Saturday, November 30, 2013

Back to the Blog: Never Hold Your Best Stuff

This is the story of how I became a real writer, quit my job as a real writer, and realized (again) that I will always be a writer so long as I am writing. For your sake (also, let's face it, I'm trying to keep the drama at bay), I'm going to keep it brief.

For the past few months, I have been writing a weekly column about yoga for an online magazine. The editor of said magazine had reached out to ask me to be a contributor after reading the yoga posts on my blog and I nearly up and died of happiness. Seriously, it was a close one and I actually cannot believe that I am still here and able to write to you today because I was nearly dead at the thought of it. I've wanted to be a writer since I could hold a pencil and couldn't believe that a Real Live Editor wanted to pay ME to write. In my head at this point, by the way, I am frantically trying to decide what would be the most sensible location to start my book tour. Anyhow, we got the paperwork sorted and eventually we were live and I was writing, a Real Writer, just like I always wanted to be.

I submitted my first piece like a proud parent, carefully crafting, uploading and triumphantly smacking that send button and was admittedly a bit taken aback to see it edited down significantly "for length" and published without my approval. I brushed aside that nagging stinging feeling, told myself that it was just a matter of getting used to having an editor, that she was just doing her job, which was true. You guys were reading it and liking it! So that was fun, and I decided would get used to it - on to the next. The second piece was also sliced and diced and shortened, as was the third. The frustration built as I struggled to convince myself that the points I had included in the pieces were unimportant, knowing I didn't believe it to be true. And again, positive feedback, and again I swept the hurt under the rug.

After a thorough round of editing, I found the fourth piece to be completely unrecognizable in meaning and in tone. It was published after I forbade and even tearfully begged the editor not to do so, lest they publish sensationalist fluff under my name. This, of course, was the instant where I could choose to either throw a temper tantrum at the overt unfairness and (my opinion) horrendous editing and quit in an explosive show of fireworks, or choose to do and see and say and be something else.

It was tough, but I ended up going with option B and kindly explained that it was a liability to my career as a yoga teacher (ummm... also as a WRITER) to have my words edited and published without my approval. And that I would like to be released from my contract, please and thank you. And they agreed to, very graciously, and that was that.

Only that wasn't that, because I got all kinds of really nice feedback from my circle of friends, asking me to continue writing. So I am going to keep doing these posts as my schedule allows, trying to bring you an asana of the week (or some other yoga tidbit on a weekly basis) here on my own blog, my own little chunk of the tubes where I always have been, and always will be, a Real Writer.

I've reposted the four pieces here on the blog in their original versions, for your viewing pleasure.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga, Injury and YOU (this is the one that caused all the trouble)
The Warrior Poses, and Why They are Cool
Chaturanga: Seriously, You Can Do It
Downward-Facing Dog: A How-To

I'm also sharing this article, because it was sent to me by a friend as I was writing this post. If that ain't the universe trying to tell me something, I don't know what is. The late Peter Kaplan, on writing - from Clay Felker's obituary tribute.

There were Felkerian adages:
1. Never hold your best stuff.
2. Put something shocking at the top of the page.
3. Women are the best reporters.
4. Point of view is everything.
5. Personal is better.
6. Never hold your best stuff.

I will no longer be holding my best stuff. And I am going to be the filter, because I am fully capable of deciding what's good. And that's all I have to say about that.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga, Injury and YOU

This article was originally posted on TheKnow on Nov 8, 2013, in an edited format.

The New York Times put out an article earlier this week showing that yoga can be seriously detrimental to the body, causing severe pain to the hips of fairly serious female yogis. My social media feed blew up more or less immediately as all my peeps started to rabble and grumble and several friends with hip issues swore off yoga forever. Three of my friends emailed the article to me directly – "What do you think about THIS, yoga-face?" – people all up in arms, because the whole thing is supposed to help you live forever and whatnot.

So, fine. I am not a 20-year yoga practitioner; I am not a doctor. I am but a speck in the universe with no fancy data or degree. I AM, however, a yoga teacher (and the owner of a pair of very stubborn hips) and as I've been encouraging you to explore your own practice and truly believe you should continue to do so, I feel like I should respond. So here's what I think.

This all seems like an inevitability. And kind of obvious. Blerg. Depressing but true. Hear me out, if you would.

