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Why We Practice

 Photo by  Ryan Holloway  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ryan Holloway on Unsplash

I practice yoga so that I can be open to the multiplicity of experiences that life offers, not to shut myself off in an internal cave of detachment and neutrality. I want to have the capacity to fully feel grief, pain and sorrow, because I know that shutting myself off from them also shuts me off from being able to fully feel love, joy and bliss.

 

We practice yoga in order to practice presence.

 

We use the breath and body as a tool to create presence. We use complex asanas to help us stay present even when we’re confused or off-balance or uncomfortable or failing. We use simple asanas to help us stay present even when we’re bored, complacent, dealing with the mundanities and repetitions of daily life.

 

We practice so that when we’re sitting in traffic, we can resist the immediate urge to reach for the phone or change the radio station. We build our capacity to simply breathe, feeling the breath in the body, to look out the window and observe the light glinting off the side of a building.

 

So that when we lose someone close to us, we don’t need to constantly have a drink or a smoke or a shopping spree or a Netflix binge or a pint of ice cream in order to numb ourselves. Instead, we can feel the heaviness of that loss. We can surrender as we let the waves of sadness wash over us. We can trust that the waves will eventually subside.

 

So that when we finally reach that long fought for goal, we don’t have to deflect the praise we’re given. We don’t need to downplay our excellence and our hard work. We are open to the joy it brings.  

 

We practice so that whatever situation we face, we have the capacity to be present. To be with the fullness of the experience. To meet it with openness and curiosity. To live.

Much love, 

Bear

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Correction or Instruction? #principlesofasana

This is the eighth and final post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice. Catch the previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here and here.  

Do you remember a few years ago when you could walk into any vinyasa yoga class in any studio in any city and hear the same instruction repeatedly: “Tuck your tailbone under and...”?

It was said in nearly every pose. Downward dog. Tuck your tailbone. Tadasana. Tuck your tailbone. Warrior Two. Tuck your tailbone. And so we tucked, on and on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

It seems that the “Tuck your tailbone” bubble has burst, but still other pernicious instructions persist, commands to soften the glutes in backbends, or to pull the shoulder blades away from the ears in well, basically every pose.

 These blanket instructions are thankfully going out of style, but how did they become so popular in the first place?

 Something that may have been a useful thing to say to one particular student, in order to adjust for their particular imbalance, became what we said to every student (sometimes in every pose!). We lost the nuance. 

We mistook a correction for an instruction.

Let’s go back to tucking the tailbone, shall we? This instruction is potentially helpful for a student with too much anterior pelvic tilt or an exaggerated lumbar curve, ie with too much sway in the lower back. Tucking the tailbone might bring this student’s pelvis to a neutral tilt and even out the curve of the spine.

 But for a student with a tucked pelvis or flat lower back, the instruction to tuck the tailbone backfires. It takes an already out of balance area and makes it worse.

 For the curvy-spined student, tucking the tailbone is an appropriate correction for their imbalance. When tucking the tailbone becomes a universally applied instruction, however, things go awry.

 So as teachers, let’s ask ourselves: is this a correction for one student or an instruction that everyone needs?

 And as students, we can ask ourselves the same question: is this instruction for me? Does what the teacher is saying help to bring my body into balance? Or does it exacerbate an existing misalignment?

We can become smarter yogis! I believe in us. 

Much love, 

Bear

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Five Essential Questions for Intelligent Asana Practice #principlesofasana

This is the seventh post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice. Catch the previous posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.  

Last week we talked about how bringing an attitude of curiosity to your practice can bring you an expansive, rather than contracted, energy. The first question I ask myself when I get stumped in my yoga practice is “What happens when...?,” and this can crack open a practice calcified by perfectionism. But this week I want to delve deeper than the questions of “What?” and get to the “Why?” of asana, and ultimately, of yoga.

The question I use for this “Why?” portion is “What is the intended effect of...?” For example, What is the intended effect of the pose? Or what is the intended effect of this instruction?, ie,

WHY are we doing this thing in this way?

