Spinal Spiration: A Re-Introduction

So, here I am in the midst of yet another magnificently mind-blowing teacher training at the beloved Maya Yoga Studio. By my count, this is number 9. And as I gratefully take on more and more responsibilities and integral roles, I'm so appreciative of how much new knowledge there is for me to gain as a student of my teachers in these trainings. Always learning! And yes, my time is yet again completely consumed. So, I'd like to humbly offer you a chance to revisit some intricate knowledge and learn something new, too. The students in this training just got a detailed look at the spine today, so maybe you'll feel like you were there! Plus, I dropped off with this series a while back and think this a nice way to pick up the thread again so we can keep exploring. And now, without further ado, I re-present to you....the splendiferous spine!

What injuries or conditions do you have? When I ask that inevitable question of yoga students, the single most common problem area seems to be the back. Yes, there are lots of knee and shoulder issues, wrists and ankles, too. Yet, I think it's safe to say that the spine accounts for a majority of the injuries or conditions I encouter in my students. I count myself among these ranks: it's not exactly news to long-time readers that I have quite the active scoliotic curve and corresponding, shape-shifting pains myself. And were it not for yoga, I shudder to think what my life would look like - how limited I might be by unaddressed pains.

All of this considered, I thought it appropriate, nay, necessary to look at some of these problems here on the blog. I've wanted to do this for some time, but felt that some of my puzzle pieces needed more fleshing out and testing before I shared them with you. But I finally feel like we need to just get down to it. The fact of the matter is that most back problems are not cut and dry. The causality of any given issue is usually multi-faceted and spanning the time of many years. Then, the big picture of either maintaining or rebuilding spinal health is a puzzle with almost too many individual pieces to count. On top of all of that, the pieces are by no means static, but always changing with minute refinements as our bodies respond to the course of practice and therapeutic measures. Phew! Oh, and don't forget that the only person who is going to make any of that happen is... you. So we also have to deal with the psychology of overcoming pain, of chasing it, rather than being defeated by it. And you thought this was going to be just any old simple blog post, didn't you? Ha! Fasten your seat belts, kids, because momma's finally ready to tackle this monster!

And because it's such a behemoth, this definitely warrants a new series, breathing fresh life and understanding into our compressed, contorted, and aching backs: I'll call it Spinal Spiration. The installments of this series could be infinite, but we'll start, as we must, with an introduction. Any introduction to the spine must be, you guessed it, anatomically-oriented. So let's get to defining our terms, and familarizing ourselves with the tangible matter of our subject. Geek out!

THE SPINE: PARTS OF THE WHOLE 

The spine is a splendid structure, really. It's very kind to hold us upright, allow us to bend, twist, and generally ambulate about, all the while safely housing our main switchboard: the spinal cord. There's so much fascinating anatomy to cover about the spine that I could go on forever. Yet, I must remember that this is a blog post, so I'll give you a Short Attention Span Theater version. 

The bony structure of the spine is referred to as the vertebral column, and usually consists of 24 individual vertebrae and 9 fused vertebrae in adults. So we're all on the same page going forward, you must know that vertebrae are referred to individually by a letter and a number. the letter represents the section of the spine in which that vertebra is located (i.e. Cervical = C, Thoracic = T, Lumbar = L, and so on). The number is simply the vertebra's placement in the column, counting from the top-down.

VERTEBRAE 

Let's first get familiar with the general structure of a vertebra. As illustrated, it consists of an anterial vertebral body, transverse processes on either side, and a posterior spinous process. The spinous process is what sticks out most as you reach back and feel your spine. That hole in the center of the vertebra is the vertebral foramen and houses your spinal cord. The shape of each vertebra is slightly different from the next. Neighboring vertebrae have facets, called intervertebral facet joints, that fit together much like pieces of a puzzle.  It's interesting to note that no two people have identical spines: the shapes of the vertebrae and the curvatures represented are much like a fingerprint and uniquely yours.  

INTERVERTEBRAL DISCS 

Most vertebrae are cushioned by intervertebral discs. Discs act primarily as shock absorbers between vertebrae, but also help to simultaneously hold the vertebrae together and allow for mobility in the spine. Vertebral discs are made of a tougher outer layer, the annulus fibrosus, surrounding a soft, gel-like center, the nucleus pulposus.

Disc problems are pretty ubiquitous, ranging from degeneration to slip to rupture, and can be symptomless or excrutiating. At birth, our discs are 80% water, and dehydrate gradually as we age. This is one place where we tend to lose height as we get older and our discs deflate. Discs allow for separation and approximation of vertebra, and respond to the influences of weight and gravity. After a night's sleep in a horizontal position, for example, we are at our tallest height. As we go through the day, our discs will depress downward and expand outward in all directions, leaving us a bit shorter than when we began. With this in mind, you can see what a god-send that hanging in an inversion can be for our discs (shout out to those of you who come to Relax Deeply regularly). Reversing the effects of gravity by hanging in an inversion swing or on a rope wall can help keep our discs healthy by creating glorious space for them to rehydrate or can alleviate the pressure of compression or an injury to a disc. (Of course, the nuances of hanging in an inversion should only be learned with the guidance of an experienced teacher. If you have a severe or acute condition, you should consult a medical professional before attempting any inversion.)

TO BE CONTINUED...

Well, that was quite a bit of information already. And I did promise you Short Attention Span Theater, so we'll leave the rest of our anatomy lesson for next time. In the second installment of Spinal Spiration, we'll get to know the cervical spine: hurray! So until next time, stay active and give your spine some love. To that end, I hope to see you in class!

NAMASTE!