Yoga has been widely adopted as a hot, hot piece of the get-fit pie in Western cultures. Here in America in particular, the word lends to images of bending and twisting and sweating in stretchy clothes on colorful rubber mats. I am a large proponent of colorful paraphernalia. People seriously love this version of yoga. It is approachable and super fun! High fives for everyone, because yoga can be such an incredible force towards the good, and if desire for fitness and a LuluLemon sports bra is the way in, then I'm all for it. However... a tiny, gentle reminder this isn't exactly the intention, nor the promise, of the practice.

Yoga, as defined by the Yoga Sutras (the oldest recorded yoga text), is this and only this: we become whole by stopping the mind from turning things in the wrong way.

Translation: the practice of yoga is that which helps the sadhaka, or practitioner, to clear away the mental muck and see some real truth, to see the true Self.

Quoi? What about the handstands?

The asana are one limb (out of eight) of the yogic path to enlightenment. The other seven limbs are about discipline, breath and meditation work and definitely do not mention anything about handstands. The asana practice may be a gateway drug to a happier, healthier life, but it is not, on its own, the yoga.

The asana practice is a physical purifier, essentially - it was designed to create a healthy body, as well as to move energy from all over your body into your central channels so that your enlightenment potential is tip-top and you're set up to sort out that chitta vritti, or twisty-turny mind-stuff, without bloating or a sore knee getting in the way. It is definitely not intended to be practiced in a silo. Certain traditions don't even recommend attempting the asana until your meditation is in a good place, because let's face it, our brains are kind of a mess and the asana is a grueling practice requiring acute mental sharpness. Which brings me back to the hips thing.

Truth is, the majority of American yogis are not practicing eight limbs. And they are so important. But, I mean, right? Probably not. Four days out of five, I am also a "probably not." This doesn't makes us bad people; it's just the reality of the busy-bee culture. However, it is likely the lack of attention to those seven less-glamorous limbs that makes modern yogis susceptible to injury.

Three reasons why:

1. The asana are HARD. The practice as a whole is meant to be hard, so as to burn away the gunk and purify the body from the inside out. IT IS SUPER HARD. Do not be fooled by the cute outfits.
2. You are a unique snowflake and not every pose works exactly the same way on every body.
3. We have eyeballs and like to compete with the people around us, because, who knows. (hint: it's that mind stuff from earlier)

Because the majority of us are not working on our mind-stuff as per the other seven limbs (which might help us away from a quest for physical perfection), we are likely always pushing ourselves harder than makes sense for our bodies. If your brain is twisting your perceptions around, you're not likely to be listening to your body for the subtle cues that something isn't right. Also, you're likely to be attempting to out-handstand Red Yoga Pants next to you for no real reason other than your need to be the winner.

Even if it's just the tiniest bit harder because Red Yoga Pants is a total show-off, even if your left hip is only off by the tiniest of smidges in your Warrior I, this is the kind of shit that will wear on your body over time, guaranteed. Have you ever practiced blindfolded? It FEELS different, and I can guarantee you that your poses look different because you are more likely to be honoring your body and making the modifications, however slight, that make sense for you. This doesn't mean avoiding any and all discomfort, but it does mean taking a quick scan of that discomfort and categorizing it as safe and endurance-building tension versus pain. Always, always back off of anything that is causing pain! It might be a tiny tiny pain, but it is your red flag that something is not right. The poses were designed for and by people who were on a journey to clean their minds and who were listening like hell to everything their bodies were saying. They were avoiding injury like the plague because injury would only hinder their ability to achieve enlightenment, which was the only goal of the whole thing.

Now, if you're practicing asana three to five times per week and the idea of a yogic path is a bit much for you, that makes you an athlete. For real. Go you! Because yoga makes you feel good and involves soft lighting and emotional music and sometimes maybe makes you cry, it often gets dumped into the 'soft lady workouts' bucket. Do not be deceived. As mentioned above, this shit is for real. It is bodyweight resistance training, it is a serious endurance workout, it is incredibly hard and super strenuous. A baseball pitcher who pitches for an hour 3-5 days per week, if he or she is not SUPER careful, might end up with a sore rotator cuff that needs reconstruction in ten years. Nobody would argue that that person is an athlete, and nobody would be surprised about the sore rotator cuff. Why is this any different? Is it the pants?

Do not, under any circumstance, let society or your twisted mind-stuff tell you that you are not an athlete. You are, totally and completely. Even if you ARE on the eightfold path, you're still an athlete. Be careful with your body. It is your vessel! And you are stuck with this one for the time being – you want to keep it feeling good.

Please keep practicing. Please look into the rest of it, if it piques your interest at all, because it is kind of the majority of the thing and will improve your asana practice, guaranteed. Above all else, do what works for you, and leave the rest, but do so from an educated perspective, keeping your own best interests (and those of your body) in mind.

