Embodied Intelligence

What happens when the body wakes up achy and tired? When practicing yoga is the last thing on the mind? After a strenuous practice last night compounded by a sciatica flare-up, I woke up in precisely this shape this morning.

Fortunately, there are many faces of yoga and that is exactly the day NOT to skip practice. I sat on the mat and began a short meditation.

And then listened. For what the body prompted. It wasn’t the practice I thought I should do. But then it rarely is. After a couple of shoulder stretches, the tightness in my shoulders softened. A mindful forward fold released my cranky back. I continue to be amazed at what intelligence is embodied within.

With the achy muscles residing, I was able to continue. Not much more, but enough. Just what my bodied needed.Today.

The practice that started out tired and achy became an affirmation of listening within. I settled into the knowing that I have much to learn. A practice I need to return to often.listneing

Do you Journal?

Yoga Journal (c) 2013 Fredonia NY
Yoga Journal
(c) 2013 Fredonia NY

I have kept many journals over the years and I have found that there are at least two reasons for keeping a dedicated yoga-meditation practice journal.

Yoga journaling can be an important aid to your practice for two reasons. The first is that the act of remembering what and how you practiced  provides a running diary of asana in your life. As time passes, this record can become a tool for motivation, celebration, and insight.

A page from carolyn's  Yoga Journal (c) 2013 barefoot photos
A page from carolyn’s Yoga Journal
(c) 2013 barefoot photos

The second way that journaling assists your yoga practice is that as you reflect back on what you have done, how you felt, what changed or remained the same, the practice deepens. Yoga, at its heart is about  self-reflection and self-growth/ self-awareness.

When recording a yoga session, I include the poses I did as well as my thoughts and insights, what came easily, what my breath was like. See the photo of a random page from my little green book.

Your journal can become a great tool for a personal journey in SATYA, or the development of truthfulness in your life. Try to look at your practice dispassionately, using Witness Consciousness.

A very specific way to keep a mindfulness journal is to record your insights immediately after a practice session, whenever you can. Keep a pen and notebook handy, at the ready, so that it’s easy to remember to write for a few minutes after you have practiced. Dedicate the notebook to this effort.

When recording meditation sessions, include what specific practice you were engaged in. Walking? Sitting? Or did you practice Deep Relaxation? What was your posture?

For any session, it’s helpful to record what challenges were faced, how the poses worked together, and the cumulative effect of regularly practicing. Include a general description of your emotional and physical states at the beginning and ending of the practice.

There are many ways to keep a journal. Consider all of them a part of your mindfulness training. You can ask yourself questions and then free write responses. When you free write, resist the urge to edit yourself so that the unconscious thoughts can freely arise. The pen is not to leave the paper. Just keep the writing flow going, even if what you are writing is gibberish. In the midst of the junk, insights often appear unexpectedly. You may be surprised at what appears on the page!

Another is to record observations using the Witness Consciousness. and then reflect back upon what you’ve written.

You can try different methods on different days as the spirit prompts.

Many students like to draw in their journals and attach photographs.  There is no set length or format. If you can only pen a couple of lines, that’s AOK. Sometimes, however, you may feel an inclination to delve deeper as you reflect on your state. Go for it! It’s your record, so personalize it and make it work for you. Marble composition books work great for journals. They are cheap, and easily available. If you work with me through Yoga Coaching, I’ll ask you to send each week’s journal to me in an email.

Strong and Soft

Maple leaves in Chautauqua county NY
(c) 2012 barefootphotos

6AM: woke up and since I had done supta padanghustasana 1 before falling asleep,I drew up both legs for urdhva pascimottanasa for 3 minutes,  then Happy Baby. Thought about the relationship of HB and Supta 2 with the outer rotation of the leg in the hip socket.

Then a series of twists: supine cross- legged, crocodile, revolved belly, half supine virasana, gentle bridge 3.

Was going down to the studio at 7:30, but then S. skyped me from Poland. People first. Karma yoga in action. LOVE. Asana Practice could happen later.

After our call, I cleaned the studio and picked, prepping for the 10 AM class.