I’ve written previously about this practice of inquiry and how it helps to dismantle dogmatic systems and thinking. Rather than getting stuck in attempting to perform the poses rigorously and by rote, copping to an external authority that tells us both what to do and how to do it, instead we can gain an internal guidance that offers us insight into what your body needs in the moment you’re engaging with it.

Further, it allows you a deeper understanding of what your instructor is teaching, so that you’re not just following along blindly, but engaging with nuance and intelligence.

So when your yoga teacher cues a particular pose, you can start to investigate both what’s happening in your body when you do the asana in the way it’s being instructed, and then also attempt to comprehend why your teacher is teaching it that way.

For instance, if I cue Triangle Pose and my intention is to prepare the body for Half Moon Pose, I might emphasize the alignment of the hips and shoulders in Triangle Pose (because it’s much harder to maintain when you’re on one leg in Half Moon) over trying to get the bottom hand closer to the floor (which would emphasize the opening of the front leg more and would be better prep for say, Bird of Paradise Pose).

So the intended effect of that particular Triangle Pose would be to align the hips and shoulders.

So you, as a student can then assess if the pose is creating the intended effect. You can ponder: is the intended effect something that’s actually useful to me? If it is useful but it’s not happening, what might you shift in your pose to bring about the intended effect? Following the Triangle Pose example, you might bring your bottom hand up the front leg more to allow the shoulders to stack over the pelvis more. What other adjustments might you make?

To recap, the five questions are:

  1. What is the actual effect of the pose I’m practicing or the way I’m practicing it?

  2. What is the intended effect of this pose (or this instruction, this sequence, etc.)?

  3. Is the intended effect happening?

  4. Is the intended effect something that is interesting or useful to me and my body?

  5. Is there a way to shift my pose to create the intended effect?

This is how we create an individual and intelligent yoga practice.

I’d love to hear from you! Do these questions make sense? What else do you ask yourself when you’re practicing? How else can we bring curiosity and inquiry into the asana practice? Let me know what you’re thinking about!

Much love,

Bear

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Perfectionism's Antivenom #principlesofasana

This is the sixth post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice. Catch the previous posts herehereherehere, and here.  

I used to sort of hate really flowy yoga classes.

You know the kind, where you wave your arms around you in Warrior Two and drape your torso over your legs like a noodle in Forward Fold and then gracefully dive up into Urdhva Hastasana, the kind of class where the teacher says things like, “Move in any way that feels good.”

I hated these classes because when I first started practicing yoga, I was obsessed with alignment. I wanted to know the exact right way to do the poses. Was my back foot supposed to turn in or out in Warrior 1? DId my bottom arm go inside or outside the front leg in Side Angle Pose? Should I press into the inner edges or outer edges of the feet in Wide Legged Forward Fold.

I wanted to know the precise actions in each pose so that I could make sure I was doing them right.

I inadvertently tied my worth as a student (and later, as a teacher) to my ability to know the ins and outs of every pose and to my ability to then execute the poses with precision. This perfectionism created a rigidness in my practice that I just couldn’t shake.

Some years ago in class I asked my teacher a question about the “right” position of the hands in Downward Dog. “Heide,” I said, “Should my hands go with the index fingers vertical in Down Dog or should they externally rotate a bit?”

“Ask a better question,” she replied.

I was thoroughly perplexed. I did not know a better question to ask. Helpfully she supplied one.

“What happens when you place your hands with the fingers vertically aligned? What happens when you turn them out?”

This simple reframe has dramatically shifted my approach to the practice. When I’m obsessed with alignment, I’m carrying my perfectionistic tendencies with me onto the mat. I feel the urge to perform the poses, the achieve some aspirational bodily form. Underneath that urge is a sense that I must prove myself, that how I am inherently is lacking somehow. My options and my existence become restricted to the false binary I’ve constructed of good/bad, right/wrong, perfect/imperfect. But when instead I ask “What happens when...?”, I access my curiosity.

