.

    Can you think about this when a person honks and speeds around you in traffic?  How about the rude people you encounter on the phone after holding for 20 minutes?  Then there is the unfocused co-worker who has not been pulling his weight.  What about the insistent salesperson, the unyielding teacher, or the irritable mother?  What is their story and can you cut them some slack in case you found them on a bad day or bad year?  We might not understand the reasons they might be for acting the way they are.

    It’s a reminder to me to have some empathy for others, to give them the benefit of the doubt.  You never know when the day will come when you might need some support and understanding, some gentleness in judgment.

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #7

     If you keep your core strong, everything is easier.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    After years of practicing yoga, I learned a really simple trick that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been aware of before.  Any time you are struggling with a pose, it suddenly becomes easier as soon as you tighten your core.  This is especially so in balancing poses like Warrior III and standing back bends.

    Many classes will start with a few core exercises.  This usually garners a few grumbles and is part of the series where everyone feels justified to holler out in pain and give a groan of relief when it is finished.  Sometimes our instructors give a little comic relief saying that core works really lights up that area.  I guess it’s all a matter of how you look at it – is it pain or is it aliveness and progress?

    The reason these abdominal exercises are so instrumental in yoga though is because ever pose requires you to engage your core or at least be aware of what it is doing.  It should never really collapse or be abandoned.  It connects the top half to the bottom half and also protects the back.  It’s the core of your body but it’s also the core of your practice.

    It’s the same in life in that if we’re always aware of whom we are at our core, everything else is easier and stronger.  Like yoga as in life, it makes it much easier to find balance once we are aware of our center.

    I talked about this on my post about values.  If you can identify your top five or ten values and periodically assess them, it makes some of the big decisions in life easier and makes it more straightforward to prioritize on a daily and weekly basis.

    Are there areas of your life you feel like who you are is collapsing?  Do you ever feel like there are certain things you could improve on, or feel more confident in or increase your benefits from? You may want to try asking yourself how marrying your situation or decision with a tight inner core could be the final touch on bringing it all together for you.

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #6

    Don’t forget to breathe.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    One of the main components of yoga is the breath.  If you show up to a class and can’t do a single pose, you get a lot of the benefits by just breathing as instructed.  During yoga we employ an ujjayi breath, which is a deep rhythmic breath that engages the diaphragm.  We inhale through the nose with the mouth closed and held almost in a smile and then exhale by constricting the throat and breathing out through the nose. When the throat is constricted, we build energy as we exhale and control the breath and it makes a sound like the ocean.

    The reason breathing is so important during yoga is because it brings fresh oxygenated air to every cell in the body.  It is essentially a way to nourish and rejuvenate the body and to fuel it for the hard work we’re doing.

    The other reason we focus heavily on the breath is because breath is always in our life.  If we aren’t breathing, we are dead.  It’s something we can always call on during moments of stress or pain and remember the technique of how we turned our attention to our breath in yoga during a difficult pose.  The other thing about breath is that it is always NOW.  When we show up to yoga class, the purpose is to honor our body and to go in to kind of a meditative state.  It’s not to solve problems by thinking about the future or berating ourselves for past mistakes.

    The tendency in yoga class is to start with the breath and then, as we move in to harder and harder poses, we might sometimes realize we are holding it or breathing shallowly.  This same thing often happens in life.  Just when we need the breath to energize us most, we forget to use it.  It’s like how we might adhere to our good habits without really thinking about them and then, when a really hard part comes, we start giving up our usual mechanisms for staying alive and thriving.

    Have you ever had a panicky call from someone who is stuck in traffic and late?  What about someone who is in the middle of the worst part of a divorce or other life-altering event?  What about a child who is on the verge of getting a time out?  Often times we look at or talk to these people and the first things we do are to hold their arm, look in to their eyes and tell them to take a deep breath.

    It’s amazing how we can sometimes go minutes or even years during which we barely remember to maintain a deep constant breath in order to nourish ourselves to get through the difficult part.  In fact, these are the times we especially need it.

    Take a deep breath.  There…

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #5

    Wiping sweat only makes you sweat more.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    I have tried all different types of yoga and while my favorite is a good warm vinyasa (or flow) class, I have done a fair bit of Bikram yoga too.  This is the type of yoga people are often referring to when they talk about hot yoga.   It consists of the exact same series of 26 poses repeated in a specific sequence (which lasts 90 minutes) in a room heated to at least 105 degrees F and 40% humidity.  I spent a lot of time disliking this type of yoga but after doing it as my workday default since there is a studio right by my building, I began to recognize some really special things about it.

