Finding Balance

“As our dance partner, life insists that we put ourselves in motion, that we learn to live with instability, chaos, change, and surprise. We can continue to stand immobilized on the shoreline, trying to protect ourselves from life’s insistent storms, or we can begin moving. We can watch our plans be washed away, or we can discover something new.”

Margaret Wheatley. Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005.

Summer Workshops!

Time is melting away quickly! Sign up for these awesome workshops coming up this summer.

Saturday, July 21 from 1:30-4pm
Shambhala Yoga Center
4 South Chestnut Street
Beacon, NY
$45. Contact Shannon Brandt, 917.922.4517 to register.

The topic in Beacon will be the Anatomy of a Personalized Practice. It will feature strategies for adapting the practice to meet your needs and include dozens upon dozens of variations to wake up/spice up your practice.

Saturday, August 4 from 2:30-4:30pm
The Yoga Room
10-14 47th Road
Long Island City, Queens
$40. Contact Renee Viola, 718.786.7962, to register.

In LIC, we’ll be Playing With Asana – exploring 3-Dimensional Asana matrices and breaking down postures from every angle and perspective you can imagine.

Yoga for Gardening

Recently while doing some work outside on the farmhouse property we are renting in the Hudson Valley, I was struck by the parallels between creating personal Yoga practices and gardening.

I put together a short video that captured those thoughts and which sets up a Yoga for Gardening practice that I’ve created.

What Kind of Practice Do You Want to Cultivate?

(If the video doesn’t play in your browser, try going directly to this link to it.)

A Multi-Dimensional Yoga for Gardening Practice
Here is the Illustrated Yoga for Gardening (PDF) practice that includes instructions for asana and for pranayama in asana, as well as a poem (“Garden Sanctuary”) that you can use to frame your reflections during the practice.

I look forward to your comments and encourage you to share this post with your Yoga and gardening enthusiast friends.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Jack Gilbert, REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005).

With special thanks to Lillian Needham, SSJ who introduced me to this poem, to Jack Gilbert’s writing in general and whose life is a model of risking delight.

What Makes a Movement an Asana?

  • Are ‘asana‘ movements we do with our body? Or, are they ways of being in our body?
  • Take sirsasana: is it ‘a headstand’? Or, is it a way of being in a headstand: ‘a headstand as an asana.

I believe asana are ways of being in the body and I view sirsasana as a way of being in a headstand.

The differences between ‘something’ as a movement and ‘something as an asana’ are subtle but significant. A deep knowledge of the principles of movement proves extraordinarily helpful when helping practitioners construct personalized practices.

It’s All About Intention
Intention differentiates a movement from an asana. To practice ‘something’ as an asana requires a heightened attention to the interior qualities of stability and ease (“sthira sukham asanam“).

Patanjali offers a two-fold strategy for realizing those qualities: economize your efforts (“prayatna shaithilya“) and bring an expansive orientation to what you’re doing (“ananta samapattibhyam“).

How Do You Cultivate Movement Quality?
It’s worth considering how and when a movement’s inner qualities should be cultivated.

  • From the beginning, regardless of the practitioner’s current mastery of a movement?
  • Later, once the practitioner has sketched out the rough edges of a particular posture?
  • Or, from the get-go but in a progressive way: breaking down the components of ‘something’ to gradually develop the practitioner’s mastery of them and their inner qualities.

Each approach has its merits, but I’m partial to the latter strategy. It’s never black and white, however.  One of the challenges about practicing ‘something’ as an asana, is needing first and foremost, to know how to do that ‘something.’

What am I Doing Here?
In order to do “headstand as an asana‘ or “standing as an asana” (tadasana) or “balancing on my hands and kicking my criss-crossed legs out to the side in order to create eight angles as an asana” (astavakrasana), I have to first learn to get on my head, or stand upright or balance in an eight-angled way.