 

Is It Weird That I Love My Dog's Breath?

Probably. But I can’t help it. I’ve been there for every shift in it’s bouquet: pure puppy perfume to strong salmony sweetness to the occasional dastardly deathy dankness. Even the most foul of the foul makes me feel warm and fuzzy. As Fat Bastard once said, “Everybody loves their own brand, don’t they?”

It boils down to love, of course, which is the strongest kind of yoga. I’ve been deeply interested in every moment of my dog’s existence from the first week of his incarnation: studying his habits, his tendencies, his movements, his wants, his needs, and shaping them baby step by baby step in the direction of the best damn dog I can imagine. And upon getting that shot of love from a particularly pungent pawpourri, it occurs to me: isn’t this just what we’re supposed to be doing with yoga? We utilize the practice to help us study our habits, tendencies, movements, wants, and needs so we can shape them in the direction of the best damn person we can imagine. Sometimes, we need some treats to get us motivated and keep us interested. Other times, we need a strong voice to remind us of what we are  capable and where we’re going. All the time, we need love. And we get that from our practice in increasing doses as we grow. The practice teaches us to know and understand ourselves more fully, and the natural by-product of understanding is love. Before we know it, we develop the most surprising kind of love: love for what might otherwise be dismissed as faults, weaknesses, and maybe even supposedly foul smells. Because it’s all ours, our complete human being that is magnificent, complex, infinitely faceted, and oh so temporary.

It’s easy to love a dog. They’re the best kind of yoga student: always paying attention intensely, always eager to please, always ready to give and receive love. If only we’d love ourselves just as readily. Now, take that to your mat and sit. Good person!

NAMASTE!

Happiness Report!

Did you do it? Track your happiness, I mean? I did, and I’m going to share my results with you. How’s that for intimacy?

But first, a little about the process, for those of you who did this with me to commiserate, and for those of you who didn’t (shame!) to get an idea of what to expect when you finally get around to it for yourself. All of your data is collected via a 2 minute survey, several times a day. I asked for prompts to take my surveys via text, which sends a link to take the surveys right there on my handy dandy smart phone. Technology can be so neat! It takes 50 samples to generate a full report. So, at 3 surveys a day, it took just over 2 weeks to complete. 

Now, I was really excited at the beginning to collect data several times a day. This comes as no surprise when you consider that I keep a log of everything I do most days to make my schedule more efficient, plus a log of my yoga classes, plus a log of my surf sessions, plus a giant whiteboard for all sorts of tracking and scheduling of miscellany, and on and on. It’s exhausting at times, and I don’t always stay on top of things, but the practice of keeping track always produces really useful information, so I oblige as much as I can. It’s a yoga practice in and of itself. But I have to say, I did get annoyed with my Happiness Tracking from time to time. Some of it was the unbelievably coincidental occurrence of my first two full-blown migraines in a while during my tracking period, which made for some skewing of my typical overall happiness. Bummer. Some of it was inconvenient timing of survey prompts: 3 texts a day every day asking how you feel can start to seem like you have a creepy stalker. 

But, instead of taking out a restraining order on my Happiness Tracker, I stuck with it and answered the surveys as promptly as possible all the way through like the good little nerd I am. The results? Not very surprising. The only surprises I saw were what I think is a flaw in the method. I had a couple of top ranking responses that came from individual survey responses, which in my opinion skewed my report. For instance, I responded on a number of occasions that I was quite happily interacting with my partner, but the one instance I noted that I was slightly more happily interacting with students created a result that looks like I overall enjoy interacting with students more than I enjoy interacting with my partner. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love students bunches and bunches, but I definitely love interacting with my partner more. As such, I think responses should have been weighted by frequency in addition to simple rating in order to reflect the bigger picture with more accuracy. But what do I know? Otherwise, the results were not surprising. Happiness was higher on my Super Fun Sunday, when I’m outside, when I’m doing things I want to do, when I get enough good sleep and when I’m focused on what I’m doing.

For me, the results weren’t the point. The point was the greater awareness generated by taking a moment to take stock of my present moment. I knew what my results were going to say because I had taken the time evaluate what I was doing at any given point and how that made me feel. It’s a terrific yoga practice. It’s mindfulness. It’s meditation. It’s all those things we strive to practice all the time, and typically don’t remember or have the motivation to do on our own. So, I highly recommend trying this Happiness Report out, if you haven’t already. Yes, you’ll get annoyed at it and even be tempted to not follow through after a while. But, please, just try it. Like all the yoga practices we do, it’s the act itself that matters, not the results. Though, the results are usually quite nice, because you will naturally gain an increased awareness of how to increase your happiness at every turn. Click here to get started. And now without further ado, for the curious among you, here are my results. Now that I’ve shown you mine, you have to show me yours…

NAMASTE!


Sutra Sagacity I.18: Be the Tomato

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.18

From "The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali" by Chip Hartranft.

From "The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali" by Chip Hartranft.

Through vigilant, steady practice, the seeds of perception and thought change and eventually cease, leaving only latent impressions. 

Well, there you have it: the end goal of yoga, folks. Peace, I’m out! “Huh?” Yeah, I missed it at first, too. We’ve been slowly building up to this point with neat little descriptions of what we can expect on our path of yoga, and now suddenly, BAM, we’re shown what the end result might look like. I missed it because it’s not exactly as explicitly named here as it has been before, samadhi. Rather, it’s described: we think to cease our thoughts and we’re there. That is, if there is a there there. See, in the last sutra (I.17) we learned what one kind of samadhi is like: samprajnata-samadhi, which is divided into four increasingly subtle states of consciousness. The state described here is the other kind, referred to as asamprajnata, beyond the mind. It’s the higher kind, where consciousness rests on itself alone. 