That is all I have to say about that.

The Warrior Poses, and why they are cool.

This article was originally posted on TheKnow on Nov 1, 2013, in an edited format.

Photo Credit

Hey there pretty hero-friends! The asana of the week is virabhadrasana, otherwise known as the warrior poses (last week was chaturanga, and we hit up adho mukha the week prior). We are going to do things a bit differently this week, because the warriors are the actual coolest and I want to tell you the backstory prior to breaking things down.

Okay? Okay.

Quick pause here, because, um. I know. It is now week three, and we are still not on scorpion. Two things: A. slow your roll, toots, we're getting there, and B. this isn't gymnastics - you're not being judged on degree of difficulty, or at all. Yoga is living in the now and the now is the warrior series. So calm down first and then get excited because you are honestly going to love this.

In Sanskrit (respect!): Virabhadrasana I, II & III
Pronunciation: vee-rah-bah-DRAH-sah-nah

Vira, meaning hero
Bhadra, meaning friend (in this context)
Asana, meaning pose, posture, seat

Virabhadrasana actually translates to hero-friend pose, which probably makes very little sense if you don't know the story. We usually call them warrior one, two and three - referring to Virabhadra, actually, which was the name of an extremely bad-ass warrior, hence the translation.

Why these poses?
The warrior poses are foundational postures for any standing sequence, so they come up a lot and it's nice to feel like you've really got them nailed. Because they are plays on balance and involve quite a bit of bodyweight resistance, they are fabulous for building core strength. And, despite being weighted to one side or the other, they are built around around a drawing of everything into your center, which is what it's all about.

The Origin Story
Because you are at yoga and not spin class, you're actually studying an ancient philosophy that's all tied up in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions and all the stories that go with. Most of the really important stories find their way into the practice in one way or another and manifest in the poses, and then those poses ended up with Sanskrit names that nod to the stories. Virabhadrasana is one of those poses that gets a cool story. The stories are fun, sure, but they also can help you to channel the energy that was intended to accompany the pose - this being a brilliant example.

The story goes that Lord Shiva the Destroyer and Shakti the creator, the sacred feminine, were being shunned by Shakti's father, who didn't approve of their union. On this particular occasion, Shakti's dad throws a huge celebration for the whole town and bans Shiva and Shakti from attending. They are super pissed/totally shocked and completely infuriated at having been left out. Shakti finds a way past the guards and busts into the party, throws a huge tantrum, and essentially commits suicide by throwing herself into a great fire when her dad refuses to change his mind. Normal.

Shiva is so incredibly devastated when he hears what happens that he starts rending his hair, ripping out dreadlock after dreadlock and from his dreadlocks is born mighty Virabhadra, our hero-friend. Normal. This great warrior and Shiva-incarnate is then sent to the party to avenge Shiva's one true love.

This is where it gets good. Also, relevant.

It is said that Virabhadra arrived at the party not through a door, but by rising up from the ground in a cloud of smoke, two daggers clenched in his raised hands.

Photo Credit
He saw Shakti's father from across the room and set his gaze on his target,

Photo Credit
And struck, cutting off Shakti's dad's head - attacking the ego, so to speak.

Photo Credit
And then Shiva kind of shows up and reabsorbs Virabhadra, Shakti is reborn and everything is cool again. Shakti’s dad gets to live with a goat-head in service of Shiva for eternity. THE END.

In sum, Virabhadra was a super bad-ass warrior who was born out of a dreadlock and killed a guy to avenge the loss of a lover, like some sort of Hindu Romeo superhero. WITH DAGGERS. In his two hands. The very hands that you are emulating when you're doing the warrior poses. Think about that next time you're in your warrior I and then just try to justify having limp warm lettuce fingers and wet noodle arms.

Stay tuned for the breakdown - ! All three warriors, coming up soon. And then yes, for Pete's sake, we'll move on to something more interesting.

Chaturanga: seriously, you can do it.

This article was originally posted on TheKnow on Oct 25, 2013, in an edited format.

Chaturanga dandasana is the asana of the week! Wild applause! Last week, downward-facing dog.

I see you cringing over there, in the blue shirt. Never fear, brave yogi, you're definitely in the majority. For the most part, the students I encounter seem to either A.) have their chaturangas totally nailed or B.) they're powering through each one mega-awkwardly because chaturanga makes zero sense to them whatsoever and fear of the thing is literally making them sweat. I see very little in-between.