Realistic Expectations
I think it’s unrealistic to expect practitioners to infuse stability and ease into something that extends them beyond their threshold of success; they’re in survival mode at that point. For that reason, I think it’s important, as teachers, to assess practitioners’ movement thresholds, and as practitioners, to include strategies of progressive complexity in our practices.

Anticipating Compensations
I think the ‘wait til later’ approach recognizes that certain movements are complex and require time to master but delaying the introduction of the sthirasukham concept has its own drawbacks. To say, “Okay, now that you’re upside down [e.g.], relax your efforts and rest your attention in your breathing and we’ll start turning this into an asana,” disregards the compensatory patterns that may have brought the practitioner into that position. Those likely will resist her attempts to relax, especially if she is at the end range of her abilities.

Thoughtful Preparation
Instead, I’ve come to appreciate the strategy of breaking down movements into their component parts. I have re-doubled my efforts to dive deeply into the art/science of progressive sequencing.

In seeking ways to help fellow practitioners  more effectively transform their movements into asana, I realized that required a lifetime of learning as much as I could about the principles of movement.

The Similarities Between A Movement & An Asana
For too many years, and perhaps distracted by talk of chakras, nadis and koshas, I lost sight of the reality that when I’m practicing Yoga it’s not like I’m stepping into another realm where a different set of rules apply.  In asana, pranayama and dhyanam something profoundly brilliant is occurring: movement.

Regardless of intention, the principles of movement reign:

  • movement is dynamic;
  • movement is individualistic;
  • movement is 3-dimensional;
  • movement is directed;
  • movement is driven (internally or externally or through a combination of both);
  • movement occurs within the context of gravity;
  • movement is impacted by mass, momentum and inertia;
  • movement actively triggers a subconscious chain reaction;
  • movement is complex; and
  • movement is variable, et al.

If I take the principles of movement seriously, then I’m contemplating…

  • dynamically moving
  • this uniquely individual
  • three-dimensional mass of mine
  • from a particular starting place (standing, sitting, kneeling, lying on my belly, lying on my back, side-lying or being inverted in a different way),
  • along a particular path,
  • using one or more body parts to drive my movements (hands, a leg/legs, head, my pelvis, my eyes or some combination thereof),
  • to generate neither too much, nor too little, but instead just the right amount of momentum to get me from ‘here’ to ‘there’ and to position me to go ‘somewhere else’ afterwards
  • in a way that gives my body the information it needs
  • to subconsciously respond
  • to the complexity in and around me that is beyond my conscious comprehension and
  • which is continually changing.

I know: it’d have been so much simpler if the principles of movement dictated that using 26 postures, two times apiece, was the answer for each and every one of us.  I wish it was that simple. (No, really, I do.)  And for some people it is. For a time. Sometimes for a long time.

Instead, reflecting on these movement principles has me continually reconsidering some of the strategies I’ve acquired over the years.

  • Can I really cue someone into proper form and alignment?
  • Is there even such a thing as ‘proper form and alignment?’
  • Can asana be achieved through self-practice alone – without cueing, hands-on assistance or anything else?
  • Are techniques I’ve picked up across the years universally applicable?
  • Can really I tell if someone is doing ‘something as an asana’ instead of just doing ‘something’?  Unless it’s me – does that matter?
But in addition to churning up doubts and pointing to areas I might make changes, reflecting on these movement principles has also been liberating.

They have pointed me towards developing three-dimensional asana matrices; they’ve taught me to pay attention to the vinyasa within the vinyasa (the chain of movements within each movement); and they’ve helped me experientially understand the flow of movement from its grosser extremes in asana to its more subtle aspects in pranayama and dhyanam. 

Most importantly, reflecting on these movement principles has helped me better serve to my existing client-practitioners and created opportunities for me to work with a more diverse group of new ones.

Even more encouraging is the network of colleagues (physical therapists, athletic trainers, personal trainers, osteopaths, massage therapists and chiropractors) I’ve discovered who are as passionate about applying these principles of movement to their fields as I am passionate about sharing them with you, and our Yoga community.