Perfectionism is a snake bite. Curiosity is the antivenom.

Where perfectionism limits us, curiosity opens up possibilities. Where perfectionism says we’re not good enough, curiosity points to a multitude of acceptable ways of being. Where perfectionism kills our buzz, curiosity increases our capacity for joy.

Much love,

Bear

Every week I send out a love note filled with resources, musings, and inspiration about walking this path of yoga and liberation. Click here to subscribe!

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Find The Foundation #principlesofasana

This is the fifth post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice. Catch the previous posts herehere, here, and here.  

One of the first things I learned in my first yoga teacher training was to always give instructions from the ground up. As in, instruct what’s happening in the student’s feet before you start instructing their arms. You have to first find your foundation, and then work from there.

If one of your shoulders was collapsing in Downward Dog, for instance, and causing you pain, the first thing to look at is what’s happening with your hands. Are they placed symmetrically? Are you pressing down evenly through all the fingers? Often a small adjustment in an adjacent part can relieve pain somewhere else!

If we’re not steady from the base, it gets much trickier all the way up, and this is true with habitual posture, too. Someone who has collapsed arches (flat feet) might start to feel pain in their knees or lower back. Or if your right leg is more externally rotated, it has an effect. The ribcage torques, the left shoulder might pull forward to compensate, etc.

If you came to me for help with the pain in your knee or your ribcage, and I just looked at the place where the pain manifests and gave you exercises for that body part, how effective do you think that would be?

If your answer is “not very effective,” I’d have to agree with you. When I work with a student one-on-one, I always start with an in-depth assessment their body from the ground up, looking at all the joints in relationship to each other. I find the foundation and we work from there.

And because all that we do on the mat is metaphor for what happens off the mat and out in the world, if our core beliefs about ourselves and the world are flawed or broken, how can we expect to stand up straight? I mean this Literally and figuratively! Our bodies compensate for what we believe, and so too do our minds.

For example, if you believe you don’t deserve love, it has an effect. You might avoid intimacy. You might pick partners who corroborate your beliefs. So start from the base. Give yourself a solid foundation. Work from there.

Much love, 

Bear

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The Purpose Of Pain #principlesofasana

This is the fourth post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice. Catch the previous posts here, here, and here.  

Is there a point of pain? While I would never advocate the kind of practice that injures you, it’s been my experience that some discomfort in the yoga practice is unavoidable, healthy, and potentially quite useful. As I see it, the purpose of pain in the yoga practice is threefold: to help us learn discernment in the body, to help us focus the mind, and to help us bring softness into the heart.

In our bodies, we must first learn to discern “good,” useful pain from “bad,” injurious pain. Through the asana practice, we get more sensitive in our bodies, and we get clearer about what, exactly, is happening. Sharp, nervy, searing, acute pain in your joints, especially the lower back, neck, or knees? We can qualify that as bad pain that we want to avoid. Dull, throbbing, broad discomfort in the belly of the muscle? That might be useful pain, helping to make our bodies stronger. There is some discomfort that must be endured in order to make us stronger.

(Huge caveat here to say that YOU are the arbiter of what is good or bad pain. YOU and you alone get to decide what is useful discomfort versus what is injurious pain you should steer clear of. Be wary of any teacher who encourages tolerance of all pain without discernment!)

In addition to bringing sensitivity into the body, we can use good pain to help discipline the mind. If what you’re feeling is useful, necessary discomfort, can you focus your mind through the pain? Can you breathe slow and steady breaths? Can you quiet your racing thoughts and just sit in the discomfort?

And finally, if the pain seems likely to be injurious, can you find the softness in your heart to back off? And even if what you’re feeling fits the definition of “good pain,” you might have had a crappy day, or you might be recovering from sickness, or dealing with chronic illness, or any number of other factors that might shift what is sometimes manageable discomfort over the line into injurious pain. Even if it’s not going to screw up your neck or your knees, if what you’re feeling feels unmanageable or if it’s hard to breathe or focus, it’s advisable and totally okay to do less.