Now, it’s a tough concept to grasp, which is probably why we’re beaten over the head with it from the very beginning and many, many times over in the sutras thus far already. Remember that second sutra, anybody? Nirodha, samadhi, ultimate freedom, cessation of all thought, peace of mind, bliss, absorption, Self-realization: they all describe the goal of yoga. Yet, I think for most of us it’s hard to believe we’ll ever actually get there. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty hard time clearing my mind for a few minutes. And even then, I’m not quite sure I’ve actually cleared my mind, and then I’m judging whether I’m even capable of accurate judgement, and then….well, crap. It’s nice to engage in the idea that we can still our minds, but it’s pretty hard to believe it will ever become a permanent state of being. 

That’s where faith in change and growth come in to play. This sutra has at its heart abhyasa: practice. And we all know that real practice is steady, vigilant, and done with devotion over a long, long period of time, right (see I.14)? If you’ve done any amount of sustained practice in anything you know that growth is a natural and inevitable outcome. I’m constantly amazed at the growth that I get from practices I put in, from yoga to writing to surfing to organizing things. Whatever gets my attention through practice automatically grows. The other inevitability we can count on is change. This one is on the same level of inevitability as death and taxes. We know change will come, nay, is happening now…and now…and now. We know that we are going to change from the state we’re in now, and if we apply our abhyasa at every chance, we know that change will be in the direction of real growth. 

Think of yourself as a tomato plant. Tomatoes are vining plants, and to get really beautiful fruit in large quantities, they need a trellis to support them and guide their growth upward, away from the dirt and towards the sun. Yes, you can stick a tomato seed in the ground and it will grow on its own. But it’ll sag on the ground and bugs will eat all the fruit before you even knew it was ripe. And it’ll probably get moldy leaves and be a tangled, mangled mess. So, if you really want that beautiful, shiny, vibrant fruit, you’ve got to train the vine and adjust it every single day. It’s the same with ourselves and our practice.

So, even though we can’t see exactly how we’re going to get from a mangled mess of mind to bearing clear, free fruit, we do know how to train ourselves to grow upward in baby steps, so we can infer that we’ll surely eventually get there. We just have to have faith in the support of our practice, and the courage to refine it every day. Bhavani Maki writes that, “Yoga is a hero’s path, in which there is no indulgence for complaint, or avoidance.” She reminds us that as we take the path of yoga in “our passionate commitment to get clear…we have the potential to not only evolve as individuals, but as families, culture, and society.” So, no excuses of unworthiness, or challenge, or disbelief. We know that we will change and grow. Let’s keep doing our practices to grow in the direction of conscious freedom…because the fruit we bear will taste so much better that way!

NAMASTE!

Bandhas Shmandas: Mula Bandha

Every now and then I mention something about shtula and sukshma: specifically, that yoga is all about moving from the shtula (the gross level) to the sukshma (the subtle). In the beginning, especially for the Western world, yoga is very much about the outward appearance of different postures. We try to make our bodies match the shapes of demonstrated ideal postures, and either revel or cringe at what we find in doing so. Then, as we become more familiar with the postures, we start to pay closer attention to how they feel from the inside. This is when the fun really begins. We start to notice not only how different postures affect the way our muscles, organs, and bones feel, but also how they affect our moods, our energy levels, and even our thoughts. It's when we start to take note of this internal work that we can begin to refine the postures of yoga from the inside-out. The adjustments we make to our postures move along the path from the shtula to the sukshma. Are you still with me? Good.

A long time ago, when I had first contact with yoga, somebody somewhere mentioned some things about mula bandha. This, among other strange terms, had approximately 2.7 seconds of impact in my brain before flying onward and upward to someone better ready to receive them. Fortunately for me, mother yoga is persistently generous in her teachings. I probably heard mula bandha an estimated 10,972 times before it finally started to stick. What happened?

I'm not shy about the fact that I have a strangely curvy back with an interesting personality that asserts itself at select inopportune times. Sometime last fall, those "assertions" became persistent in the form of nearly constant pain and/or stiffness in the lower lumbar and sacro-iliac region (i.e. my lower back). I almost went into full crisis mode when my pain was not only not lessened by my personal yoga practice, but was made worse so often that I found myself restricting my practice to just a handful of pain-free poses. Yikes!!!

This drove me to retreat to that place deep inside where we can quietly and discreetly question ourselves and even those things that we love too dearly to question in other, more conspicuous parts of our minds. It's here that thoughts, events, ideas, and memories bounce to and fro like so many pong balls; colliding and morphing in ways that occasionally provide universe-altering paradigm shifts. That is, if we're paying attention.

People kept telling me, "Oh, you have low back pain? You need to strengthen your core, strengthen your core, strengthen your core. Okay. So I incorporate more "core" strengthening exercises into my practice. But nothing much changes. But, wait a minute. What kind of core muscles should we be talking about here? Aren't we always moving from the shtula to the sukshma? But, of course! We shouldn't be so concerned about more superficial muscles, rather we really want to get to the deep core. Didn't somebody say something back there about mula bandha?

Ding, ding, ding! That's right folks, we have a winner, or at least one winner out of many, in the "Make My Back Stop Hurting" sweepstakes! It took awhile, but I finally got the newsflash that mula bandha (along with the other major bandhas that we'll look at later) is very, very, very important. And so, the million dollar question is: what is mula bandha? 

