How Do I Know if It’s ‘Working’?

How do I know if my yoga practices – postures, breathwork, meditation, lifestyle, etc. – are working?

I appreciate Dr. Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s answer from “Inner Quest”:

The essential technique of yoga is to bring your mind to a state of balance – to attain control over its modifications. You become the master of your mind when you attain the ability to guide it so that it works the way you want it to work. Chitta vritti nirodha yogaha (Sutra 1.2)

Controlling the mind does not mean suppressing the mind. It’s like driving your car. Having control over the car means driving it the way you want and to the extent you want. It also means that you are able to stop it when you wish and turn it when you want. Similarly, control over the mind means having the ability to let it work when it is needed, and to stop it from running when it’s time to rest.

Any technique that helps you gain mastery over your mind is a part of yoga: your diet, exercise, and breathing, as well as your thinking process and your philosophy of life. But with any practice you do, see whether it is helping you become clearer, more concentrated, more organized, and more cheerful. Are you having fewer doubts, fears, attachments, and complications in your life? Is your life becoming simpler and more straightforward? If you are moving in that direction, you are practicing yoga. If not, there is something wrong either in the practice itself or in the way you are doing it. No matter how glorious a practice seems to be, no matter how popular it is, or how much others seem to admire it, if you do not notice a positive effect on your mind then such a practice does not qualify as yoga.

So, does my asana practice bring me concentrated energy or exhaustion? Does my meditation practice result in clarity in my everyday life? Do my food, sleep, relationship choices bring me joy or drag me down? Food for thought =).

Find more wisdom here: The Himalayan Institute

May – Mental Health Month

I didn’t know May was Mental Health Awareness Month until I was asked to facilitate a yoga / meditation session for a local support group. What an amazing group of strong men & women – I was humbled by their courage to attend this session, by their open-ness to trying a little yoga, & by their honest assessment of their experience after the practice.

“I feel I can breathe a little easier.” “I feel a little calmer.” What precious feedback.

I didn’t know:

https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Images/IntoMentalHealth/IntoMH-Facebook-Timeline.png

I didn’t know:

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There’s much I do not know about mental illness … I do know that I have judged others out of my own ignorance and fear.

My personal yoga practice continues to evolve my understanding of myself — my body, my mental / emotional states, my spiritual path. I’m only scratching the surface of the Yoga Sutra (ancient text explaining the goal and practice of yoga) and the understanding that I practice these 8 limbs of yoga to reveal my True Self, rather than seek something or someone outside of myself to validate or make me better.

This refreshing understanding contradicts certain religious interpretations that we’re born incomplete, in need of fixing, or “sinful.” (Growing up & continuing to practice in the Lutheran faith tradition, I’m only now moving past a dualistic “sinner-saint” thing — I think we’re all much more nuanced than that, & maybe Jesus saw us as more too.)

This not-enoughness plagues so many of us, myself included … & I don’t know about you … it certainly affects my mental well-being.

I do not claim to know the very real thoughts/feelings of hopelessness, frustration, fear, sadness, shame, or anxiety associated with mental illness. I hope if you or someone you know is struggling — and we all do know someone according to the above “1 in 5” statistic — that you use your yoga practice to cultivate light and compassion within yourself so that you may be present for yourself or that someone. Note: There’s no need to change you or offer solutions to someone else — your presence is enough.

What about mental well-being? Cultivating that inner sense of well-being, ease, stability? Enough-ness? Here are some practices that I’m working with —

  • Morning Routine – Practices that both cleanse & nourish – tongue scraping, dry brushing, abhyanga, neti pot, tea & journaling.
  • Simple Asana – no fancy poses or expectations, just simple yet profound hatha sequences that provide grounding and stability.
  • Meditation -Taking time to retreat, get to know myself, and that myself is enough.
  • Taking in my dogs’ joy – Baxter & Tortilla are always, always, ALWAYS happy to see me. When I wake up in the morning, they’re eager to get going. When I come home from work, they wiggle & waggle with delight. When we’re relaxing in the evening, they want to be close. I can’t believe I take this devotion for granted some days.
  • Social Connection – This one can be difficult for me as an introvert – I recharge in solitude. Contrary to popular belief, introverts like me really do enjoy people & socializing, it just takes more energy so we need to retreat (for our mental well-being!).
  • Honoring my Daily Rhythms – I’m not good at this one. I go to bed way later than my body wants to … & struggle to rise even though I LOVE mornings. So, I have an intention for summer ;).

