Welcome! I want to share a fabulous way to start your practice or your day. Easy Sitting Pose or cross-legged position centers mind and body and helps bring awareness to an internal spaciousness that allows us to connect with our deepest, most heartfelt intentions. Bonus: It's also a great hip-opener!
To comfortably practice this simple pose, find a clear and (ideally) soothing space in which to sit. If you're new to the pose, prop yourself on one or two folded blankets to lift your hips higher than your knees. This will encourage your hips to release and take pressure off your knees. Once you are seated, bring one heel in line with the center seam of your pants and place the other heel either in front of or stacked on top of the first. (You might find that you need to prop your knees with blocks or rolled towels if your hips are tight.) Rest your hands, palms up, on your knees. Feel your "sit bones," the bony protruberances that connect with your seat. Rock forward and back & side to side over your sit bones to settle in the exact center. Inhale and lengthen your spine, as though you are drawing your breath through a straw, up your spine, to the top of your head. Keeping the spine long, exhale and release your shoulder blades downward, like waterfalls streaming effortlessly over a mountainside. Allow your head to balance atop your relaxed neck. Close your eyes and bring attention to your breath. Notice that your inhalation is an expanding breath that promotes more length in the spine and greater spaciousness in the rib-cage. Realize that your exhalation is a condensing breath that invites your abdominal muscles to gently move back to support and "kiss the spine."
Do you feel lighter and more buoyant as you inhale? Do you feel grounded as you exhale? These are two of the benefits of the pose. Feeling lighter and more grounded, your mind can find peace. Your consciousness can turn to your heart center where you can tune into what matters most to you. Embracing what you find in your heart, you are in a perfect state of mind to create an intention for your practice or for your day. For example, you might decide to treat yourself kindly and respect your limitations through your practice or throughout your day. How would this shift things for you?
Maintain Easy Sitting Pose anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes, depending on your needs. Your hips and knees will benefit from the passive stretch. Your spine will become stronger in proper alignment and you will strengthen your core. Your neck and shoulders will learn to release. Your nervous system will shift into parasympathetic (rest & digest) mode and your mind will enjoy a quiet spaciousness that promotes clear thinking. You will come to know your deepest heartfelt desires and you will garner the strength to pursue them. Not a bad result of "easy sitting," right?
Helpful Hint: If sitting cross-legged simply won't work for you, sit upright in a firm, high-back chair with feet flat on the floor, hands resting on thighs, palms up. Follow the rest of the instructions above. The benefits will be the same with the exception of hip-opening (which you can do in other ways ... stay tuned for tips on hips!)
Thank you for your interest. I'd love to hear from you, answer questions, respond to comments. Please post your comments below and check back frequently for replies.
PS: Thank you for the above photo, Alex Stavistsky-Zeineddin, fellow yogini, friend and colleague.
The lovely Shannon Mayhew makes meaning of her yoga practice at Inner Reaches.
Step onto your yoga mat and make something of yourself. That's right, it's easy, it's meaningful ... and it's good for your brain. Stand in Mountain Pose and BECOME the mountain ... majestic, intractable, beautiful, powerful, you name it. Balance in Tree Pose and consider the type of tree you are ... a redwood, a willow, a mighty oak, a flowering magnolia? What sort of soil do you grow in? Or, do you grow in water like the mangrove? Do you drop your leaves in the fall? How far do your roots stretch?
Albert Einstein was famous for saying, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” As it turns out, imagination also encircles the brain.
Neuroscientists describe "mental workspaces" in the brain which become active during imagining. These "workspaces" are widespread neural networks that coordinate activity across several regions in the brain and consciously manipulate symbols, images, ideas and theories (Medical News Today, Sept. 22, 2013.) This means that imagination exercises not just specific regions of the brain, as once believed, but many regions at once.
In my yoga classes I encourage students to embody their asanas. This is an act of imagination that stimulates the mental workspaces mentioned above. The more complex the mental image, the further reaching the neural network. In other words, when we "become" the mountain in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and we mentally conjure the image of a snow capped Mount Ranier, covered in pine forest, supporting wildlife of various kinds, sun shining down, light glinting off of flowing streams ... our brain is working to coordinate messages from visual, auditory, olfactory, and kinesthetic areas, plus engaging memory, and other forms of cognition. Our brains are making meaning of our yoga.
Vrksasana ... Tree Pose, anyone? How much more stimulating it is to our brains to reach our roots deep into the ground, searching through fertile soil for water, drinking nutrients provided by mother earth while stretching our limbs and branches high into the heavens, receiving nourishment in the form of sunlight, offering safe haven to colorful birds and busy squirrels.