It's definitely a tricky one - I think we've all been there. I actually had this sweet old lady instructor once at a fancy not-to-be-named gym yoga class who STOPPED THE WHOLE CLASS to come over to me and ask me what I was doing (um, chaturanga, natch) and fix me in front of everyone (what?!) and I STILL didn't really understand what was going on with chaturanga until I got to that section of my teacher training, three years later.

If you're banging out chaturangas left and right, then carry on, good Sir or Madam, and may hasta banda be with you. If you're in the second bucket, more of a 'what in the actual name of Ganesh is this pose supposed to be' bucket, then buckle up and get ready to join group A. Not only does chaturanga no longer make me want to cry, but now it's one of my all-time faves. Getting this one into a more solid place will change your whole vinyasa experience*, I swear it. Plus, triceps!

In Sanskrit (respect!): Chaturanga Dandasana
Pronunciation: chah-tuhr-UNG-gah dahn-DAH-sah-nah

Catur, meaning four
Anga, meaning limb
Danda, meaning staff
Asana, meaning pose, posture, seat

Chaturanga dandasana translates to four-legged staff pose, with the 'staff' portion referring to the spine. Sometime also called a low plank (versus a high plank - arms straight).

Typically follows: plank, ardha uttanasana (half-forward bend / flat back)

Why this pose?
Chaturanga dandasana is an essential piece of the vinyasa flow puzzle - you'll move through this pose many times in each and every class. It's a strenuous, cleansing pose and, if done improperly over and over, can start to be a bit wearing on the delicate little tendons around your shoulders, which isn't good. It's an important one to get right.

Breaking it down
Start in your high plank pose - shoulders over wrists, wide fingers, ribs knitted together, core zipped up tight - strong straight long line from head to heels. Big breath in here, filling all the way up.

This is where it starts to get weird. Listen carefully - as you exhale, keeping your arms tucked in at your sides, move your chest FORWARD and DOWN until your elbows are bent at 90 degrees ONLY. Seriously, do not bend past 90 degrees. That is a right angle. Like in a square.

Because you stopped at 90 degrees like a champ, your forearms are still totally perpendicular to the mat.

Your back is still 100% as straight and strong as it was in your plank, because you've got your ribs zipped up and your head in the game. Gaze to the ground 6-10 inches in front of your fingertips.

Your upper arms and elbows are superglued to your ribs. No chicken wings!

Because you moved forward, you are now kind of towards the tips of your toes, which sets you up perfectly to roll onto the tops of your feet in just a minute here.

Exhale entirely, and then press into your palms, fingertips and the tops of your feet to find your upward-facing dog as you inhale.

Exhale back, downward-facing dog.

This whole thing will feel weird for the first few times, guaranteed, but once you can get this form logged into your muscle memory you will be so gravy. Go do 50 chaturangas, or however many it takes to do this with your eyes closed. Literally, once you've got it, try doing it with your eyes closed. Take a second to wear the pose, feel it in your bones and breath and make that the focus, rather than what it looks like. And then maybe you will start jumping back into the pose like a boss, which is where you really start to fly.

Note: Jump into your bent elbows, please! No jumping into straight arms!
With love, your shoulders and elbows xoxo

Important reminder - I love writing about alignment, as a perfectionist and as a student. As a teacher, I beg you, please remember that every pose looks different on every body, and what the pose looks like on you matters ZERO to your practice and your overall experience. We really only cue alignment in an effort to help you target the right muscle groups and to keep you from getting hurt. If something feels painful in your body, DON'T DO IT, even if it looks right. Find the expression of the pose that works for you.

Go forth and chaturanga!

*I know I said that same thing about down dog. But having that lightbulb moment on pretty much any pose can really alter your whole thing, no?

Downward-Facing Dog: A How-to

This article was originally posted on TheKnow on Oct 15, 2013, in an edited format.

Could totally just be me projecting my own interests out into the universe (highly likely), but I feel like everyone I meet nowadays is getting into the yoga spirit. There’s a studio on just about every corner here in NYC (some corners have two) and men, women, kids, dogs, babies, grandmas, what-have-you – nearly everybody I know seems to be, at the very least, yoga-curious.

This is essentially the ultimate situation and lights me up like a Christmas tree – if only the world could find a practice together, maybe we could use NPR for, I don’t know. Ice cream recipe broadcast or something. We wouldn’t need to hear about poverty and hatred and all the horrendous stuff that’s going on all over the place and would have a ton of empty airtime due to everyone being so high on yogi love all the time, is what I’m trying to say.