Much like the principles of Yoga, the principles of movement come from an ancient lineage.  They are what they are and they wait patiently as each succeeding generation takes up the question of how to understand, engage, apply and be transformed by the wisdom they offer.

There are millions of people practicing asana as part of their Yoga practice.  Each individuated, complex, three-dimensional, movement-loving meditator is going to arrive at a moment when a generic solution no longer creates the stability and ease she was seeking.

In that moment, I hope you will be there waiting for that person – with your full heart, a generous spirit, an expansive mind – to walk her through the valley of complexity to get to the mountaintop of simplicity.

An Extra Set of Eyes: Kinesio Capture

I have had the privilege of being introduced to Dave Gottfeld and Kinesio Capture over the last several months. Dave and his collaborators are Fellows of Applied Functional Science and graduates of the Gray Institute and as such are at the leading edge of movement education. Their motion-capture iPad application is being used by top-flight athletic trainers working with Olympic and professional athletes, by rehabilitation specialists and personal trainers and by teaching professionals.

I was grateful to be given a copy of KCap to play around with and think it’s going to help transform how asana is being taught, particularly when it comes to encouraging personal practitioners.

Rather than teaching ‘poses to people’, Kinesio Capture is another tool that both teachers and practitioners can use to help reveal who the practitioner is and to help us understand more about his/her current condition, including:

  1. where mobility needs to be encouraged,
  2. where (and how well) new and existing movement patterns can be controlled,
  3. whether those new movement patterns are strong enough to meet the demands of the environment they’re in,
  4. whether they have the capacity to endure for long periods of time, and
  5. to the extent that they have the stamina to effortlessly maintain a particular direction for an extended period of time, what further actions are necessary to encourage their resiliency.
Here’s a quick look at Kinesio Capture in action:

Horses at Midnight Without a Moon

(In observance of Put a Poet in Your Pocket Day, my son chose the following Jack Gilbert to have with him as he walked around today.)

Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there’s music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.
The summer mornings begin inch by inch
while we sleep, and walk with us later
as long-legged beauty through
the dirty streets. It is no surprise
that danger and suffering surround us.
What astonishes is the singing.
We know the horses are there in the dark
meadow because we can smell them,
can hear them breathing.
Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.

From Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert. Copyright © 2012 by Jack Gilbert.

Wait: Muscles Don’t Activate Bones?

What I Meant to Say…

If you studied Yoga with me even as recently as 3 years ago you would have heard me give instructions predicated on the belief that muscles activated bone movement.

At various times, I may have asked you to draw in your belly button, contract your glutes, lift your pelvic floor, turn on your calves and quads and position your scapula “just so.” I thought I was helping you by asking you to consciously shorten certain muscles to achieve a particular effect or to create an isometric reaction in a static posture.

Whoops

I was well-intentioned.  My heart was is in the right place.  But like many other movement professionals (personal trainers, physical therapists, osteopaths, Pilates teachers, and well, you name it), I was unknowingly passing along some outdated information.  Focusing on muscles activating bones was a mistake.

And the double whammy of my error was that it clouded your mind with a laundry list of bodily things to do. (In retrospect, that seems like an odd way to lead you towards an open field of attention.)

Of course, many times your muscles were compliant (so thanks for that) because muscles can be consciously activated. But I know now they didn’t necessarily like it. So I apologize for putting them through that.

And the reason they probably didn’t like it is because they’re not used to functioning that way.

I’ve had many “Oh crap” moments over the course of my studies in Yoga. I’ll be teaching something with vim and vigor for years and then all of a sudden I’ll bump into some new information that completely contradicts what I thought I knew. “Oh crap.”

Thankful for Understanding Students/Clients

Encountering and then integrating new information into my personal practice and my teaching is humbling. And confusing. And disorienting. And not without resistance, blaming, and panic. And despite the pounding my pride takes, what always makes the shift easier for me is seeing that this new, more discriminating awareness of breathing or moving is a gift for my body and for my clients’ bodies.