So, if you want to exercise your brain while you exercise your body on your yoga mat, make meaning of the poses you practice. Embody the mountain, the tree, the fish, the cobra. Manifest the qualities inherent in the essence of the pose. Envision your surroundings. Smell the odors. Hear the sounds. Engage your imagination as fully as possible. The added plus ... you will have more fun ... and like Einstein, you will encircle the world.
The practice of yoga is a practice of self discovery. An important theme often offered by yoga masters for self exploration is the theme of "holding on and letting go." We are encouraged to recognize our very human tendency to hold on to our past. It can be as simple and straight-forward as noticing our expectations in asanas, based on prior experience. For example, if I had a great balancing practice last night, in which I nailed Tree pose, Warrior 3 and Dancer, it's likely that today's expectation would be that I could (and should) repeat that performance. The master teacher would say, "Poppycock! Today is a new day. This moment is unlike any other. Expect nothing. Do what you can. Embrace this moment fully.
Recently, my eldest sister died. Since the day of her parting, my mind has been busy recounting moments, memories, smiles and tears. My yoga practice has helped me to be present to my grief while noticing, without judging, my desire to hold on to and never let go of the energy of my sister's spirit. The remainder of this post is an essay written in her memory, on the topic of "holding on."
Who, exactly, is doing the holding on when a loved one dies yet her spirit refuses to fade … choosing instead to intensify in brilliance? Playing with lights and dominating dreams? Whispering in the night and chiming in with song during the day?
My sister died on Groundhog Day. Not to be forgotten, she chose the day, I’m sure, as a nod to the movie of the same name. I saw her that morning. She awakened me at precisely 6:20. I know this because I checked my iPhone to see the time. I don’t even know why I checked. It was a reflexive thing. I mean, I had been awakened from a sound sleep by the image of my sister’s face, looking for all the world like a younger, healthier version of the woman I had seen days earlier, clinging to life, skin draped over bone, eyes bulging and pleading for relief. Her elephant-like legs protruded from beneath the sheets. It was too painful, she had told me, to keep them covered. Even so, she wistfully admitted to me that she wanted to live. She thought she had wanted to die, she confessed, but now she knew she wanted to live.
That day, the day of our visit, she did live. She lived fully. Heroically pushing aside excruciating pain, she remembered how to laugh. Together, we laughed at our present selves and the various selves we had known each other to be throughout our shared 63+ years on this planet. She confessed her sibling jealousies while I admitted my envy. We discovered that day, that in our youth, we had each thought the other to be superior in every way. I had always struggled to fashion myself after her, the eldest, the smartest, the most sophisticated of my mother’s four daughters. She had a special ability to captivate others with fascinating conversation on a broad range of topics, even as a young girl. And I was in awe of her deep caring and compassion for others. To me, she was like a saint in that way.
And yet, she was a sinner, too. The way she puffed on her cigarettes as a young teen and successfully snuck boys and alcohol into the basement, right under my mother’s nose! I would sometimes sneak around to the side of the house to peer into the basement window, hoping to catch sight of one of her famed make-out sessions. Once, I thought I saw that she was naked from the waist up. I could not even imagine having the nerve to do such a thing. Hence, she was elevated in my mind. She was notorious. When I told her that on the day of our visit, she laughed and cried … both very, very hard.
She took my hand, looked deep into my eyes (it was a challenge to bear that gaze.) She spoke to me with a sincerity I have rarely experienced, “You have always been the one to look up to. You were the prettiest, the most talented, the most motivated to do good. I watched you with awe as you grew up and I knew that whatever lead I had when we were young, you would surpass by sheer will. And you have. And I’m so proud of you. I love you.” She took my breath away. We sobbed for a few moments and then … she broke into laughter and I followed suit.
There was more … so much more that unfolded that day. My sister, who had been starving herself, consented to eat from pouches of pureed baby food provided by my daughter who also carefully polished my sister’s beautiful, long fingernails. I massaged her cracked and swollen legs and feet and my one-year old granddaughter joined in, sweetly stroking my sister’s thigh. Her estranged son visited and they held hands for hours and apologized to one another for their multiple, mutual misunderstandings. We all told jokes, we exchanged meaningful glances, we wept with joy and sadness. When it was time to leave, we promised to see each other in a few days.
A few days later, my sister woke me from a sound sleep. She was smiling. She looked healthy and happy. She said nothing. I checked the time. It was precisely 6:20 AM. I went back to sleep, convinced that I’d been awakened by a dream.