I’ve been reading student meditation journals most of the afternoon, so still have not returned to an asana practice.

This evening, though, I took a break and meditated with one of Susan Piver’s 20 minute guided practices. susanpiver.com If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend you subscribe to this very accessible meditation teacher’s online OPEN HEART PROJECT. Susan’s got me thinking about the soft front body and the strong back body in meditation posture. How there is no boundary. How they exist simultaneously. How awareness shifts from one to the other. How difficult it is to hold them BOTH in awareness. But in a strange way, it’s comforting to know they are both there. Both.

10 PM In the studio for a two hour session. Pigeon (still difficult on left side as it activates the sciatica), Half handstand,  Wide angled seated forward fold with twists, cobbler pose, Downward facing dog pose,sphinx, bow, camel. Really paid close attention to camel as I looked up several articles online regarding alignment. Kept repeating as I played with alignment.Headstand for 4.5 minutes, Child pose with close attention to maintaining hips resting on heels and releasing spine into front of body.   Shoulderstand and a quiet Legs Up The Wall, hips on the shoulderstand stack of blankets. Connecting the soft front of the body with the strong back body.Comforted, I was satisfied and went to bed.

Do you really practice every day?

Carolyn with chickadee in Buffalo, NY
(C) 2012 barefoot photos

A student spoke up before we began class this morning, with a hopeful look on her face, eyebrows raised, Do you really practice every day?

She was getting ready to go to her winter residence  and hoping I’d let her off the hook.

I smiled. I discussed how my practice had grown and changed over the years.

Until a wise student shared, Yoga is not a practice; it’s a lifestyle.

DONG! Bells went off in my head.

I became inspired share my personal yoga journal with you on a more regular basis. I’m committing to daily updates to give you a sense of the day-to-day life of one yogini’s struggles and awakening.

7AM: alarm, listening to the news in bed, practicing reclining back of the leg stretch (supta padangusthasana 1,2,3), and cross-legged revolved belly pose

7:15 AM on mat in studio, practicing gently due to the slight flair up of sciatica I’ve been experiencing lately: reclining hero (supta virasana), pigeon (rajakapotasana), kneeling lunge to splits with big bolster support (hanumasana), tree (vrksasana), standing half-lotus forward fold (ardha baddha padmasana), dancer (natarajasana). Immediate connection to a nonverbal, physical knowing with one leg held behind up behind me while my opposite arm extended in front of me. The feeling of moving my body confidently in this space created joy.

8:15AM: Trotted upstairs to celebrate with a cup of decaf :-) because I was able to enter dancer without the aid of the wall for the very first time. EVER.

This is what keeps me motivated to continue day in and day out through all these years. I’m continually learning and experiencing new ways of being in this very body that is mine for a short time on earth. And I say YES to that.

After teaching the YOGA for 50+ class, I accompanied my son to the airport to say good-bye after a  lovely visit of nearly two weeks. On the way home, Mike and I headed to a favorite bird watching spot in Buffalo to take our minds off of the emptiness and sense of absence we felt.

It was a stunning October day that would break all previous records for warmth in Western New York. Surrounding ourselves with so much beauty dissolved our heavy hearts.Happiness bubbled inside me as I held my hand out for the glorious chickadees and nuthatches that landed on my outstretched fingers.

Eye contact with these creatures led me into a non-verbal state of pure joy. Rather than connecting from the inside to the out, as usually happens during savasana,  a connection happened as I reached my hand and heart out to my avian neighbors.

I connected with that deep inner knowing that is always present and available. This connection is also YOGA practice. No sticky mat necessary!

Some experience it like yogini Prabhavati Dwabha, helping children in rural India. Reaching outward and finding herself. Every single day.

How do you practice connecting with your inner knowing?

Today’s meditation:  Naming the myriad ways that yoga is already present in my life.

Savasana, aka corpse pose

Savasana, corpse pose (barefoot photos)

I am an experimental yogini. Lately, I have been approaching savasana, the pose of deep relaxation that I “do” at the end of my asana practice to see what I can learn from ten or twenty or thirty or sixty minutes reclining in a prone position.