Mula bandha is one of 3 major energetic locks or alignment points taught in many systems of yoga today. My teachers add a 4th bandha to that list, but we'll look at that later. Mula is a Sanskrit term that connotes "root," "beginning," "foundation," or "source." Bandha refers to a "lock," "bondage," or "joining together." Thus, the term mula bandha is often translated as the "root lock." There is often much confusion and shameful giggling over where exactly in the body this bandha can be found. Apparently, some very famous traditional gurus of yoga would stick a thumb right where the sun don't shine to check if one had mula bandha engaged - and if one didn't already, then one certainly would in that instant and for some time thereafter. However, America being America and lawsuits being, well, threatening that practice didn't make it to this side of the new world. 

Instead, teachers of yoga just had to get a little more specific with descriptive words in order to help students find the ever-elusive root lock. So, when we say mula bandha we start with a general feeling of a lifting upward in the floor of the pelvis. From there, we can get even more specific and say that mula bandha is located in the area between the anus and the genitals, a.k.a. the perineum, or for the more street savvy among us, the "taint." What can I say? Gotta include everyone here, right? Moving on. 

Check out the video practice for learning mula bandha.

Check out the video practice for learning mula bandha.

So now that we have an abundantly clear idea of the area of the body with which we are concerned, we can begin to develop a relationship with it. What follows is how my teachers most clearly taught it to me. (You can also check out a video guiding you through this practice for members at Maya Yoga Online.)

1. You'll need either a firm yoga block, a thick book, or a stack of books.

2. Sit in virasana, hero's pose (pictured). Be meticulous about how you set yourself in this seat, as always. You should be high enough on props so that you feel no pain in your knees, not even in the slightest!

3. Arrange yourself so that your sitting bones feel evenly grounded. Close your eyes.

4. Feel the area between your sitting bones. Is it resting on the the surface beneath you? Lift that area up using your attention. Feel and see an arc formed from one sitting bone to the other, like a rainbow. Notice how it relates to your breath: is it easier to find on an inhalation or an exhalation? How long can you maintain it without clenching or creating tension?

Now, the real work is to take this in to your personal practice. Apparently, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said that if you're not going to the bathroom or birthing a baby, you should have mula bandha. Hmm. That's a lot. So, perhaps we just start with baby steps - sitting like I just described to you for a minute or two every day, then working up to finding it in different asanas. Eventually, you'll take time in every posture you visit to find mula bandha, and before you know it, that root lock will be showing up all over the place in your daily life. Because mula bandha is believed to contain our energy, just imagine what this level of awareness could do for how you feel, how you carry yourself, how your yoga practice translates into every other aspect of your life. This lock just might hold the key you need. Get to know your mula bandha a little better for now, and then you can move up to discover mula bandha's partner in containment: uddiyana bandha. Until then…

NAMASTE!

Practice Giving

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It's right there in the 8 limbs of Yoga, but you might miss it at first glance. Aparigraha: it means non-hoarding, and that’s how we usually see it discussed: in the negative. The idea is that a yogi’s life should be simple, without collecting or hoarding lots of stuff, and with utter faith that we’ll receive everything we need, exactly when we need it. Most of the Yamas, or moral precepts, are translated and interpreted this way, with the prefix “non,” which is very literally appropriate. But, I’ve always thought that this excludes the pro, the action side of the concept, leaving us restricted and perhaps even guilt-filled at all the things we’re not supposed to do. So, I’m much more concerned with action, with what I can do, than with what I’m not supposed to do.

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In this light, aparigraha becomes generosity. We actively practice giving, and as result we naturally don’t hoard. Yes! This I like. Most of you are familiar with 1% for the ‘Aina, which is a vital part of my aparigraha, my practice of giving. Occasionally, though, I’m presented with a cause outside of my little ‘aina that inspires me to share. I have a beautiful friend, Heather Hobler, with a very personal mission of aparigraha that compels me to spread the word. I think perhaps you’ll feel inspired to practice your generosity in support of her overwhelmingly important cause, because I can sadly guarantee that nearly every single one of you reading this has been impacted by cancer in some way, as my family certainly has. Plus, I’ve somehow managed to surround myself all the way out here in the middle of the Pacific with so many people who refer to themselves as, ahem, Massholes, that I’ve got to represent! Please take a look and consider exercising this vital part of your yoga practice to help support one of the greatest challenges we all face.

PMC veteran and cancer survivor Heather Hobler and Dr. Andrew Wagner, Hobler’s oncologist at Dana-Farber.

PMC veteran and cancer survivor Heather Hobler and Dr. Andrew Wagner, Hobler’s oncologist at Dana-Farber.

Heather’s story and more about the PMC:

http://pmc.org/blog/2014/3/5/cancer-survivor-puts-new-spin-fundraising-pmc-year

 Heather’s blog on what she's giving back on this her 5th ride:

http://formydadandforme.com/2014/02/27/pmc-2014-yes-again/

I send so much love to you, Heather, and thank you for always managing to inspire me by your mere presence!

NAMASTE!

 

Be Here Later

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Now is a tricky thing. It seems as though our senses register the Now in a number of ways: how it looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells. And in a way, our senses do capture the Now. The problem lies in the delivery. Each of our senses has a bit of a delay in traveling to our central processing system, our brain. Many of our nerves deliver information at about 60 mph, and some are slower than that. Hearing is the fastest of our senses, with a delay of just milliseconds. That's pretty fast in our relatively small bodies, but it's still not immediate if you're talking about that flash that is the Now. Then, our brains have to process that information and make sense of it. By that time, the information we just registered is no longer actually Now. When you think about it, we're constantly living slightly in the past.