At 7:30 AM, my daughter called for me to come upstairs. “Aunt Martha passed away,” she said. “I know,” I thought but didn’t say. Later, when I spoke with her nurse, I learned that the time of my sister’s death was 6:20 AM. It was Groundhog Day. I knew that I would hold on to the memory of my sister’s smiling face for the rest of my life. I suspect that she will reappear again and again and again for as long as she feels the need to hold on.
~ Namaste ~
I was born a yogi, and so were you, though most of us need help to remember when mind and body were one. The experience faded as we grew.
According to my mother, I was the type of child who could not stay still. I explored everything with my body. I put things in my mouth. I wriggled around in dirt. I climbed trees and hung upside down from branches. Once, around the age of seven, I scrambled to a neighbor's rooftop, causing my mother (and our neighbor) great distress.
By the time I was ten or eleven years old, I had developed quite a talent for molding and moving my body in ways that mimicked my surroundings. I was convinced that I knew exactly how it felt to be a tree, a rock, a worm, a brook.
My family wasn't particularly religious. Our attendance at the nearby Presbyterian church was irregular. When we did go, I enjoyed sitting in the balcony, visualizing myself leaping, monkey-like, from railing to chandelier. I could feel, in my body, the joy and excitement of swinging over the head of our stern minister. I could capture the thrill of swinging through a jungle canopy even while sitting quietly in church!
One day, while swinging on my backyard swing, sprouting wings and becoming a bird, I heard a whisper coming from somewhere inside. "My body is my temple," it said. I heard it over and over in my mind. That evening I explained to my mother that my body was my church and, I reasoned, I no longer had to be a part of a congregation. Puzzled and exhausted, my mother simply stared at me in silence. But, from that day forward I was no longer subject to the scratchy crinoline or pointy-toed patent leather shoes that were the foundation of dressing my "Sunday best." My Sunday mornings were henceforth spent barefoot in a nearby stream or perched in the crook of a friendly oak tree.
The reverence I felt in nature became a spiritual template for the rest of my life. To this day, when I practice yoga, I allow myself to embody the mountain, the tree, the eagle, the cat and the playful downward-facing dog. Every yoga pose has an essence, typically expressed in the name of the pose, that can be experienced in the body and the mind simultaneously.
The beauty of yoga, as I see it, is that it provides a foundation for self-awareness, creativity and spiritual development. Asanas offer a blueprint for how to build a strong body and supple mind that combine to become a "temple" for a life of reverence and awe. From the smallest particle of dust to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, Creation holds vast mysteries. You are at once the microscope and the telescope. Whether looking deeply within or expanding into boundlessness, the art and science of yoga offers clarity of vision and purpose.
Yoga can help you break free of intellectual conditioning and risk feeling the fool for the higher purpose of coming to know yourself. You are a divine creation. Your existence is a golden braid of body, mind, and spirit woven into the fabric of the Great Mystery.
Yoga means union. Step onto a yoga mat with an intention to unite mind and body. Spirit will arise. Step off your mat and bring your spirit creatively into the world. You will come to know your place in the cosmos. You will begin to understand, deep within your bones that you are one with all that is. You will no longer look into the eyes of another without seeing a reflection of yourself. You will no longer feel separate from the air you breathe or the ground on which you walk. You will know every expression of life. And you will be free.
~ Namaste ~
(Excerpted from my book, You Don't Have to Stand on Your Head: creating an inspired life through yoga. Inner Reaches Press, 2009.)
It doesn't take much to experience it. In fact, it takes nothing at all. Strip away all the trappings of the life you've built, your successes, your failures, your investments, your belongings ... everything ... and there it is! Like the air you breathe. Love.
If you're like me it will take some practice to dip into this endless sea of love. You will have to move beyond your most cherished romantic fantasies. You will need to release yourself from the grip of "our culture of never enough" as described by researcher and author, Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW. (For Ms. Brown's blog go to www.brenebrown.com) You will have to recognize that the longing you feel in your heart for the perfect love is actually a portal to your own divinity.
Divinity? Really? Isn't that a bit grandiose?
Divinity. Really. And there is nothing less grandiose than realizing that you are, like every other living thing on this planet and in the entire universe, a part of and loved by the Divine. How do I know? I have practiced for decades the difficult and often frustrating art of stripping away the stories I've internalized that have kept me arm's length from the love that is my birthright. Here's what I've learned:
Life is challenging. The Buddha taught that life is suffering. His observations pointed to the truth of our human existence. We are born, we are vulnerable, we experience hunger, we suffer illness, we strive, we fail, our successes are fleeting, we grasp, and we suffer loss, we die. Not the most uplifting message. But that, obviously, was not all. The Buddha went on to say that every sentient being has the unique ability to realize their own divine nature. The challenge is to get out of our own way by accepting our vulnerability and opening our hearts to every moment of life ... moment by moment.