The physical aspects of savasana are quite simple: stretch out on the floor on your back, roll the palms up to face the ceiling, allow the legs to flop away from each other, gently lower the eyelids, part the teeth slightly, cover yourself with a light blanket, place an eye pillow on your eyelids, use a folded blanket beneath your head and neck and a bolster beneath your knees, if you’d like. There are other variations and possible supports that can be used to induce a greater level of comfort, but I’ll cover those in another post.

Here are my journal notes after a savasana “lab:”

10 minutes: a sudden drop into physical relaxation. The body felt as if it were melting into the floor

13 minutes: another drop deeper ~ a deeper release down

17 minutes: Oh, now this drop felt nearly blissful ~ a tumble into bliss ~ so lovely

I was shaken out of it when hearing voices upstairs talking loudly and I picked up the phrase: “She’s really in bad shape.” Felt my mind turn on with adrenaline ~ thought maybe I should get up ~ racing thoughts, but felt my body still relaxed, so decided to drop back down into the deep relaxation, knowing the alarm was set and I could get up in three more minutes. Later note: this was an amazing realization: that I could CHOOSE whether or not to relax deeply!

20 minutes: the alarm rang and because I had already “come back” a good way, I decided to remind myself to come back s-l-o-w-l-y and resist the urge to run upstairs and find out what had happened (what had happened was in fact, a continuing deterioration of an 86 year old relative’s condition, and certainly not an emergency in the immediate sense of the word)

I’d love to hear of your experiences in savasana!

Meditation Journal, breath

Snow Shadows (barefoot photos)

A rambling excerpt of a practice journal entry that I thought might be of some use . . .  .

December 15, 2010, Wednesday morning, 9:10 AM

Just meditated with soft ujjayi breath for an hour. Shocked when I opened my eyes and realized how much time had passed. That happens so often. The timeless place opens and I enter.

Mind wandered. Thinking about the blog and books. But kept coming back to Breath.

Disengaging from the heaviness of the body, even the entanglement of the mind.

Breath is so light and free. It is always here, always available, as much as I want it. A gift I need to be present to.

A tool for growth rest healing love.

Breath teaches me to love my essential self, my core, my self dis-embodied and de-minded, essential, free, perfect, and imperfect.

Breath is eternal and brings me into eternity.

Breath is who I want to Be.

Breath is who I am.

October Practice Journal

Red and Green leaves (barefoot photos)

Occasionally, it’s helpful to look at the trends in your practice over time.

For me, this month started out with a focus on the inversions of downward facing dog, headstand, shoulderstand, and plough, but then, when I experienced more and more tightening in my right shoulder that I wasn’t able to release no matter what I tried,

so I moved into a set of more involved (than my usual morning) guided seated meditations on wisdom dakinis from a cd of Tsultrim Allione

and then morphed into a strong forward bending exploration and practice (which had begun while listening to the explanatory parts of the cd).

It wasn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. There was overlap and occasional days of doing something completely different, such as the day I was tired and practiced a couple restorative asanas, or the day I focused on backbends for a change.

Each practice group offered its own surprise teaching that provided intrinsic motivation to continue. Headstand continues to amaze me as I slowly hold my feet off the wall for longer amounts of time. Each day with the inversions is its own, and change, for me, is seen gradually, over time. I vary the way I do shoulderstand and plough, both the amount of support (number of blankets, chair, blocks, strap)  used and the type of support (whether on feet wall, or sacrum on a chair, whether blankets or rolled mat or bolster beneath neck). That keeps practice an interesting exploration of mindful awareness of the body.

Other days I practice strengthening for inversions, without actually inverting. I’m heading more in that direction, especially as I observe Mike building his chaturanga practice.

The Tibetan guided meditations have helped me learn to transform my negative emotions into positive. Whewee….I need lots of more work in that arena!