Applied Functional Science (AFS)

When I began studying Applied Functional Science (AFS), the huge paradigm shift for me was discovering that in function it wasn’t muscles that activated bones but rather it was bone movements that activated muscles:

  • Movement turns muscles on.
  • Gravity turns muscles on.
  • The resistance provided by ground reaction force turns muscles on.
  • Momentum turns muscles on.

Throughout my body and yours there are sensors which are constantly measuring the conditions in our fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments, joint capsules and throughout the skin. Our body is continually integrating the data they collect to help determine the motion or positioning of our body in space and what, if anything, might need to be done about that.

If I feed my proprioceptors with movements that awaken them (each proprioceptor varies in how it gets stimulated) then I’m in business. If I don’t, I’m probably left with a laundry list of “contract this, squeeze that, and suck in thats.'”

Proprioceptors Don’t Care About Brand Affinity

What’s a big relief is that my body doesn’t search for what Mr. Iyengar thinks is the best response. Or what Mr. Desikachar would prefer. Or what Bikram or John Friend or Shiva Rea or anyone else thinks is best. My body could care less what side of the asana debate it comes down on so long as it’s coming down on the side of what my proprioceptors need.

So if I want to train my body (or help another practitioner) to experience a left-sided Utthita Trikonasana, I don’t need to memorize movement cues or consciously activate muscles, I just need to feed my proprioceptors the kinds of movement they crave.

Train the Component Parts of An Asana

Absent cues and contractions, I need to undertake movements (whether they have Sanskrit names attached to them or not) that will facilitate a left-hand, left lateral reach (as an asana) that I will initiate while standing in an abducted position with my right leg externally rotated 90 degrees.

I know that every fibre of my being will respond as best it can to decelerate that reach. But I don’t know that it will do so in a way that apes pictures I have seen of Utthita Trikonasana.

How “Basic” is Triangle?

Many people list Utthita Trikonasana as a basic posture. Perhaps it’s one that seems relatively easy to talk/will/assist people into but from a proprioceptive standpoint, it involves a lot of complexity and thoughtful preparation.

In fact before diving into ‘it,’ it’s probably wiser for me to know more about my body’s condition:

  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left on such a wide base? Exploring lateral flexion to the left and to the right on a smaller base may be a way to find my threshold.
  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left with my left leg externally rotated as much as 90 degrees? Whether and to what extent the left leg is externally rotated changes the dynamics of the movements into that position significantly.  “The posture” says 90 degrees of turnout. But what does my body say?  I’m listening to it.
  • Do I have the mobility to reach as low as my ankle? Leg length, arm length, and torso length are all factors in how low a person can reach. But so too is the body’s ability to set up this end-range left lateral reach by taking advantage of its ability to laterally flex right, to flex and extend and/or to rotate right and left out of this abducted stance.
  • If I have the mobility, do I have the stability to control that motion, either on the way in to the pose or on the way out of it?
  • If I have both the mobility and the stability, do I have the strength to maintain that directional movement for long?
  • And if I have the endurance to maintain that left lateral reach, am I resilient enough to do it several times (or several hundred or several thousand times in the course of my life)  or whether I will need to move in other ways to hedge against future complications?
  • And no matter the range of my reach or how long the duration of my stay in that position, what is the condition of my breathing? Is it revealing that my body is not at ease and/or that my mind is distracted?

The Person Reflected in the Pose

So encountering how my body dances with Utthita Trikonasana can be revelatory.  Especially if I don’t enter into that dance with my thumbs on the scale – determined to will my way into the position, activating muscles and commandeering bones as I go! And at first blush, it’s a lot more complex than the quickie introduction to teaching triangle than I was originally given. Except that the process for approaching one posture or sequence of movements is the same for approaching them all: identify the three-dimensional changes of direction required to arrive in a particular position and train your proprioceptors to move through them.

