Tip Tuesday: Find Delight in Your Yoga

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

How do you find delight in yoga? I’m not talking about mild enjoyment, “Sure, that’s a nice stretch. Yes, my body feels less tight.” I’m talking joy, excitement, and aliveness surging through you.

Finding delight in yoga is a theme we frequently explore in Forrest Yoga classes. At first, delight might seem elusive, especially when you’re in the middle of a touch sequence of abs or holding bridge pose for what feels like an endless amount of time. In fact, suffering might seem more like it. So where do you even begin cultivating delight in your practice?

It helps me as I’m starting my practice to close my eyes, breathe, and reflect on what brings me joy. It might be a person or a particular place or maybe just a time in my life where I felt an overflowing sense of happiness. For me, this might be: visualizing my good friends, the high I felt after skydiving for the first time, sunbathing, or the warmth of my kitties sitting on my lap. You’ll have your own joys to draw upon.

As you connect to this joy, get a visceral sense of what it feels like in your body. I notice my body brightens up, I get a little smile on my face, and my shoulders feel lighter. Feel what’s true for you and breathe in this experience of joy.

Now comes the trickier part–keeping this feeling of joy as you go through the yoga practice. Sometimes this is easy. Hitting child’s pose after holding onto dolphin pose for a long time feels like a glorious rest! However, when it comes to a particularly challenging or dreaded pose, our first instinct is to often go into survival mode: I’ll just hold on in the pose, hate every second of it, and hope that the end will come soon.

Instead, what can you find to like about a pose? Now I used to really hate abs, especially elbow to knee pose. My abs weren’t all the strong, I had a hard time getting the breathing right with the movements, and we seemed to move agonizingly slow. I gritted my teeth and looked forward to the moment where we could release the pose. So I tried to think of how I could find something to like about abs instead of being miserable (after all, there’s always abs in Forrest Yoga, so might as well start finding enjoyment in them). I observed that elbow to knee gave me more energy in my core and I felt more awake (even if my abs were sore). Even if I disparaged myself for not getting the pose right, I had to admit I liked the fact elbow to knee forced my brain to be focused. As I continue to practice, I find I begin to appreciate more subtle aspects of the pose such as the opening in my inner legs and release in my hips.

You can of course find delight by doing your favorite poses. What poses get you excited and how do they make you feel in your body? One of my favorites is dolphin strut (video link). It makes me focus on my balance, gives me a terrific hip opening, and juices me up. I love how powerful and non-self-conscious it makes me feel. Consider what poses you love to do and why and then go and do them.

Just like we can develop our proficiency in yoga poses, we can hone the skill of finding delight in the practice. Why settle for just enjoyment? Let’s go after the delight!

Tip Tuesday: Don’t Be a Yoga Robot

Image credit: Watercolor painting by RandomHappenstance on etsy

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

You might be a yoga robot if…

…Your body is on the mat, but your mind is floating elsewhere
…You aren’t at all aware of your breath during the practice
…You don’t ever consider taking a variation, modification, or deviation of any pose
…You do the poses just to do them without looking at how they feel in your body.
…Yoga is an item you cross off on your to-do list

Robots are not all bad. They are usually good at doing what they are told and getting automated tasks done. But a robot can’t go beyond their programmed behavior. Yoga robots will get their practice done, but miss out on the chance to experiment, fall, challenge, and sometimes having that juicy breakthrough on the mat.

Ways to de-program your robot:

Breathe. When you find your mind wandering, focus your breath into where you feel the pose in your body. If it’s a hip-opener pose, direct your breath into your hip. Feel for how much space you can create with your breath.

Find your feet. Press into the balls of your feet and lift and spread your toes. This little action will help ground you and re-focus your attention back to your body.

Take a variation. If you’re in downward dog, try a 1-legged dog, shift your hips, pedal the feet, send the leg out to the side. Play with different movement and see what it feels like. Don’t worry if it’s not the traditional “right” pose. You could stumble upon a creative new variation you’ll want to repeat.

Try a mantra. A short chant or phrase can help keep your mind focused and calm. It can be as simple as “inhale” and “exhale”. Even humming along to music during your practice can have have a centering effect as you experience the vibrational effect of the notes. Who knows, it could even be this song:

Tip Tuesday: 5 Poses for Easing Back Pain

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

Baby got back (pain)?

You are hardly alone. Here’s a 5-pose sequence to help get you back on your game.