We are vulnerable. From the moment we are born we need the support of those who love us. This never ends. We, in the U.S., grow up in a culture that promotes independence with a vengeance. In my own family we joke, especially when we are at our wits end and someone offers advice, "Don't tell me what to do!" It's a joke, of course, but as Sigmund Freud pointed out, there is a thread of truth woven into every joke. We don't like to depend on others and that is a large part of what keeps us from realizing our own true nature ... we are, all of us, a part of the Divine ... not apart from the Divine.
Love is our environment. Like fish in the sea, we live in an environment of which we are largely unconscious ... until something goes awry. We notice when we struggle to breathe. We notice when wild fires rage and strange weather patterns emerge. Consider an even subtler environment ... the environment of love. We tend to notice when it seems lacking ... wars rage, terrorism persists, random acts of violence break out, we lose a loved one or never truly connect to that one ideal love. But, here's the thing ... by striving to keep ourselves from acknowledging our vulnerabilities, we cut ourselves off from the love that is our birthright. (For a brilliant discussion of this phenomenon please read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown.)
We each can experience Divine Love. I am not talking about religion here. While practicing religion is a fundamental right in this country, so is the choice to reject religion. It is not my purpose to argue either one. I simply want to say that Divine Love is the environment in which we live. I believe that without it, there would be no romantic love, no parental love, no self love. I believe that disengagement from it, leads to war, terrorism, violence, and loneliness. I have learned that even in my darkest hours I can open my heart to the Divine Love that permeates our world and become inspired to touch the lives of others with simple acts of kindness. I have learned that Divine Love is infinite and contagious. Do you doubt me? Try looking into the eyes of a smiling baby or playing fetch with a playful puppy.
It can be hard to open to Divine Love. Here's the rub. It turns out that we seem to be conditioned from the get-go to look outside of ourselves for the love we so desperately need. As babies, we look into the eyes of our parents for the reflection of the Divine Love that resides within. As children, we begin to feel the slings and arrows of human imperfection and we seem to internalize them as our own (unless we are fortunate enough to have loving guidance that helps us acknowledge that humans, all humans are imperfect and vulnerable.) As adolescence and young adults, we begin to steel ourselves against heartaches and perceived failures by constructing personas and placing blame. At this point, we have created an "us and them" construct which keeps us from fully knowing ourselves and realizing the Divine in all. The very idea of Divine Love becomes suspect, and it should, in my opinion because Divine Love is not an idea, it's a reality that can be experienced.
Meditation, time spent in nature, and acts of kindness ... are gateways to Divine Love. Creative acts and playfulness will also get you there. Understanding and accepting your vulnerability and the imperfections of others is a difficult and worthy practice that pays off by opening the doors to Divine Love.
Once you experience Divine Love you will always have access to it. So what? Why does it matter? Because without it you will always be caught in the "culture of never enough." No matter how hard you strive, no matter how well you behave, no matter how successful you are, your heart will feel the longing for Divine Love and you are likely to misinterpret that longing for a better partner, or a higher paying job, or a more beautiful body, or ... or ... or ... not that there's anything wrong with those pursuits when they don't own you. But, I believe, based on my personal experience and supporting research, disengagement from Divine Love equals a life governed by pursuit that never fully satisfies.
What have you got to lose? Give it try. Today. Tomorrow. And the next day. Sit quietly in nature for twenty minutes or write a poem about vulnerability ... yours. Play with your dog without thinking of anything else. Paint! Create a garden! All the while, open your heart to Divine Love. It can't hurt. Honestly. You might even experience a taste of what the Buddha came to realize. We are all a part of One Divine Love.
It's your yoga. Have you ever asked yourself why you do it? You might be surprised by the number of people who don't really know their motivation for practicing. Oh, everyone can say what brought them to yoga. Some came to class along with a friend as a social activity. Some were sent by doctors. Many were lured in by media coverage of the yoga boom, complete with images of lycra clad yoga masters and promises of youthful vigor. Some, I'm sure, simply enjoy having a reason to wear the outfit. All are valid reasons for attending yoga classes but my question goes deeper.
What is it that you are specifically seeking each time you come to your yoga mat? It's an important question. You see, if you can't answer or you simply don't take the time to ask, you are essentially putting yourself at risk of missing out on the highest benefits of yoga. Not to mention the increased risk of injury. Oh, you will benefit every time you practice but you will benefit greatly every time you practice with a specific motivation in mind.