So, consider your mental well-being this month. Recommit to your practices, or start a new practice (maybe click here). Let’s commit to cultivating compassion and a sense of enough-ness — for ourselves and especially for those seeking their own mental well-being in the midst of struggle. Learn more about Mental Health Month here: NAMI.

Overwhelmed

I’m overwhelmed. Cuts to the core of a person who fancies herself as a keep-it-together, don’t-show-weakness-or-failure woman.

Some folks react to overwhelm with anger, laughter, going out with friends, talking with a therapist, or fill in the blank. When I reach the tipping point of overwhelmed, I cry. The feeling of tears seems to come out of nowhere, at an unexpected time, as a result of a “happy” or “sad” experience or conversation. I think, “What the heck am I going to cry for … right now?”

Of course there are signs (often weeks before) that I’m becoming overwhelmed before this tipping point. Here are a few of my warning signs (maybe you identify?):

  • There’s a “+6” on my day’s calendar, meaning I have to scroll down in my phone for 6 more events, meetings, or to-do’s. Oh, & the following 2 weeks are similar.
  • I’m heating up frozen burritos for lunch on my way out the door – but they’re “organic” so I feel better about it.
  • I notice I’m not sleeping through the night — when I’m reaching a tipping point of “too much,” my body wakes at 3am & starts thinking, planning, worrying. (Towards the end of a previous & awesome job, this happened regularly for a couple years)
  • I do my morning practices – lemon water, neti wash, abhyanga, asana, relaxation & meditation – yet sporadically & more out of sheer survival than for enjoyment, fulfillment, or self-care.
  • Time with Jim deteriorates. I’m too distracted for time hanging out, getting outdoors, or intimacy.
  • I’m out of touch with my family.
  • My dogs don’t get their morning walk, & I’m flying in / out the door through the day saying, “I love you, I’m sorry, I promise we’ll walk, snuggle, play when I get back.”
  • My hair sheds more. My digestion goes haywire.
  • I procrastinate – more than I already do – because I just don’t know where to even BEGIN.

And then one day I come home & cry. My body finally says, “Look sister, once AGAIN, this isn’t working for you. Time to let the flood gates open.”

I’m still overwhelmed with too much on my plate mentally & emotionally – yet admitting it to myself & letting myself cry releases some of the self-imposed pressure.

So here I am, writing a blog post in the middle of it.

I haven’t graduated from periods of overwhelm. Seems to be a lifelong learning course for me =). My ongoing lessons include:

  • Notice subtle signs in my body, mental state, sleeping & eating patterns. Early.
  • Go easy on judging myself for getting myself into this overwhelm. Again.
  • Delegate. People want to help, work together, be part of something bigger.
  • Say “No.” To projects better suited to someone else’s time, talent, passion.
  • Say “Yes.” To self-care – to quality sleep, cooking good food, making time for yoga on & off the mat. To spending time with my husband/dogs/family/friends, getting outdoors. (Connecting Heart & Mind came across my email this morning … so I said “Yes.” The practice deserves sharing!)

Maybe you’re like my husband, who takes most of life in stride & doesn’t let much get to him. Maybe you’re like me, who works through periods of “Gaaaaaahhhhh! It’s all too much!” There’s room for all of us. We’ve each got our “stuff” we’re working through, learning from, to become the True version of our Selves (1.3).

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Let’s just take things one day at a time.

 

Sit

“Yoga is the quieting of the fluctuations of the mind.” – Yoga Sutra 1.2

 

The first time I was introduced to this statement in my yoga teacher training, I thought, “Oh, ok. Simple enough. Let’s do this.”