1) Breath work: Standing Uddiyana, 3 rounds
Feet hip-width distance apart, hands braced on mid-thighs, straightening arms
Exhale all air out, while still empty of air, pull belly in & up.
When you need to breathe, release belly, then inhale.
Work up to holding for 10 count

Image credit: Yoga Journal

 

2) Seated side bend w/ neck release
Sit in cross-legged position. Bring right hand about 12 inches from right hip. Inhale, reach left arm up
Exhale, side bend towards right.
Keep length in both sides of waist and expand your breath out into the rib cage. Repeat on the left side.

 

Neck release: Inhale, reach left arm out a foot from floor near left side of hip feel for stretching through side of neck and out through fingertips.
Exhale, relax the neck
Gently release torso to center, use hand to pick head up. Repeat other side.

Image credit: Ann Hyde Yoga

 

3) Abs with a block (or roll)*
Take your block the medium-width way (you may also use a mat that has been folded into thirds and then rolled up) and bring it all the way up between the thighs. Bring legs straight up over hips. If you need to down-level, bring the legs to 90 degrees or work with feet flat on the floor, knees bent. Clasp hands behind the head, elbows in.
Inhale, spread breath into low back.
Hold the breath, curl tailbone up, squeeze block or roll.
Exhale, lift both elbows straight up towards ceiling
Inhale, lay head and shoulders down on mat
Work up to 3-6 rounds

Image credit: Marisha Doan
Only take the thumbs-up variation like Marisha if you really love abs

 

4) Cobra with or without a block
Lay down on the belly. Brings hands 6-12 inches in front of shoulders.
Inhale, press through hands and feet and pull chest forward. Elbows are a couple of inches off the floor.
Exhale, tuck tailbone down towards heels,
With block between ankles:
Place block the long way so it is parallel to the mat. Squeeze onto the block with the inner ankles and big toe side of the feet.
Inhale, press down through hands and feet to pull chest forward
Exhale, squeeze block with ankles and tuck tailbone

Image credit: musasana

 

5) Threading the needle/back release pose
Lie on back with knees bent, hug knees in towards chest. Hook left ankle across the right knee, creating a little triangle (eye of the needle) with left ankle across the right thigh.
Inhale, thread the left arm through the eye of the needle, bringing hands on top of right knee or back of right thigh
Exhale, draw right knee in towards chest
Repeat on the other side.

Image credit: Rory Earnshaw

 

*No block or extra mat to roll? No problem, use two towels and roll them up in the same manner.

Tip Tuesday: Help! I Need a Yoga Sequence

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

Ever intend to practice yoga at home, but get stuck because you don’t know what poses to do? I’ve certainly been there. More often than not, when my home practice is, er, lacking, it’s because I can’t seem to decide what class sequence to do. I’ve never been one of those people who does well with total “free-form”–that is, doing any pose that feels good to do next. Instead, it helps me to have a class sequence outlined in the beginning. I don’t have to stick with it completely, but it gives me a place to start.

If you’re a yoga teacher, you might sometimes experience being uninspired about what to teach on a given day. Occasionally I feel undecided about what to teach (Backbends or inversions? Twists? What kind of sequences?). Sometimes I just feel like I want to mix up my sequencing more for some variety.

To help myself (and hopefully you too!), I created an online notebook of yoga sequences. Some of these are classes that I’ve created for my classes. Others are sequences inspired by another yoga class I’ve taken with my own spin on it. There’s also several classes directly from workshops or classes I’ve taken with Ana (as best I’ve been able to remember afterwards). For each class, I’ve noted the theme, physical focus, and approximate length and level.  [Note: these are mainly Forrest Yoga sequences, but I note when there are non-Forrest yoga classes]


My hope is that these can help you on those days where you’re drawing a big question mark on the practice or you just need a few ideas to get you going on a class sequence. These can provide a place to start, riff from, and experiment with as you see fit. It’s helped me to refer to spark some ideas or to just give myself a direction for the practice on any given day. You can find the link at the right side of the blog.

The classes also live in Google Docs and are open to anyone to add class plans to, so feel free to add yours to the mix!

Tip Tuesday: Keeping Lower Back Long in Cobra Pose

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

Photo credit: Ambrosia Lifestyle

Cobra pose is a mini-backbend where you articulate more arch in the upper part of the spine, while lengthening out the lower back. I often cue students to “press into the hands and feet to help pull the chest forward.” Arching the chest forward can be a difficult move to feel. “I can feel my shoulders drawing back, but I can’t tell if I’m pulling my chest forward and breathing into my upper back”, one my students related.