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This presents an interesting dilemma for yogis. After all, our practice promises to deliver us into the here and now with greater efficacy. So, if our very senses don't bring us the Now in real time, how can we be here now? Perhaps if we stay inside the brain, eliminate the information travel time, and think a single, simple thought that would be instantaneous. It turns out there's actually a slight delay in our thoughts as well: about a quarter of a second. There isn't a thought you can think that registers instantly. Apparently, the closest approximation we can get to being in the Now is in this realm where we eliminate conscious thought and as much as possible... just be. We have to bypass the conscious mind to get closer to the Now. Sounds a lot like meditation, right? And you know that the cats who came up with meditation had no hard scientific information about our neurons, our brains, and our sensory processing delays. It's pretty amazing when you think about it. But thinking is so in the past. Let's get in the Now! Go ahead. See if you can sit there, close your eyes, withdraw your senses, and just be. I'll wait... 

Could you do it? I know, it's so hard, right? Well, don't beat yourself up about it. You've got the rest of your life and a whole lot of practice to figure it out. Let me know how it goes. In the meantime, I'll share with you the most excellent Radiolab program from which all of this came. Those guys are always so thought-provoking. If only they could deliver those thoughts in the here and now! Namaste...

Mellifluous Mantras: The Shantipat

Prayer, music, blessings, sacred sounds, meditation, internal medicine: mantras can be any and all of these things to those who utilize them. The word mantra translates to “an instrument of thought,” from man- “to think” and -tra designating tools or instruments. Interesting then to think of a mantra being an instrument or tool of our thought that connects us on some level, whether to our selves, to others, to things that are seen or unseen. 

The Shantipat Mantra is one which my teachers hold in the highest regard, and I in turn have taken it in to my own practice and, when I can, incorporate into teachings. It comes from the Taittariya Upanisad, the best known portion of the Krishna Yajurveda, which is one of the four Vedas. The Vedas are known as the canonical texts of Hinduism, and dates to somewhere between 1400-1000 BCE. It is considered the student-teacher peace pact: an invocation for protection, nourishment, respectful collaboration, and illumination to be chanted at the outset of every lesson.

Nicki Doane chants the Shantipat Mantra. This and more chanting can be found at MayaYogaOnline.com.

I recommend listening to it first (above), as mantras are meant to be a vibratory experience. It’s the hearing and chanting of it that infuses it with that mysterious powerful feeling it is intended to impart. And then to help with the learning of it, you can check out the Sanskrit, transliteration, and interpretation as I learned it from my teacher, Nicki Doane. Should the chanting of mantras be something you take on as a practice, or if it’s something you already do, I hope you’ll bring this one in to keep the peace in everything you do.

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First and foremost, may all sentient beings everywhere feel safe and protected from all calamities of life: all manmade disasters, natural disasters and self-induced torment within our own consciousness.

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Secondly, may we always feel nourished, fed, and satisfied on all levels of our being.

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As we come together in this moment and all moments, may we work together with courage and strength so that everything we do in our lives may be bright and most of all, effective in moving us toward inner freedom.

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Let us not bring hatred or dispute amongst each other and especially not amongst systems of yoga.

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Aum, peace of the past, peace of the present, and always for the future.

NAMASTE!

Track Your Happiness

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Can we measure our happiness? It seems like a particularly specious undertaking. After all, “happiness” is a self-reported feeling, and let’s face it, people can be unreliable narrators at best. Moreover, the conditions that bring about happiness are as myriad as the people who experience it. As far as quantifiable science goes, Negative Nancy could have a field day with the idea of measuring happiness. 

Yet, raise your hand if you’re obsessed with happiness on some level: creating it, chasing it, finding it, pursuing it, feeling it, being it, giving it. Yeah, me too. So, ever the optimist, I believe that we can apply some objective measure to what creates happiness for us and, more importantly, what sustains it. But, being more TV detective than tenured professor, I have absolutely no idea how to do it.

I’m sure you can imagine, then, how gleefully I squealed upon hearing of a genuine scientific study called “Track Your Happiness” in which any old layperson like myself is freely invited to participate. I should give you a giant NERD ALERT, in case you haven’t already picked up on it. It’s yoga and data together! I might just pee my pants. This is a study that actually collects data about you over a period of time, via text messages of all things, to create a personal Happiness Report. Awesome! I could drone on explaining how it works, but I’d rather just let you listen to the interview.

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Now, Matt Killingsworth is positing a hypothesis that people are happier when they are focused on what they’re doing, rather than mind-wandering elsewhere, which is an interesting theory, but another topic altogether. I don’t want to get to that just yet. I want you to get started collecting your yogic self observations as data! I just started creating my Happiness Report today, and I want you to do one for yourself. It takes no more than 10 minutes to get it going. Go to trackyourhappiness.org and get your nerd on. I set my report to check with me 3 times a day, and it takes 50 samples to get a full report. So, let’s say we’ll be ready to check in with our completed Happiness Reports in 3 weeks. Alright, let's get to tracking!

NAMASTE!

Honoring Your Intentions

This week's post is dedicated to my magnificent mom, who celebrated another ageless birthday last weekend. She's the one responsible for introducing me to all this yoga stuff, so you can blame her. Love you, mom!

Honoring your intentions is time consuming. I don’t know about you, but my “intentions” run right over those pathetic little gym membership aspirations and pop a big ass wheelie to encompass an entire lifestyle. Take that, bitches. So, somewhere in my maddeningly limited days there’s got to be a little doing and working in yoga, surfing, eating well, sleeping enough, playing with my partner and my dog, keeping a spotless, scratch that, acceptably clean living/working space, tending to my plants, reading, and, good lord, I did used to run some months ago. And that’s not to mention all those other “things” we all “have” to do that are either obligatory in this game, or come as a necessary prerequisite or by-product of striving to maintain this Lifestyle First thing. Sheesh!