Blazing Maple Leaves (barefoot photos)

The forward bends have really been a pleasure as I’ve discovered with increased hamstring flexibility, some poses such as heron and ubbaya are now open to me. However, not only could I not do ubbaya a week later, my ego was kept at bay a little bit by Judith Hanson Lasater’s advice that if you think you love a pose, try holding it for five minutes. I tried holding uttanasana for five and uh, it was certainly a challenge.

For one thing, I noticed how I moved my head and my gaze to different places in an effort to remain in the pose. That was coupled with my mind outscreaming my hamstrings. A person could become deaf in all of that noise. I wonder, if I can learn to breathe into that screaming, what will happen?

Following that practice with teaching three classes on Thursday loaded with forward folds and geesh, my back is feeling the effects.

Backbends, I’m heading your way tonight.

Every practice begins with listening. Every practice ends with opening into being.

What’re the trends in your practice lately? I’d love to hear about them.

Practice Journal, Inversions

Fredonia NY October rose (ckg photo)

What is it about being upside down that causes such a rush? Is it the increased blood flow? Is it the heart rest? Is it because Mind rests more easily and fully when the legs are up? Is it more psychological: being upside down forces up to look at the world with a different perspective?

Last night I practiced inversions. Beginning with headstand (sirsasana) where I am still working at moving my legs away from resting upon the wall. This is a years loooong struggle for me.But it took me years to be able to kick up by myself, so the lesson is patience ~ and practice. Being in the unsettled throws of perimenopause, there are many weeks, or months where it is not advisable to practice inversions, so I grow frustrated at my lack of progress. And yet, every breath where my feet are not resting upon the wall I claim as personal victory… over what?  My body or my mind or a bodymind combo that seems intent upon keeping me earthbound when all my heart wants to do is to fly?

Three conscious breaths. That’s all I EVER need. No matter what posture I am inhabiting.

Then I did three pincha mayurasanas without kicking up. You may call these bent arm dogs. An attempt to strengthen my arms for the eventual day when I will be able to kick up! I am resolved to continue the practice, no matter how many years it takes. Then I did one half handstand where the shakes took over and I breathed through them, but then came down into child pose when I felt as if my feet where going to fall off the wall anyway. Can you relate?

Then shoulderstand (sarvangasana) wherein I found a perfect support system ~ ahhh, what joy when the body feels supported and can relax into a pose! I used four blankets folded in quarters and laid one upon the other in a stair step fashion to support my neck and two blankets folded half again laid side by side and angled at one end away from each other making a valley for the neck to drop into with the shoulders supported upon the blankets themselves. A chair placed at the end of my mat provided support for my feet during plough. My back is not feeling particularly strong these days so I scissor kicked one leg at a time down to the chair for ekapada sarvagasana.

I was surprised at the end of the practice that an hour and a half had flown by. All I’d done were four inversions!

A student said today that whenever she practiced legs up the wall, her Mind began to race.  Thanks, but no thanks she said when offered an eye bag. A sandbag placed upon a block with the end resting upon her forehead offered minimal relief. So during this  morning’s class I suggested she try lifting further into an inversion. She is slow and fearful of inversions, so we went for viparita karani with hips supported on a bolster and legs supported as well as ankles belted. Due to persistent hot flashes, we didn’t bother with a blanket tucked around her feet and legs. The set-up did bring her some relief, but we’ll continue working on her moving deeper into inversions. For savasana, I suggested some torso and head support with bolster and blanket.

I’d love to hear how you work inversions into your practice.

Practice Journal, Standing pose flow

January 11, 2010 FOCUS: Standing Pose Flow

Last night I spent some time writing and pondering my dreams, which has been a theme this month, both at the Comfort Cafe and on  the cool blog I recently discovered, Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Noncomformity.

In the middle of this quiet activity,a strong tug drew me into the standing poses. David Darling’s musical massage “balance” cd pulled me into a flow: Triangle (Trikonasana), Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana 2), Right Angle (Parsvakonasana), Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana), Warrior 3 (Virabhadrasana 3), Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana 1), Parsvottanasana, and Prasarita.

I practiced each pose on one side and then the other, focusing on creating a graceful flow.