At the beginning of each practice I ask my students to take time to "check in" with their bodies, their states of mind, and their connections to spirit. I instruct them to create an intention for their practice based on information that has arisen from within. Sincere self inquiry yields the exact information needed to guide the practitioner through an intelligent practice.
What is an intelligent yoga practice? Quite simply, you practice intelligently when you train your conscious awareness to maintain its focus. Let's say you are an asthma sufferer. You have come to yoga to become skillful at breathing. On this day you sit quietly on your mat to check in with yourself deeply. You realize that your breath is rapid and shallow. Your body feels tense and you become aware of a mild anxiety. Your connection with spirit feels faint and distant. Based on this information you create an intention for your practice today to maintain slow, steady, balanced breathing.
At first it's easy but the human mind wanders. It's the nature of the beast. Your attention drifts around the yoga studio, now checking out the unbelievably perfect downward-facing dog across the room, now mesmerized by the stream of sunlight that glints off the teacher's singing bowl. You notice your lack of focus and gently guide your attention back to your breath...again and again and again. By the end of class, you estimate that your attention wandered several hundreds of times. Yet, you feel relaxed and anxiety free. You are breathing steadily and fully. You recognize that your very life is a miracle...and that your downward-facing dog is imperfect...and that your imperfections are perfectly human. You are grateful.
Yoga's highest benefits are personal in nature. Yoga means union. When we fully engage in our practice with a clear intention that arises from a deep personal truth we unite body, mind and spirit. Whether we intend to improve our breathing or our downward-facing dog, holding fast to our intention brings meaning and fulfillment. Each time you come to your mat ask yourself, "Why am I practicing yoga?"
~ Namaste ~
When I was little, about 4 years old or so, my beloved grandfather gave me shiny pennies as a treat. I never equated them with currency. It never occurred to me that they could be traded for any sort of goods. I simply thrilled at the beauty of them. I can still feel my heart beating happily when I think about them. They were bright and shiny and special, mostly because they came from my Grandpa. I knew they were gifts of love and I cherished them.
This morning, as I sat in meditation, I found myself wondering what I had done with all those shiny pennies. I remembered receiving them. I re-experienced the joy in my heart and the warmth of my grandfather’s love. Still, I had no recollection of what became of the pennies. I didn’t have a piggy bank. I had no special purse or hiding place. I don’t even remember pushing them into pockets.
It’s funny when a thought takes over a meditation. Regardless of my years of experience, there are times when a thought or a memory inserts and simply refuses to drift away. I have disciplined myself to return my awareness to my breath. But there are those times when the shiny pennies are just too compelling. They grab my attention and won’t let go.
This morning was just such a time. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself … a little tow-headed girl, arm outstretched, palm up, fingers open, eyes closed. I heard my Grandpa’s voice, “Put out your hand and close your eyes. Get ready for a big surprise!” Then became now. I felt a familiar anticipation running through my veins. I re-experienced the elation of feeling the small, cool circle of copper in the center of my tiny hand. Eyes popping open, smiles bursting into giggles. What began as a mindfulness meditation transformed into a moment of magic and I once again experienced the innocence of pure, unconditional love. It was blissful.
I am reminded, too, of my early years of meditation when bliss was a pursuit, not a natural occurrence. Like many beginners, I followed the “rules” of meditation to the letter, expecting the payoff to be swift. Bliss would be mine if I sat quietly in a comfortable location with no distractions, emptying my mind by attending to the ebb and flow of my breath. Inhale. Exhale. No matter what my mind presented, I would dutifully go back to my breath and effortlessly achieve Nirvana. This went on for years! The only thing missing was the state of Nirvana.
I blamed myself. I judged myself a failure. I cursed my mind for its refusal to open the gates of Bliss. But a funny thing happened on my way to Nirvana, I began to notice that day-to-day life ran a little more smoothly, minor frustrations failed to escalate to major melodramas. I stopped cursing other drivers on the freeway. I learned to tolerate discomfort. Sadness was sadness and joy was joy. While no Nirvana, it was, I had to admit … nice.
After a time, nice is … nice. Meditation is a practice not a pursuit. Moments of bliss arise. Some are remembered. Some are spontaneous. All are shiny pennies. They needn’t be collected. They aren’t for commerce. They are moments of innocence, of pure unconditional love of the self by the Self.
May you open to the love that is your birthright. May you notice the shiny pennies at your fingertips. May you free yourself from the pursuit of Nirvana and enjoy life’s many moments of bliss.
~ Namaste ~