I laugh out loud now, embracing my go-get-em naivete regarding my personal yoga journey. I continue to discover that, rather than a still pond, my “fluctuations of mind” range from cute little ripples to raging 60-foot waves.

First of all, I began practicing yoga postures as a form of exercise & stress relief … NOT as a way to quiet my mind. I needed to be in shape, on-the-go, & accomplishing things. I needed to be better & do more … just a little less stressed in the process =).

Maybe you or someone you know can identify?

Secondly, learning that yoga is more than getting into & out of physical poses … that there are several aspects, or 8 limbs of yoga, & I’d been focused on one (the physical) … well, for me that realization was both daunting & exciting. Exciting because there’s so much more to learn – a lifetime of learning & experiencing, really. Yet also daunting – “You practice yoga? You teach yoga?” someone asks. Hmm, do I? (but that’s a reflection for another time)

Physical poses serve to open the body, move energy & breath in an intelligent way … so one can move into the deeper aspects of yoga – relaxation, concentration, meditation & so on. If I stop at posture practice, roll up my mat & move on, I may be missing an opportunity to know myself a little more deeply, connect to something bigger, & move out into the world with stability & ease in mind as well as body.

So it’s time to practice some sitting … this thing called meditation. (Now cue the stereotypical image of skinny, old, half-dressed man with legs impossibly tangled, zen-like face, probably sitting for decades in enlightened bliss)

Reviewing my meditation journals from a while back, I read, “So I’m doing all this yoga stuff so I can SIT? Really? But I’m not DOING anything. And it hurts. And it takes too much time. What’s this sitting going to accomplish? What’s in it for me?” (& the mind waves start to roll …)

Maybe you or someone you know can identify =).

Thankfully the first step in meditation — establishing a sitting posture — is simple & offers immediate feedback & results. Sit so you feel upright, stable & comfortable. Period.

No pretzel legs. No time requirements. No feeling yogic or having secret knowledge.

Use a chair! Grab those cushions & blankets. Experiment. You’ll know when you’ve found your perfect sitting posture. Sit for one minute or twenty. The point is to SIT with ease & stability on a regular basis. Then the process of meditation begins.

Why focus so much time & effort on the simplicity of sitting?

“Regardless of which sitting posture you choose for your meditation practice, perfecting it leads the body & mind into ever deeper states of stillness. A perfectly stable posture focuses the body in the same way that an object of concentration focuses the mind. All the energies flow in one direction; the posture is held effortlessly, & body awareness no longer impinges on the mind. You will also notice that the breath becomes stable & effortless — more regular, smooth, quiet, & subtle. Then you are ready to enter a phase of concentration in which the mind itself is ultimately the object of attention.” – Rolf Sovik, Moving Inward

I continue to experiment with this first step in meditation – finding my seat – tweeking with a cushion here, an exercise to strengthen my back muscles there. It’s a process. There’s a lotta yoga – the process of quieting the fluctuations of my mind – still to experience.

How’s your journey going? I’d love to hear your experiments in finding a sitting posture that works for you. Comment below!

Hatha Yoga: A Path of Healing & Empowerment

Yoga is the mastery of the fluctuations of the mind. – Patanjali

I don’t know about you, but yoga began for me as “exercise,” with a hoped-for side benefit of some stress relief. In 2009, I was working at a job I LOVED, in an animal shelter — striving endless hours trying to save one more dog, one more cat, one more pit bull (banned within the city limits) from unfortunate circumstances. Jim, my husband, was working endless hours at a job he LOVED … & we had adopted two shelter dogs, whom we LOVE to this day. We were doing good work, crazy busy & burning out.

I can’t recall the first YouTube yoga video I tried, but it was flowy, challenging & I felt great afterwards. I couldn’t explain the feeling, & it’s only happened every so often since … a lightness, confidence, grounding, calmness, energy, clarity … hmm, all in one.

For 6 years I practiced the physical part of yoga (postures or “asana”) at home, following my favorite YouTube teachers. As an introvert, going to a studio class was out of the question – too intimidating at the time. I wanted to experiment & experience in my own time, in my own body that I’d pushed too hard for too long (decades really).