And so it was last week, with Nicki Doane’s “Honoring Your Intentions” Intensive at the studio, that I had yet another opportunity to contemplate how the hell I’m supposed to honor ALL of my intentions. You see, putting on an intensive at the beloved Maya Yoga Studio adds 30 hours or so to my normal week. It’s, well, intense. My tendency in the past has been to push myself way too hard to get everything else in a normal work week done on top of the demands of the intensive. Have I mentioned that I run 3 businesses? This, surprisingly enough, has not proven the most successful of strategies for someone whose every intention is just to live a comfortable, healthy, happy life. Weird, right? 

So, the week being about honoring our intentions and all, I decided I would do just that for a change. I blew off a whole lot of work for surfing, naps, a single measly run in there somewhere, going to bed before 11pm every night, oh and an evening of pomelo margaritas/surf shop buffet/epic comedy show. Shh, don’t tell. I have to say, I was still pretty whipped at the end of a week of strong yoga practice and a studio full of people for whom I could mother hen and generally dole out my energy. But, you know what? I had such a good time. I totally f-ing honored my intentions as best as I could, and I’m proud of my effort. Or lack thereof, depending upon your vantage point. Then, I got to top the week off with yet another entire day at the beach with SO many people whom I simply adore, surfing, playing games, kayaking with whales, snacking, getting a little too much sun, and generally being as content as I could possibly be. What a reward for a week well done! Nailed it. 

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What’s the point of all this? I’m not sure there is one. Maybe it’s something about journey over destination. Maybe it’s about how damn near impossible it seems to strike and maintain balance, and how precious it is when we do manage to stumble upon that sweet spot. Or perhaps it’s about at least momentarily applying those lessons we “learn” over and over again, rather than falling back into old habits when we get tired or challenged. Maybe, just maybe, it’s about deciding enough is enough, and popping at least one big ass wheelie a day to honor at least one of those most sincere intentions. It’s about practice, really, and living it, every single day, as best as you can. It’s about believing in yourself and the amazing life you can create for yourself every day, even if it’s just passing moments here and there. I believe in me, so I believe in you. Let’s do this!

NAMASTE 

(…bitches.)

Sutra Sagacity I.17: Subtle Understanding

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.17

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Sanskrit images from "The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali" by Chip Hartranft

Sanskrit images from "The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali" by Chip Hartranft

Samadhi can be of a cognitive nature, with ever subtler mental states (thinking, reflection, bliss, and a sense of self) until there is total understanding.

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The last group of sutras (I.15 and I.16) described to us different levels of attachment, or rather non-attachment. It’s a difficult subject, to be sure, but is a critical aspect of controlling our wacky minds (the other being practice - I.13 and I.14). And this leads directly to the next subject. That's right, Patanjali’s not downshifting for us slow-pokes. Now, he’s is moving on to describe in the next two sutras different forms of samadhi, which we know to be the ultimate goal of yoga: the union of our consciousness with the fabric of everything. I told you: pedal to the metal. 

This sutra addresses the initial stages of samadhi, collectively referred to as samprajnatah samadhi. To break it down: sam means “to put together with,” pra means “to bring forth,” and jna means “knowledge.” So, when we think of samadhi as the ultimate union, samprajnatah samadhi puts us together by bringing forth knowledge. Neat.

Being more of a cognitive or mental state, this includes four stages in particular. Vitarka is analytical thinking or physical awareness, a state with which most of us can identify. Vicara is reflection, a more subtle state of mind where we begin to observe more carefully and judge less. Ananda is a blissful state of mind wherein we’re supposed to become absorbed in awareness itself. A side note here: most of the commentators on the sutras caution yogis not to become attached to this bliss, or think it the final stage of evolution itself. Nay, there’s more work to be done, you blissful hippies. Right. And the fourth mental state here is Asmita which is described as residing in an awareness of “I am,” or a clear awareness of the purusa, or the soul. 

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Now, that’s about as far as I’m willing to delve at this juncture into the deepening states of cognitive samadhi, because, well, they make my instrument of cognition throb with a profound dullness of understanding. Our friend Bryant mentions that this sutra brings us into the more esoteric teachings of yoga. Yeah, it’s esoteric, alright. Suffice it to say, as we practice and meditate more and more, we’ll surely encounter ever subtler states of mind that open the various entryways into ultimate freedom of body, mind, and spirit. Bhavani Maki simplifies it to this: it is our comprehension of things moving gradually from a superficial level to full understanding. It's beautifully simple. It is the same with yoga as with learning and studying anything in life. We always begin with very surface level understanding, and with time and dedicated attention, refine and develop our understanding to the most magnificently subtle levels of awareness. These intricate  and esoteric descriptions of different states of mind are just notes left by other, albeit very distinguished, travelers on the path, describing to us what we might experience up ahead. And it’s very helpful information to have, to be sure. Ultimately, though, it’s up to each and every one of us to walk it and experience it for ourselves. 

NAMASTE!

And...Breathe.

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While we're on this streak of potentially awkward show and tell, I have this little recording from a while back. For a time, I was giving a lot of consultations on this amazing skill called "breathing" (really, you should give it a try), and had some requests for recordings of the exercises we would do. So, I embarked upon fulfilling those requests. I played with the possibilities and a few configurations. But, if you've ever heard your own voice played back to you, I'm sure you can understand the difficulty I had in finishing these projects. Well, that's not exactly true. I did finish a few, but couldn't actually bring myself to release them into the wild. That is, until now. 