Anyhow, I am one such proud owner of a happy yogi soul and am so looking forward to sharing some asana love with you on the regular. I’ll be passing on a cultivation of insights from my amazing teachers as well as what I’ve learned from my own body as I move through my practice each day.

I teach and practice Vinyasa yoga, meaning that postures are placed in a specific order and all movement is inspired by the breath. Vinyasa is lovely and flowy, like flying, really, but can get a bit loosey-goosey with all the inhales and exhales - sometimes it flies a touch too quickly and I find myself halfway into the next pose before I’ve reached the crux of whatever I was supposed to be getting into at the time. So, somewhat out of keeping with the Western mindset, we’re going to slow things down a touch and laser-focus in on one pose at a time, hopefully giving you something to chew on and keep in your back pocket for when you hit the mat.
You know, one pose, ish. Some of this is going to require a bit more context.

The Asana of the Week for this, our very first week, is Downward-Facing Dog.

In Sanskrit (respect!): Adho Mukha Svanasana
Pronunciation: ahhh-duh moo-kah sfahn-AHH-sah-nah

Adho, meaning down, downward
Mukha, meaning face
Svana, meaning dog
Asana, meaning pose, posture, seat

Adho mukha svanasana actually translates exactly to… downward-facing dog pose. The full expression of the pose resembles that delicious just-woke-up stretch that you’ve seen your dog do a million times – front paws splayed wide, ribcage on the ground, tail and triumphant doggie booty to the sky.

Typically follows: urdva mukha svanasana (upward-facing dog), plank

Why this pose?
Downward-facing dog, as you know if you’ve ever darkened the doorway of a Vinyasa studio, is a foundational pose for all Vinyasa yoga – in an hour or ninety-minute practice, you’ll hit adho mukha at least twenty times. It’s a palate-cleanser, a super active and energizing resting pose that stretches and tones and creates space from your fingertips to your toes. It seems a bit basic, but working towards a strong downward dog can be a total game-changer for your practice.

Breaking it down
Start by lying facedown on your mat. Tuck your toes underneath you, feet about hip-width distance apart, and place your palms on the mat underneath and just wider than your armpits, spreading your fingers apart to create a strong base. Take a deep inhale through your nose.

As you exhale, press yourself up into a plank, creating one long line from the crown of your skull straight out through the backs of your heels. Shoulders directly in line with wrists, press down through each fingerpad and knuckle with fingers spread wide. I'm going to say it again: wide. Like a gecko. Pull your belly in and up towards your spine, keeping your glutes relaxed and sacrum flat. Soften that icy spot between your shoulder blades, giving your sternum room to reach forwards. Your drishti is soft, eyes to the mat an inch or two in front of your fingertips. Take a few deep breaths here, giving your muscles a minute to get all warm and trembly, ending with an inhale.

As you exhale, lift your hips up and back until your body forms an inverted V shape, tail high in the air and heels softening towards the mat. Your hands and feet should stay right where they were in your plank, planting down into the mat with splayed (wide!) fingers and toes. All that space between your hands is going to mirror across your chest, giving you so much room to breathe and expand. Rotate your elbow creases forward, shoulder blades softening down your back and away from your ears. Your head is heavy, neck relaxed and your heart is reaching towards your thighs, navel scooping up and in. Parallel the outer edges of your feet to the sides of your mat, creating a slight pigeon-toe as your inner thighs rotate inwards and out towards the back of the room. Sometimes I like to tuck a foam block between my thighs here to encourage that rotation – it creates muscle memory for future alignment and just plain feels excellent, which is how yoga should feel. Set your drishti either right past your feet or towards your navel, eyes soft and easy (or hell, closed).

Breathe here, sending your tailbone to the sky with each inhale and softening your heels towards the earth with each exhale. Your heels, by the way, might never reach the ground. Mine don’t. Doesn’t matter. Wiggle around – pedal out your feet, stretch up to the tips of your toes, send your hips side to side – whatever feels right, eventually settling into stillness. Observe how while your external body comes to a halt, everything on the inside is still vibrant and alive and moving and growing with your breath. Stay here for three to five long breaths.

Seriously guys, downward-facing dog. Longer and stronger all over and such a great place to start to really grow your practice. This is a fantastic pose to take in the office when things are getting nutty or when you need to wake up a little bit. You will look a little weird. Yes. But so good - it’s technically an inversion (hips higher than head and heart) and all that fresh blood to the brain is about a thousand times better than a shot of espresso when mid-afternoon hits.
I mostly drink herbal tea, so I actually wouldn’t know. But you follow, yeah? It’s the best.

Tails in the air, happy practicing!