    One thing that characterizes Bikram is the strict obedience it requires.  In other types of yoga, you’re somewhat free to do your interpretation of a pose, to move however your body needs.  In other words, Bikram is sort of like military school whereas flow class is a little bit more like Montessori school. For that reason, it’s a great sequence for people who suffer from concentration and focus issues.  Bikram requires all of the class to move at the exact same time, and to look the exact same place in each pose.  There is only one water break suggested (though you can drink as necessary) and standing idly and toweling off the sweat that is pouring down your face and making your entire body slippery is discouraged.

    When you first start Bikram, the inability to constantly wipe away your sweat is one of the hardest things to get used to (just behind the heat).  At first, I didn’t understand why the instruction to be still instead of toweling off existed.  But then I came to realize it was for our own well-being.  Wiping away the sweat is pointless.  New droplets immediately appear within seconds of wiping so all that you’ve accomplished is taking your concentration and focus away from the present moment and expended energy you could have used in the pose.

    If you look up the reasoning behind heated yoga, most of it will refer to the physical reasons why it is so hot.  While these are valid reasons, I believe the real utility is something less obvious.  It’s a metaphor for life in that conditions are never ideal.  When you are in the studio for that 90 minutes, highly discouraged from leaving for any reason except extreme illness, you have to find ways to cope with the heat as the sweat pools around you and to continue to manipulate your body and maintain your focus.

    Are conditions ever ideal in life?  How many times do we say, “I’m going to start working toward that goal when…or “I’m going to have the talk with her when …” or “I’m going to settle down/get married/have kids when…” or “I’m going to pursue this dream when…”  When we do this, sometimes that perfect moment, that “when,” never comes.

    What if we worked at accomplishing the difficult task when the sweat was pouring down our face, stinging our eyes, and turning us bright red instead of expending the energy wiping away the sweat for a momentary reprieve? After the wipe, it is almost instantly borderline unbearable again.  How may “wipes” do we take in life?  What if we saved up the energy of ten wipes and just put it toward the task at hand in less-than-ideal conditions and completed it?

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #4

    Be mindful of when you’re doing something especially difficult to avoid something somewhat difficult.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    It was a sweaty flow class on a Tuesday night.  It felt like the studio was at dewpoint temperature and that big fat water droplets were going to condense straight out of the air and somehow find the one unsaturated spot on my body to stick to.  The thought of that water insulating my body and raising my core temperature just one more degree was unbearable.  My legs were exhausted from a weekend of running and biking and it felt like this class was targeting all of the big muscle groups that were already shaking with our very first chair pose.

    Once you’re in a class though, there is no way to defend your ego and explain to anyone that your legs were sore even before you came, that you’re not a weakling that likes to take the easy way out.  So you push yourself because it’s hard to shed your pride and you tell yourself that it’s good for you, that you need to learn to work through exhaustion.  You keep focused on how this will help you in your endurance training.

    So it keeps coming: chair pose, crescent warrior, Warrior I, Warrior II, and then the dreaded open side-angle pose.  The instructor gives suggestions.  For those students who want to “take it one step further” he offers going in to a bind (which I do, left thigh still burning) and finally he gives the word.  For those of us more “advanced students”, we can go ahead and move in to bird of paradise.  I finally see a reprieve and launch myself, letting my bird fly.  Bird of paradise is a difficult balancing pose that isn’t especially easy on the back but it sounded like the best thing in the world to take the pressure off my leg.  As I’m taking off, the instructor yells out, “How many of you went in to bird of paradise just to avoid side angle?”  Busted!  There are ripples of laughter around the room.  Apparently I’m not the only one who does my long runs on Sunday and then finally feels ready for a flow class again on Tuesday night.

    I’ve noticed this same thing when we are given the opportunity to go in to side crow from twisted side angle, or even given the opportunity to do headstand instead of crow.  These are poses I never would have thought in my wildest dreams when I began yoga that I would be doing as “cop-out” poses.  But you adjust to a new reality and sometimes you do these poses because you are seeking growth and finding your edge but sometimes you do them because you’re doing something really difficult to avoid the real problem, which is usually exhaustion.

    Could this be said about moving across the country or world because you want a fresh start instead of apologizing or owning up to your mistakes?  What about finding happiness elsewhere because you can’t have the difficult conversation with your spouse?  Are you doing something in excess like drinking, prescription drugs, shopping, or eating because you don’t want to deal with the uncomfortable feeling that comes from facing your problems?  Sometimes situations like this arise for other reasons, but it helps to be honest with yourself about what they are and why you might be choosing the hard route..  You may find you are avoiding a trying situation by doing something even more difficult.

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons From Yoga #3

    Think about death every day for happiness.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    It sounds a little bit counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  But I have heard this time and time again.  It is along those same lines of asking yourself how you’d live differently if you found out you only had a few months left.  Would you feel that you had lived life to the fullest?  Did you give it your all?  Do the people you love and care about know that they are appreciated? Did you accomplish everything for which you had potential and did you do it in the way you wanted?