Of course, even with the benefit of studying the physical, biological and behavioral sciences that comprise Applied Functional Science, and even though I now bring a proprioceptor-centric approach to my practice, I’m not in the clear. I’m sure I can expect many more ‘Oh crap!” moments in the future.

I hope I remain inspired by what I don’t know and not beholden by what I think I might…

Stepping Out: The Vinyasa within the Vinyasa

You know what happens when a practitioner takes a big step forward with her right foot?

In the old days, I’d assume she was preparing for Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I), Revolved Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana) or some other standing posture. So, I’d hang back and wait for the pose to develop.

But since I started studying and collaborating with movement specialists from the Gray Institute, I’ve learned that the key to developing and enhancing Yoga practices, to preventing injuries, and to helping rehab aches and pains is bringing awareness to how eeach aspects of the practitioner’s body flows from one movement to the next.

I have been amazed to observe that in every movement, no matter how gross or how subtle, there’s a vinyasa within the vinyasa (a sequence within the sequence) that unfolds moment to moment.

Most often when a practitioner steps forward, three subtle but incredibly significant things happen:

  • First, the outer border of her heel hits the mat and the force of that impact (the ground reaction force) everts her heel (her calcaneous pronates), tipping it sideways towards the big toe side of her foot.
  • At the same time, rotational movement (abduction) is created where the calcaneus and the bone sitting on top of it, the talus, meet (this juncture is called the subtalar joint).
  • Meanwhile, just above the talus, gravity and the practitioner’s mass and momentum bring her two lower leg bones (the tibia and the fibula) forward, creating ankle dorsiflexion (a bending that brings the toes and top of the foot closer to the ankle joint).

At first glance, these responses may not seem significant. I didn’t pay close attention to them for years.

“So the heel strikes the mat. It creates subtalar eversion, subtalar abduction and ankle dorsiflexion. Big whoop.”

Except that each of those movements was just given “for free.” An instructor didn’t cue them nor did our fellow practitioner have to “think” to make them happen.  The dorsiflexion, eversion and abduction were all gifts, complements of gravity working with the practitioner’s mass and momentum against the resistance that the ground provided.  To anyone interested in deepening her practice, preventing injuries, or rehabbing aches and pains that is actually a very big whoop.

Watch what the body does with those gifts: Continue reading

Tebowing: The Self-Help Movement of the Future

It’s been 100 years or more since a summer intern at Google accidentally deleted everything on the internet. And yet, fortunately  for us, the legend of Tim Tebow (NFL quarterback, Heisman Trophy Winner and Christian Missionary) persisted across the generations.

“He was a miracle worker.”

“He was a warrior’s warrior.”

“The way he out-dueled Redskins Quarterback Mark Sanchez in the 2014 Super Bowl was legendary!

And, of course,  everybody knew that the secret to his success was ‘Tebowing.’ But absent record-keeping, nobody knew what exactly “Tebowing” was.

Until, of course, that fateful day when you picked up a Vampire romance at a garage sale. Bookmarking someone’s place at one of the steamy parts in the novel was a picture of the man, the myth, the legend… Tebowing!

So you did what anyone else in your shoes would have done: You got some VC money together and started up the internet again. Then you created a web site and posted the picture online as the hook for your self-help training program, The Art of Joyful Living Through Tebowing, in which you authoritatively revealed what made him so successful:

TEBOWING:

  • Begin by dropping to your left knee to come into a low lunge.
  • Place a pillow under that knee if it’s tender.  Curl your back toes under for added support.
  • Check your right knee: make sure it’s not flexed beyond your toes.
  • Rest your right elbow on your front thigh.
  • Dangle your left arm by your side or place it on a block, a large pillow or a football helmet.
  • Round your upper back (feeling the scapula broaden and elevate) and let your forehead gently rest on your softly clenched right hand.
  • Practicing this posture prepares you for end of game heroics, cultivates benevolence and gets you on the fast track to prosperity.
  • Breathe in and breathe out gently: This is Tebowing.