Can you let go of the pose in exchange for the practice?

Much love,

Bear

Every week I send out a love note filled with resources, musings, and inspiration about walking this path of yoga and liberation. Click here to subscribe!

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Finding Balance #principlesofasana

This is the third post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice. Catch the first two posts here and here.

Contrary to what Instagram might tell you, yoga isn’t all about flexibility. If you are particularly flexible, your work in the asana practice is to build up your strength. If you continue down the path of flexibility, pursuing only what comes easily to you, over time you can cause instability in your joints and injury to your body.

On the other hand, if you’re particularly strong, your work may need to focus more on finding openness. If you constantly build strength without flexibility, your strength will be thwarted by your lack of mobility, thus limiting its usefulness.

So our work in any pose is to figure out which parts need more mobility and which parts need more stability, and then work from there to find a balance. Let’s take downward dog for example.

If you are very flexible through the shoulder joints, you may be able to press your chest waaaaayayyy down towards the floor, which will look impressive and might even feel good, but you’ll be doing this at the expense of the stability of your shoulders. Without engaging your muscles here, you’re relying on the ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissue to support the shoulders alone, a job that they’re not really designed for.

So instead, try sliding the shoulders forward an inch or two (not going as “deep” into the pose). Then strongly resist the undersides of the arms forward towards the top of the mat. This muscular engagement can help to stabilize the shoulders. It will likely feel wonky at first, especially if you’ve been practicing the other way for years, but give it a shot and see if it doesn’t feel more stable.

Another example: If your legs are really tight in downward dog, it may be very difficult for you to get your heels to the floor, something you may have been taught is important to aspire towards. But when you pull the heels down to the floor without being able to lift the sitting bones (as is often the case for folks with tight hamstrings), you actually limit your ability to lengthen the hamstrings and instead stay stuck in a shape where likely only the calves are getting any stretch.

Alternatively, try walking the feet back a step (taking a longer stance). Then lift the heels way up, coming onto the tip toes. Then, untuck the tailbone and lift the sitting bones way up. Your knees can bend here if you need them to or you can work with straight legs, but prioritize lifting the heels and the sitting bones, rather than trying to get the heels to the floor. You just might feel a much deeper stretch in the backs of the legs (particularly in the hamstrings) than you normally do!

And because the asana practice is so often a metaphor for what happens in life off the mat, you might think about some area of your life where you have too much mobility (loose boundaries with a particular person, for example) and imagine how you might go about bringing more stability there. Contemplate an aspect of yourself where you’re stiff or stuck (feeling rigid about a situation) and feel what it might feel like to have some more space there, to aerate the situation.

This is much more skillful work than just pushing into the places where we easily move or staying stuck in the places where we don’t have mobility. It’s more challenging, but we’re bringing stability to the overly-flexible parts and movement to the stuck parts, and this is much healthier for all our parts (bodily and otherwise) in the long run.

Much love,

Bear

Every week I send out a love note filled with resources, musings, and inspiration about walking this path of yoga and liberation. Click here to subscribe!

 

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Your Secret Superpower #principlesofasana

Your Secret Superpower.jpg

Every week I send out a love note filled with resources, musings, and inspiration about walking this path of yoga and liberation. Click here to subscribe!

This is the first post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Your breath is your superpower--it’s both a barometer AND a pressure release valve. When we feel stressed, the breath becomes ragged and constricted, or we simply hold the breath. But when we notice, we can use the breath to come back to center, inhaling and exhaling to make the mind stable and the body relaxed.  It is both the indicator of how you’re doing and the tool to bring you back to calm.

Your breath is your secret superpower. Your breath is the thread that ties together the mind, body and spirit. It’s what elevates yoga from simply exercise to something that has the power to profoundly transform. When we synchronize movement with breath, the mind focuses. When the mind is settled, we pierce through our own bullshit to see ourselves clearly.