You see, this very day, I just listened to a guided meditation from another person with an entirely different voice that I found quite nice and helpful. The thing is, it reminded me so much of the way I conduct guided meditations, that I suddenly thought it really silly of me to hold those recordings back, when they could prove useful to someone other than me. And I always say to myself, if it helps ONE person, it's all worth it. Right, on with it, then. Here, without further ado, I invite you to try a little guided meditation on the skill of breathing. A word of caution: this will either be very hard, or put you to sleep, or actually prove useful. However it works out for you, let me know in the comments below. And...breathe!

NAMASTE!

Happy Holidays from Infinity Crossing!

Or better yet, Mele Kalikimaka, which, as you may or may not know, is Hawai'i's way to say Merry Christmas to you. I'm actually doing my darndest to have something of a holiday at the moment. So, I thought I would take a break from surfing and enjoying some formerly-rare-but-suddenly-more-commonplace time with my little family to pop in this week and wish you all a very happy holiday season. Please be safe, patient, kind, merry, and very silly. I'll see you in a shortened class schedule this week to beat the holiday madness, or back in the right brain on the blog next week! Until then, I think a Mele Kalikimaka song has become holiday tradition on the blog....so check out the very mellow Mele wishes from some fantastic musicians below. They play kazoos. Yeah, gotta love these guys. NA-MA-STE!

Miracle Drug for a Better Life

Ok, truth time. Raise your hand if you take any substances to make you feel better: this includes prescription drugs, supplements, non-prescription drugs, maybe not so legal drugs, vitamins, caffeine, sugar, you get the idea. Come on, get those hands up. Yeah, I thought so. We all take something on a nearly daily basis to either make us healthier or make us feel better or both. 

Now, you're reading a yoga blog, so I think it's safe to assume you at least do some yoga sometimes. And this is great because you already know that we don't necessarily have to take a substance from outside ourselves to boost how we feel and make us healthier. You've probably experienced both of those effects from your yoga at some point. You know that yoga is terrific medicine for mental and physical health with no nasty side effects. 

Well, how nice it was to hear a doctor on the radio this week espousing exercise, including yoga, as a miracle drug that we all need to take for a better, longer, happier life (have a listen below). Of course, this is no shocking revelation, but clearly we need the reminder. Just think about how many prescription drug ads there are on television, or how many you yourself are taking. Doesn't some regular exercise sound better than popping pills? Granted, modern medicine is a marvel and countless lives have been made better by it. But the point to be taken here is that oftentimes when sorting out a prescription regimen, exercise is not even part of the equation. Perhaps, it's just a little too obvious?

Well, Dr. Jordan Metzi reminds us in his interview below that just a little exercise on a regular basis can indeed be a miracle drug to treat a variety of what ails us. Yes, yoga is included as a component of the miracle drug, but it's more so about constructing an exercise prescription specific to our own individual needs. Some of you might really feel you get everything you need from yoga, and for others of you, yoga might be the best supporting actor to your cardio or strength training regimen. What matters is that you take action, literally, for at least 30 minutes a day. That's all you need to really reap the benefits of physical exercise, according to Dr. Metzi, and everything above that is just icing on the cake. You know, healthy cake. Right. So, in this cold, wintry, bustling, celebratory, stressful, and reflective time of year, be sure to take your best medicine every day, be it yoga, running, swimming, biking, dancing, sporting, whatever. Just get up off your butt and take your miracle drug for a better life!

Click to listen to the program on Science Friday. 

Click to listen to the program on Science Friday. 

Seva This Season

"Living creatures are nourished by food, and food is nourished by rain; rain itself is the water of life, which comes from selfless worship and service." - Bhagavad Gita, 3.14 

'Tis the season...or so I'm told. While I do struggle with the dark side of the holiday season (that obligatory shopping to prove our love for each other) I do so enjoy the lighter side of the holidays (that generous, genuine caring for and giving to one another). It just so happens that there's a Sanskrit word for that: seva! Seva is an important concept in many Indian traditions, and especially in yoga. It means to serve selflessly, to serve God by serving others, because we are all made of the same essence of whatever you might think of as God: spirit, creator, universe, science, art, love, Self. Seva is a universal concept: I think we all see the value in helping others. And it just so happens that it's high time for Infinity Crossing to do our seva with 1% for the 'Aina

This time, I've chosen to give to the East Maui Animal Refuge, more commonly known around these parts as the Boo Boo Zoo. For over 30 years, the East Maui Animal Refuge (EMAR) has been a no-kill, all volunteer-run, non profit, rehabilitation sanctuary for injured and orphaned animals. EMAR is licensed by both the State and Federal Department of Fish and Wildlife to rehabilitate animals - including threatened and endangered species. They were the only people we were told to call when we found an owl floundering on the roadside some months ago, and they've been in my mind ever since. Thank you for the sweet, and no doubt at times heartbreaking, work you do for all the creatures of our 'aina!

In the seva of the season, I'd like to encourage all of you to make at least one of your gifts a charitable one. I'm not just talking about money, here. Most of us don't have much of that to give. It doesn't even have to be giving to an organization. You could organize your own seva in the form of a cleanup day or helping an individual in need. If you do choose to give to an organization, many are in great need of volunteers, equipment, supplies, and professional services and are happy to accept donations in whatever form you might have to offer. I always have a hard time choosing an organization when it comes time to do our 1% for the 'Aina donation, so I thought I'd post some of my list here in the hopes that we as a yoga community might be able to cover more ground than little 'ole me alone. You can also cruise our previous 1% for the 'Aina recipients to keep the love flowing. There are so many organizations out there: please do your own research before you donate to decide which organization tugs at your heartstrings and will be responsible with your donation. I hope you'll find room to extend your seva and the spirit of your holiday giving to one of these wonderful Maui nonprofits, or take the time to give to a personal favorite of your own. If you have a favorite you want to add, post it in the comments to spread the good word. Mahalo and happy giving!!