Subsequent research unearthed additional movements (such as the Hike and the Cock Before You Throw) which nicely rounded out the material in your on-line and weekend seminars. Another favorite, the ShovelPass (in some texts called the Lateral) allowed for some intimate partnering work to develop between couples.

When opportunities to expand into new markets presented themselves, well, why deny prosperity, you pounced on them.

A doctor-friend observed that if the back knee was positioned a tad more posterior, Tebowing could be especially good for stretching the hip flexors and alleviating low back pain.  A chiropractor remarked that she had been prescribing it to all of her headache patients.  People with flat thoracic spines were swearing by Tebowing; it made them feel less rigid and more sexy.  In no time, TebowingTherapeutics was launched and you were certifying specialists in fourteen languages and on three continents.

And when spas across the country began putting a beauty spin on Tebowing, ditching the football helmet and having their clients dangle their left hands in dishes of Palmolive and giving them scented, warm compresses for the back of their neck… well, you couldn’t hire enough accountants to keep track of all the money rolling in.

Copycatters sprung up everywhere too. Someone built cold rooms, claiming Tebowing was properly done at mountain top temperatures. Others profited off of ancillary products: organic hemp jerseys for the fellas and for the ladies, body-hugging Tebowing sportswear. There were specialty claw shoes designed to promote the feel of being grounded and compilations of Music for Tebowing also did quite well.

All things considered, everything was going great.  Until the unthinkable happened. (Which, in retrospect, shouldn’t have been so unthinkable now that you think about it.)

Tim Tebow, the Tim Tebow, was still alive; he’d simply been off-radar doing missionary work. At 128, or 828, or however old he was, he was still as handsome and as humble as ever (though when he tossed the football around for old times sake, he  seemed to have lost a little spin off his spiral).  And, though he was as nice as nice could be about it, Tim had some bad news for you:

Tebowing wasn’t what you made it out to be. In fact, he didn’t even call what he did Tebowing; he referred to it as “taking a knee” (a lot less  zippy than Tebowing).  And apparently he didn’t give much thought to his alignment or to stretching his hip flexors.

It seemed the whole kneeling, forehead resting thing “came from within.”  It wasn’t a “set play” or even “an audible” (the last-minute change in strategy that you were about to write about in your Tebowing for Small Businesses Series).

Most troubling, at least in terms of how it contradicted the marketing materials, was that Tebowing wasn’t a strategy for getting anything.  In fact, he’d usually take a knee out of recognition that he had everything he ever could hope to need.  He was saying, “Thanks.”

He invited you to take a knee with him. But you couldn’t. His form was crazy good – better than any of your Super Bowl Level Facilitators – and you couldn’t take your eyes off of him (or chase the thought that you wish you had your cell phone camera with you at that moment).

When he got up, you still couldn’t speak. You gave him your Coke. He smiled, took off his jersey, tossed it to you (“Here, kid!”) and then walked away.

Maybe you were standing there for minutes or for hours. At any rate, that’s where one of the interns found you, with red eyes and tear lines down your cheeks.

She had found a picture of a woman stretching sideways. There were some notes on it both in English and in some other language that none of us could read.

“Is this anything?” she wondered. “There’s a bunch more like them.”

A glow came across your face.

“We’ll be fine… we’re gonna be just fine.”

Utthita Trikonasana - Triangle Pose त्रिकोणासन

UTTHITA TRIKONASANA:

  • Stand with your legs spread three to four feet apart, turning one foot out.
  • Shift your hips sideways towards the left and laterally flex your torso right.
  • Reach your right hand down towards the right thigh, shin, ankle or the floor.
  • Reach your left arm skyward.

This pose will help strengthen your legs, eliminate backache and repair flat feet. With dedication it will  help acidity, bronchitis, constipation, indigestion, and kidney problems. This is utthita trikonasana.