We often start from the physical form in a yoga class. We focus on the alignment and anatomy, perfecting it from the inside out. Yet the inner experience is guided by the breath. What if we started from the breath instead?

What if we started from the breath in every action, not just on the yoga mat?

What if before every difficult conversation, every big decision, every email reply, we took a breath, consciously and fully awake. Use the breath as barometer first: How am I doing? Then open up the valve: Where can I let go?

Your breath is your secret superpower. Use it well.

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The Pose Is Not The Practice #principlesofasana

Every week I send out a love note filled with resources, musings, and inspiration about walking this path of yoga and liberation. Click here to subscribe!

This is the first post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice.

Contrary to popular belief, yoga is not stretching. Yoga is not exercise. In short, yoga is not a pose. Despite the fact that yoga is so often represented by a skinny bendy white woman contorting herself on a beach (ahem!), yoga is much more than postural practices.

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there are eight limbs to the system of yoga, and asana (postural practice) is only one of the those limbs. It’s not even the first of the limbs. No, Patajali says, if you want to practice yoga, start first with your relationships with other people (Yama). Then address how you are with yourself (Niyama), and then do some poses (Asana) and some breathing (Pranayama).

And this is just the first half of the path towards ultimate realization (Samadhi)!

If you practice yoga simply to stretch your legs, that’s fine (though I’d argue that what you’re doing might not actually be yoga). But if you’re interested in a deeper transformation, this is wildly available. Yoga has the potential to change not just the length of your hamstrings, but also the openness of your heart and the stability of your mind.

The practice includes poses, but the pose is not the practice.

Much love, 

Bear

P.S. If you like what I write each week, I'd love to keep in touch. Sign up for weekly love letters direct to your inbox by CLICKING HERE. If you have the means, consider making a financial contribution to support my work

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Brave Is A Muscle

Every week I send out a love note filled with resources, musings, and inspiration about walking this path of yoga and liberation. Click here to subscribe!

A client said on one of our calls recently, “I’m just not that brave.”

I smiled. I knew why she said it, and I could relate. Brave doesn’t come easily to her. I would also describe myself as “not that brave.” I’m risk averse, much preferring to play it safe. I look admiringly (and a little jealously) at my friends who travel solo to foreign countries, who swim in the ocean, who sing in front of other people. (All things I would like to do but am afraid of.) How I wish I were daring!

In many ways, being brave goes against our hardwired risk-aversion. Your lizard brain wants you to stay safe, so it preferences the things that are already known and established. For our cave-dwelling ancestors, eating the same berries as yesterday and drinking from the same stream was life or death. One bad bunch of berries could signal your imminent demise.

Bravery isn’t innate. Brave is a muscle.

Perhaps some of us are born with more of it than others, but all of us can build it. All of us can exercise our brave and it will get stronger. When we practice doing things that once seemed impossible, they start to seem simply difficult. And once you do the difficult thing for awhile, it might become mundane. And once it’s mundane, it might become EASY.

But we have to start with brave.

I have a friend who’s been travelling alone in Southeast Asia for six weeks. As I jealously scroll through his Facebook posts, I remind myself: he’s been practicing for this for awhile. First he travelled with friends to places where he spoke the language for a week or so. He’s didn’t jump into the deep end, but each of those prior trips required of him a leap of faith.

AND! You’re already braver than you know. There are things I do that seem banal to me now that seem enormously brave to others. I was with some yoga teachers-in-training recently and got to recall how I once did not know how to lead a yoga class, how I stumbled through my words, how my hands trembled, how I constantly mixed up left and right. (Who am I kidding? I STILL mix up left and right). But I was brave once. I got up in front of a room of people and taught even though it was scary. 

So give yourself some credit for the acts of courage you’ve already made. And then ask yourself: Where’s my next leap of faith? How am I building up my brave muscle?

Much love, 

Bear

P.S. If you like what I write each week, I'd love to keep in touch. Sign up for weekly love letters direct to your inbox by CLICKING HERE. If you have the means, consider making a financial contribution to support my work

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