    All yoga classes are finished off with savasana pose, otherwise known as corpse pose or final resting pose.  It is the last pose of the practice and the purpose of it is to integrate the benefits of the practice.  The pose is done by lying flat on one’s back with palms turned up, feet turned out and slightly open, with closed eyes.   Savasana is a time to just focus on how you feel and to allow the mind to go in to a deep meditative state.  The point is to relax, which sometimes makes it the hardest pose.

    Sometimes at the end of class, you’ll feel you didn’t have a very good class, like you just weren’t on it, or had mental or physical roadblocks that frustrated you.  Savasana is the time to let go of what was and what is to come later in the day or later in life.  It’s about accepting what is now and  feeling what the practice has done for your mind, body, and soul.

    It’s the same in the moment of death, I imagine.  We might not have done everything as well as we would have hoped but can we accept it for what it was and find peace?  Can we imagine how those in our sphere of influence benefited by us showing up and learning and doing our best?  The beauty of yoga is that after practice is over,  we do have the opportunity at a new beginning and to make our world a better place.

    I guess everyone thinks about something different during savasana and the point is to not really think of anything, but I actually have a bit of a ritual I do during this pose.  I physically leave my body, allowing the support of the earth to regenerate me physically and emotionally.  Mentally I take a trip, which fortunately for my imagination, happens to be on a unicorn with a heated saddle.  I ride my unicorn through the air among the treetops and all my favorite places in the world (real or imagined) and I try to drop in on each person I love or want to send a particular healing energy to that day.  Often times it may be a person who is making my life difficult.  I figure they need this love the most.  Many times this results in tears streaming down my face and I don’t care.  Savasana helps remind me that when my time comes, I know I have checked in to see how me living my life to the best of my ability might possibly be making the world a brighter and more loving place.

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons From Yoga #2

    Usually the pose that is hardest for you is the one you need the most.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    Almost everyone has poses they love and poses they dread.  I know the one that I dread during every class is triangle (as it’s called in Bikram and Baptiste) or extended side angle, as it’s sometimes called.  I’m not sure what it is about this pose I can’t stand except that my hips just don’t really go the way they’re meant to.  It also impinges on my neck and forces me to squeeze my inner thighs together to prevent slipping but it never really seems to work too well because I’m also trying to rotate my thigh externally to maintain the hip position.  It just generally gets me frustrated and kind of makes me feel inept.

    So why is it most important that I keep doing this pose?  Because obviously I have tight hips, weak thighs and a gravely neck.  Recognizing that I need to work on all those things helps me pinpoint some of my shortcomings, both the physical, and the mental for keeping my cool and being tenacious during my annoyance with the pose.

    It is this exact same situation in life.  I have heard that a person won’t leave your life until they have finished teaching you something you needed to know.  It’s like having to deal with an infuriatingly slow person when you tend to think, talk, and move a mile a minute.  Maybe you were glossing over important details before or were lacking patience.  Or maybe you get stuck with a co-worker who issues particularly biting passive-aggressive comments.  Because you can’t just blow up at this person, perhaps your reaction and response to those comments will teach you how to deal gracefully with other haters in your life.

    Going in to these positions that you don’t like also teaches you where your edge is and how to breathe and work through situations that you find uncomfortable.  As I talked about in my risk and regrets post, if you’re not falling or stumbling, then you’re not really learning anything and not really pushing the boundaries on making yourself a better person.  If you’re always in the comfort zone, you won’t learn the necessary skills to push through when the going gets tough.  It’s usually then that growth opportunities or a chance to differentiate yourself come along.

    The funny thing about these poses we don’t like is that they often end up being the ones we love the most.  Certainly this can happen in life too, with people, places, and jobs.  Even if you don’t end up loving them, they probably do end up teaching you valuable lessons you are thankful for later.  I know I have become that way with toe stand.  It used to be so hard for me and I have now realized it was because I was not listening carefully, I was envisioning falling, and wasn’t focusing on the right spot…all perfect metaphors for what could happen to send your life awry.

    An example of how that happened to me about a place is that I had some of the most difficult years of my life in Houston and just when I thought I couldn’t stand to live here one year longer, my future husband, Chief, walked in to the restaurant I was eating at by myself.  I instantly knew we would spend the rest of our lives together before we even spoke.  Much of what had happened in the years leading up to that taught me what was necessary for a loving relationship that would allow me to blossom.  What if I had skedaddled from this place the second I felt like I couldn’t stand it anymore?  I’m so glad I hung in for that last uncomfortable moment and gave myself the opportunity to grow and find the best of things out of the worst of things.

    How could the hardest parts of your life be helping you identify your weaknesses and teaching you the most valuable lessons?

    Namaste