When needed, a block provided support. Wooden or bamboo blocks would have been better suited to my needs because the foam blocks I have are too unstable. Balance was an issue. In part,  because of the double mats I use in the basement. Next time I’ll take my chances with a single mat. On the other hand, being rather unstable pushed me to focus even more.

One of the challenges of practicing a flow is to maintain focus in the body. Awareness of your own movement through space sharpens. There is strength in graceful movement! When Mind wanders, the quivery limbs follow suit and who knows where you’ll end up?

I ended up laughing at myself and my perfection-seeking. Then refocused, and tried the pose again.

My back began feeling the flow, so I went into child pose and then savasana using a bolster beneath my knees, a blanket beneath my head, and a sandbag on my lower abdomen. One of the heavier eye bags placed on my forehead helped quiet my mind.

I often enter a timeless space when practicing deep relaxation, it’s usually much longer than I had sensed. Was surprised last night at the amount of time I had been in corpse. Only ten minutes. My intention had been for a longer stay, at least twenty minutes. Hmmm, maybe use a timer next time. Or not, and just go with the flow of BodyMind consciousness.

What do you think?

Practice Journal, Momyogini on the phone

Jan.10, 2010 FOCUS: Seated forward bends and twists

viparita karani, legs up the wall pose

This afternoon I practiced viparita karani (legs up the wall) on my platform bed. At first, I thought I’d put on a cd but then decided against it, so I could enter a more meditative state. What happened was that I entered a more somnambulistic state.

My snoring woke me up 45 minutes later! There is something, some unknown quality, to a yogic nap that never fails to leave me feeling refreshed and wonderful.

Ten minutes of supta baddha konasana in the early evening. Became aware of energy moving upwards from lower torso. A good feeling!

At eleven o’clock I started for the studio for my usual before-bed practice. Just as I was heading down into the basement, there was a phone call from my daughter. What’s a mommy-yogini to do? I didn’t want to ignore my daughter, but I also didn’t want to ignore my practice. So I did both!

Donning headphones, I went to my mat that was already set up and waiting for me, and situated on a folded blanket, I practiced seated forward bends and twists as we chatted.

After our conversation, I sat in baddha konasana and practiced ujjayi breathing. I found it a challenge to lift mula bandha on the exhalation in this pose. Faith! practice will get me there.  I kept my eyes open, gaze about two feet ahead of me on the floor and felt like an island of energy, breathing into the universe.

I struggled keeping my mind focused on the breath, much more so than usual. Perhaps it was the phone call, perhaps it was that Mike came down and began practicing on the other side of the room, perhaps it was due to my eyes being open. I almost never practice pranayama with open eyes, but I have been trying to keep my eyes open throughout my practice these days, in an effort to not drop so deep and still. I am striving to stay present, connected, and aware. Lots of room for growth here!

After the pranayama, I reclined for all three versions of supta padangusthasana (reclined leg lifts, holding the big toe) and supta pascimottanasana (two legs up, holding with a strap). Then I shifted to sphinx, and several cobras, playing with my hand positions. I noticed that as I moved my hands farther back, more in line with my waist, that it was easier to pull my tail/pubic bone down, creating more space in my lower back. A couple of bent-arm dogs to bent-arm planks pumped my blood and got the shakes going. I welcomed these muscle-strengthening shakes, though afterward rewarded myself with an extended balasana, child’s pose.

Time for shoulderstand, sarvangasana. My typical set-up uses three blankets and a mat piece on top. That supports my neck and shoulders. Usually I place a folding chair at the end of my mat for my feet to rest on during halasana, plough pose, but since I had stretched the backs of my legs so much with all of those  forward bends, I decided to push it a bit and use a block. That worked fine.

Savasana. Even though my mind was quite active at the beginning of practice, as I remained in corpse, I traveled deeper and into quieter territory. Sometimes the journey within feels physical. Layer by layer dissolves into …what?…ether?, air?, the universe?,…or do we just let the outer layers slip out of our consciousness, they are there all along but we grow less aware of them? This would describe the yogic limb of PRATYAHARA, or sensory withdrawal.