Women Helping Women 
Maui Huliau Foundation
Maui Reef Fund 
Maui Cultural Lands 
Auwahi
Grow Some Good
Whale Trust 
Project S.E.A. Link

NAMASTE!

Sutra Sagacity I.16: Soul's Sunshine

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra I.16

Images from The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali by Chip Hartranft.

The highest state is non attachment to the ever-changing qualities of nature, and clearly seeing the constancy of pure awareness. 

Artwork by Nike Savvas.

Man, this is getting pretty heady, now. So, to review a bit and give us some context here, We're in the last of a set of sutras (I.13, I.14, I.15, I.16) that describes the nirodha part of Patanjali's definition of yoga (I.2): yogas citta vrtti nirodha. Patanjali enumerated in great detail all he could of the vrttis in I.5-  I.12. So now we've come to the highest state of nirodha, or the calming of our fluctuating natures. This is a state even more profound than that complete non attachment to the physical experience of life, vairagya. Now, we move to vaitrsnyam, non attachment to the very atoms of which everything is made, which to yogis are the gunas.  You'll remember the gunas from our discussion about sutra I.2tamas, rajas, and sattva to be precise. These are the basic building blocks of all matter, whether physical or mental, and they combine in an infinite number of configurations to make up everything that we perceive, experience, or think. The only thing that is not made of gunas is that which perceives them: the purusa, pure consciousness itself. Here, in the state of vaitrsnyam, one is not only detached from the objects of sensory perception but also from the very stuff of which they are made, leaving only that sole constant at the center of it all: the purusa, or the Self, pure awareness, or the soul, if you like. 

Image by Jeremie Schatz.

At this juncture, I'd like to introduce to you a new sutra text that I'll being using in conjunction with Edwin Bryant's, because it's just so beautiful and offer a practitioner's perspective aside the scholarly one. It's called The Yogi's Roadmap and it's written by Bhavani Silvia Maki, who is one of my teacher's teachers. On this sutra she remarks, "While all of creation is known through the fluctuations of protons, neutrons, and electrons, nirodha is our ability to tap into the current of consciousness itself, which like energy, is never created nor destroyed, but simply always fluctuating." (91) To me, it's like scaling a huge mountain: as we climb through the ever changing climes of our experiences, we ultimately emerge fromt the clouds of constant change to rest on the summit in our soul's sunshine. Boy, won't that be nice?

I did warn you that this was getting into pretty heady territory, didn't I? If this philosophical and psychological stuff just isn't your cup of tea, you're certainly not alone! One of the biggest reasons I committed myself to doing this Sutra Sagacity series is to keep myself working on something that would otherwise fly right over my busy little head. I have to read about most sutras a few times before they even start make any sense at all. Most of them leave me feeling very small in my very humble understanding. We have to remember, yoga is a very long game, one which is believed to take countless lifetimes to master. That's why there are 8 limbs of yoga and not just one or two. If you're just into the asana, fine. if you're just into the social practices, fine. The method doesn't matter so much as the sincerity and the intention do. The sutras are here for us now and later: whenever we happen to open that door.  I have to quote Bhavani again: 

Yoga is compressed evolution, and time is the best teacher... As we are seasoned and mature in our life process, we gradually learn to no longer be blown away by the vrtti, and the turbulence we encounter in life. We enter a state of spiritual maturity and resilience, and recognize that change is the nature of nature.

So, keep cruising on your path and enjoy the climate wherever you happen to be at the moment and know that it will change. Stay open to the lessons as they come: some will land, others will take time to germinate. If you keep the faith and do your practice everyday, less and less will make you rock and sway. 

NAMASTE!

 

Relax, Man.

With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, I've noticed everyone spouting off lists of gratitudes all over the internet. It's a nice thing, really, to read positive vibrations instead of the usual curmudgeonly vitriol. So, I thought it only fair that I offer up my own thanks to you all this week by freely giving of a sweet little yoga practice from our new site. It's one of my very own Relax Deeply classes, which is a restorative yoga practice, wherein we use lots of props to fully support our bodies in the postures so we can stay in stillness for longer periods of time. I want to offer this one up to all of you as my gift this week: it will probably be the only yoga you'll even want to think about doing once your feasts hit your belly, or you return home from a hard fought hunt, I mean, Black Friday shopping trip. 

For those of you who usually come to Thursday evening Relax Deeply at Maya Yoga Studio, there is no class this week. I can't believe I forgot to announce it last week! So, please accept this offering in place of class, and come back out on December 5th. 

There are more practices like this one being added every week over at mayayogaonline.com. So, if you like what you see...join us! We still have some wrinkles we're ironing out, so that $5/month membership for life is still open to you, but not for long.... Have a blessed week ahead, and enjoy your relaxation!

*Note: for this class you'll need some props:

2 bolsters (or firm pillows or rolled blankets)

2 or 3 blankets

Something to cover your eyes 

We start in a basic relaxation pose: lay back over one of your bolsters and prop your head up with a blanket. If your back is uncomfortable there, put your other bolster under your knees, and that should make this perfectly heavenly. 

NAMASTE!