One trick that helped my over-archy, banana-like lower back stay long was placing a block between my ankles in cobra. Place a (preferably soft) block the long way, skinny side down in between the ankles and squeeze the block with your inner ankles. Keep the squeeze and bring the hands forward in front of the shoulders. Inhale, press into the hands, and pull the ribs forward while continuing to squeeze the block with your ankles. Direct your breath up into the collarbones and upper spine.

Squeezing the block helps you draw the sitbones (bones at the bottom of the butt) down. It makes it pretty hard to arch from the low back, so it helps re-pattern your body to pull the ribs away from the waist and arch from the upper spine. You can keep a block by your mat and practice this cobra variation anytime.

 

 

Tip Tuesday: Where to Find Out More About Forrest Yoga

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

When students ask me more about Forrest Yoga, I share with them and usually them to the Forrest Yoga website for more information. It’s a good place to start to find out more about the Forrest Yoga mission, find local teachers and see upcoming events. In addition, there’s a ton of Forrest Yoga resources out there beyond this site. Here’s many that are worth checking out:

Forrest Yoga blogs

Friends of Forrest Yoga

Caroline Myss Caroline Myss is an author and healer who has written extensively on healing and energy medicine. Several of her books are on the Forrest Yoga teacher training reading list.

Alex Turtle and Chenoa Egawa: Native American teachers and musicians and friends of Ana Forrest. They have a CD of their music together and will have an upcoming video out soon.

Victoria Keen Designer of many a pair of Ana’s pants and a very nice person!

Videos and Interviews

Stalking Fear with Dr. Sara Gottfried and Ana Forrest A must-listen teleconference that combines Ana’s yoga and healing background with Dr. Gottfried‘s medical and holistic health background to give concrete tips for combating fear. Part 2 of the call covers Q & A.

Turbodog Yoga YouTube Channel Forrest Yoga senior teachers, Talya Ring and Steve Emmerman, owners of Turbodog Spirit Center in Chicago have a number of instructive (and sometimes playful) videos available.

Yoga Pages Podcast Interview with Ana in 2006 An older interview that I keep in my iPod when I’m in need of inspiration.

Tip Tuesday: 5 Ways to Avoid Yoga Auto-Pilot

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

Once you’ve been doing yoga awhile and you’re familiar with the poses, it’s very easy to go on auto-pilot in yoga. You body has some muscle memory and you no longer have to think as much about how to do each pose. Consequently, while you stop thinking about the poses, the mind starts to wander and think about other things. While your body might be in the pose, your breath, mind, and spirit have vacated.

When you practice yoga on auto-pilot, yes, you’ve technically done the physical practice, but how much benefit are you getting out of just going through the motions? It’s a bit like saying you read a book when all you did was turn the pages.

Auto-pilot is, well, very automatic. To stay out of it, I find that I have to trick my brain into getting back into my body. Here are a few ways that help me stay mindful and present in the practice:

1. Change the cross of your hands Clasp your hands, then move your fingers over one. It will feel very strange because you are not habituated to interlacing your hands this way. You can do this in any hand-clasping pose such as elbow to knee, ostrich, and wide-legged forward bend.

2. Start off on a different side If you usually start with your right side, start with the left. If you generally start with the left, begin with the left. Or mix it up. If you’re doing sun salutations, alternate starting with the right or left foot and/or alternate between classical and B series sun salutations.

3. Find a point of focus Pick an area of the body to be your focus as you come into the pose

4. Try a variation Play with different variations on classical poses. You might try dolphin or downward dog with one leg up. Or try reverse warrior with the back arm wrapped around the waist.  Get fascinated by what movements feel good to you and what variations help you experience the pose in a new way.

5. Take it up a notch Bring yourself out of your comfort zone and try out the next step in advancing the pose. If your balance is steady in tree, try bringing your arms overhead. Try turbo dog every time you come into downward dog. See if you can hold an intense pose for longer. If you’re feeling steady in forearm balance or handstand, explore leg variations with the legs in badha konasana, splits, or lotus. There’s always a place to find the next challenge in a pose.

Got a tip that helps you stay out of auto-pilot mode? Please share about it in the comments.

 

Tip Tuesday: Having Trouble With Your Inhale in Yoga

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

Image credit: The College Website

“There’s something wrong”, one of my students said as she approached me after class. “My breath seems to catch whenever I start my inhale. I can exhale fine, but the inhale gets stuck in the beginning. What am I doing wrong?”