I’d been looking here & there at a yoga teacher training – not to become a teacher, per se, but to learn more about this “yoga” in everyday life. There had to be more to these poses. How’s the body really affected? Is this a religion? What the heck are chakras? Nadis? Yoga Sutras?

Teacher training at The Himalayan Institute in Pittsburgh was a perfect fit for my goals, style of learning & schedule. Two weekends a month for 9 months, I soaked in the philosophy & practice of the Himalayan tradition. With no desire to teach, it was amazing to experience a holistic view of yoga in every day life. Physical postures are such a SMALL part of yoga, though important for moving energy, & healing & stabilizing the body.

“Yoga is the mastery of the fluctuations of the mind.” What?! Patanjali devotes only TWO statements to yoga postures in his Yoga Sutras, from which our modern-day understanding of yoga originates. Two sentences. The overwhelming majority of his work is about yoga being the path by which we calm the mind, gain mastery over the mind, & reach the highest version of our selves.

And yet what do we see of Patanjali’s definition of yoga in the U.S.? (Insert bendy girl Instagram photo here)

All this to say that my journey has landed me in Hatha Yoga, specifically in the Himalayan Institute tradition … which I now strive to share with those who find benefit from this holistic path of asana, breath, concentration, meditation & daily lifestyle practices.

According to Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, spiritual head of The Himalayan Institute & successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas:

Hatha yoga is a complete path leading to physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual illumination. Hatha yoga practices combine asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), concentration, and meditation. The word hatha is itself an indication of the goals and objectives of this practice: ha means “sun,” and tha means “moon.” Thus, “hatha yoga” is the practice that enables a practitioner to balance his or her solar and lunar energies. Hatha yoga practices create a state of harmony in body and mind by balancing the solar and lunar, masculine and feminine, active and passive aspects of oneself. Unless you combine the disciplines associated with breathing and meditation with the physical postures, you cannot expect to achieve this harmonious state. And without this inner harmony, we waste a great deal of our time and energy fighting the distractions and disturbances arising from both the inner and outer worlds.

When I was introduced to Hatha Yoga in teacher training I thought, “This hatha is too slow / not enough / too simple … what am I doing here?” My mind would be in a million places, thinking I “should” be exercising, getting my heart rate up, feeling some pain to know it’s working.

AND what I’ve come to appreciate is that the practices of Hatha Yoga support me in slowing down, doing just enough, & keeping it simple. Do I feel better in my body? Absolutely. Yet “better” is more than external. There’s an internal stability & ease I feel building in body, mind, spirit … which flows into my interactions (hopefully, most days!) with family, friends, colleagues. The mind fluctuation part that Patanjali talks about? Well, I have a long way to go there … more on that in later posts!

Yoga & fitness teacher trainer Jennifer Galardi says, “Yoga isn’t about fitness. It’s a powerful tool for balance, integration, and empowerment. It’s a tool not only for your body, but for your life.”

That’s what I love about the full spectrum that is Hatha Yoga – from asanas to breathwork to meditation to daily lifestyle practices. Hatha Yoga is a path toward self-healing & empowerment.

It’s a privilege to share these Hatha Yoga practices with others (with you!) now as a teacher. Yeah, on the mat we practice postures — in Hatha classes usually holding poses, with a slower, intelligent path of moving the body & breath. AND it’s so much more. We practice shaping the breath to calm the nervous system, energize the body & focus the mind. We consciously practice mindful relaxation – something our bodies & minds are woefully deprived of in modern society (I’m crushed when Savasana is cut short in yoga classes, aren’t you?). This relaxation is often the most challenging, yet most beneficial, part of physical practice. All of this work is simply preparation for meditation … where the juicy healing & empowerment takes place … & ultimately we move out into our spheres of influence with more calm, clarity, & empowerment.

There are many paths of yoga, with so many benefits to be experienced. I encourage you in your mind/body/breath/spirit practice on & off the mat. May you find healing & empowerment in your journey, so that you may support others in their journey as well. -E

P.S. Whew, made it through the first blog post. The pressure! Thanks for hangin’ in with me. See ya on the mat & in the world soon!