Actually, she isn’t doing anything wrong at all. In fact, the breath catching she’s observing on inhale is a sign she’s doing something right. My teacher, Ana Forrest, would go as far as to say this is a win.

When your breath is catching, it’s a sign you are breathing in deeper. Picture a belt with a well-worn groove in one belt hole. If you try to pull the belt to the next hole, it will catch for a moment on your usual belt notch. The same is true for the breath. When you begin deepening your breath, at first the breath will catch at the place where you are used to stopping your inhale. As you practice and your breath gets more expansive, the inhale will begin to smooth out.

Breath-catching is also a sign you’re starting to breathe into an area of the body that you have a hard time accessing with the breath. In my own practice, I have a hard time getting out of my head and breathing into my heart. Particularly in any kind of backbends, I would find my inhale getting repeatedly stuck and shallow. Again and again, I’d try to smooth out my jagged, abrupt inhales. I was convinced that I clearly was getting something wrong. Yet through a lot of guidance by some caring teachers and assistants, I grew to learn that my constricted inhales were a source of information. It was a sign that I had some kind of emotions locked up in an area that I’d blocked myself away from. Like a pick-axe chipping into a iceberg, continually working on breathing into a spot helped me start to release it. Without judgement. Just breath.

So should you find your inhales catching in your practice, congratulate yourself. You’re bringing in more breath and life.

Tip Tuesday: Good Book to Bring Yoga into Your Daily Life

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

After I’d been practicing yoga for awhile, I was curious to learn more about the philosophical origins of yoga and deeper meaning behind the physical practice. However, I was a bit daunted by scholarly philosophical texts and searched for a book that explored yoga philosophy, but in a way that was accessible and applicable to my life.

Living Your Yoga by Judith Lasater was just such a book. It was the first yoga book I ever purchased. This book looks at the spiritual practice of yoga, citing relevant passages from the yoga sutras, and explores the relevancy of philosophical teachings in real life. Each chapter addresses a different aspect of the yoga practice, from the challenges that cause us suffering (including self-judgement, greed, and fear) to the kind of qualities we seek to cultivate in our daily life (such as compassion, love, and connection). There are suggested practices and mantras you can do to begin to live out your yoga practice beyond the yoga mat.

I highly recommend checking this book out. It was instrumental to getting me interested in learning more about the spiritual teachings of yoga–and yes, getting me comfortable enough to pick up the more meaty philosophical yoga works. It’s a must-have for your bookshelf and one I flip through often. Lasater’s book helped me to understand how the old philosophy behind yoga could make sense and add value to my life. As she puts it beautifully in the book:

“It is our dedication to living with open hearts and our commitment to the day-to-day details of our lives that will transform us. When we are open to the present moment, we shine forth.”

 

Tip Tuesday: Playing With Your Edge in Yoga

Tip Tuesday is a weekly feature where I offer a few yoga tips that have worked for me in the hopes that they can help you too.

The Edge (but not the edge in yoga)
Photo credit: (AP Photo/Robert E. Klein)

Frequently in yoga classes, an instructor will talk about “playing your edge” in a yoga pose. But what does this really mean?

A great explanation comes from yoga philosophy. In the Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, the second sutra says, “Sthira sukham asanam.” Loosely translated this means, “The posture [should be] steady and comfortable” (Translation: Georg Feuerstein). In yoga, you seek to find that juicy point in the pose where you’re making an effort and challenging yourself, but not pushing yourself beyond the edge of where the breath gets laborious and the pose becomes painful.

Playing your edge is a skill. We have the tendency to vacillate between both extremes: pushing ourselves too hard, sometimes to the point of injury or bailing out amidst a challenging pose. Mentally it can be tough to tell, especially when you’re habituated to either (or both) of these patterns.

One of the questions Ana Forrest received at the Yoga Journal Conference was: “How can you tell if you’re going deeper in a pose because you are embracing the challenge or if it’s just your ego wanting to push further? How do you know when you’re coming out of a pose because you’ve reached your edge or if you are merely avoiding the intensity?” Ana responded that is a process. “As you start getting in better touch with feeling into the body, you begin to discern the difference between where your brain wants to go and where your body thinks it should go. There will be some trial and error as you learn where you may go too far in a pose and tweaking and then you know that was too much or going out of a pose and realizing you were avoiding the intensity.”

So be edgy in your yoga practice. Be cutting edge. Just don’t “edge” your bets.