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Awareness

I was born bow-legged and pigeon-toed. So bowed, in fact, that without years of orthopedic attention including casts and braces nearly from birth – I creatively learned to walk in hip-to-toe casts – I wouldn’t have walked at all, much less had the opportunity to punish my non-conforming hips with long-distance barefoot running and heavy weightlifting in my teens and early twenties. A determined little will, I learned how to bounce my cast-heavy self on the mattress of my toddler crib enough to vault my little toddler body over the raised railing meant to keep me safely on soft surface.

Once graduated from the casts and nightly braces, you could no more tell that my legs were sculpted masterpieces than you could determine how many prunings a fully grown elm had undergone. And that determined will only grew with my body, so no one could tell me differently when I was a teenage runner with dreams of marathons and a need to feel my own brute strength. Some weeks during my mid-teens I would log 150 miles, and my favored gear was none. That’s right, barefoot before barefoot was cool. Except that barefoot isn’t really ever cool for teenage girl – our footstrike pattern is narrower than our hip range, creating rotational stress forces on the skeleton – especially if she runs part-time on asphalt and concrete. At one point I could squat 450. Pounds. Not bad for a little suburban girl.

Except that the running and pressing were really metaphors I was living out, while I took over where the orthopedists wisely left off, attempting to pound my body into shape. What shape, you may ask, because obviously I was cardiovascularly fit? I’m not sure I ever knew, except that it wasn’t good enough yet, and I really loved – lived for – the euphoria. Adrenaline junkie, from my first mattress vault.

As a 41 year old yoga teacher, this history speaks to me through my joints. I’m lucky to have any cartilage left in my injured right hip, and the missing bits of connective tissue make alignment a moment-to-moment challenge. The muscular body I’d sculpted allowed me to power into Ashtanga yoga in my 30’s, continuing my pattern of subjugation of sense and sensibility, believing that working through the pain would alleviate it in the long run. It does not. Let me repeat that, because I had some apparently accomplished, seasoned, respected teachers who continue to instruct that it will. Pushing pain does not alleviate it.

The Ashtanga yoga would, however, give me the structure to begin to hunger for more quiet and listening, which eventually took me away from the programatic, forceful movements I was using. And this hunger (I’ve always loved food – both physical and spiritual) took me to the edge of deep waters. I’ve learned from Iyengar, Tantra, Anusara, Kundalini, Structural, Yin and other styles until I became able to let the yoga do me.

So today I don’t look like the American vision of a yoga teacher. I’m more well padded, happier than earlier versions of myself, and given to limp when not fully established in the core of my awareness, a tendency I’ll work with until I decide to get the hip re-surfacing procedure that’s revolutionizing hip replacement surgery. I sit differently than other meditators because of the way my right femur sits deeply in it’s joint. My relationship to alignment, perception of my core and core strength has been shaped and sharpened by the vicissitudes of my sculpted legs and hips.

I also work with my students differently than most other teachers, because I’ve visited so many points on the curve of perfect health and come so directly face-to-face with pain, transience and breakdown as well as strength, power and ability.

Yoga has been patient with me, and I continue to imbibe its lesson of perseverance, observation and responsiveness. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about yoga: it will meet you where you are and crack your heart open more gently, more surely than any lover. All yoga wants is your bare heart, naked and strong to engage the world.

Going to Yoga workshops is one of my dearest pleasures. I use them as rewards, treats, carrots and sometimes just fun. That’s why I’m excited to announce the first of this year’s YogaEveryDay workshops, my chance to share a concentrated yoga experience with you!

Intro to Yoga on Saturday 31 January will focus on basics. Like a parent who secretly favors one child, my favorite classes to teach are the “Level 1”, “Basic” or “Beginner.” This Workshop will be an afternoon to learn or return to basics of alignment, breath, strength & opennes. Affordable, Supportive & Fun – Join Now!

Partner Yoga on Saturday 21 February: we’ll provide a safe, open, light environment for practicing yoga poses in unique, supportive combinations that will open and enlighten your heart and connections. Join Now!

Amy Nobles Dolan teaches yoga in Wayne Pennsylvania and writes a blog at Yoga With Spirit.  She exemplifies the addage that you’ll know you’re ready to teach when students come to you, and her expansive sense of generosity and gratitude, grounded in experience, wisdom and knowledge illuminate her writing. She’s an Ashtanga Yogi who brings an embracing perspective to both her choice of tradition and her teaching. On her website bio, she affirms, “…yoga works for everyone.” Here’s her reflection on why Ashtanga works for her. Thank You, Amy!

ps: also check her out at the YogaJournal website featured blog!

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Not too long ago my husband and I took our three kids to Baskin Robbins.  When I ordered (as I often do) Rocky Road, my youngest daughter, Sally, asked me why I chose that flavor.  Hmm.  I actually can’t think of a single reason not to order Rocky Road!  But trying to explain to my daughter why this flavor beat out the other thirty left me tongue-tied.  Where to start?  The creamy chocolate ice cream?  The delicate swirl of marshmallow cream?  The chocolate covered nuts that add a perfect textural balance?  I had no idea there were so many reasons I love this flavor!  Not wanting my scrumptious scoop to melt while I crafted my response, I bailed out of the question with a wholly unsatisfying “Because I like it,” leaving her to make her own choice without my input.

 

Shortly after this incident, a curious student asked me why I had chosen ashtanga yoga over all the other types of yoga out there.  Perhaps because yoga is a lot more important to me than Rocky Road ice cream, the retort “Because I like it” felt even more like a cop-out than it did in the ice cream parlor.  And, perhaps because yoga doesn’t melt, I was more willing to take the time to put my thoughts into words.  I’d love to be able to say that I stood in front of the ice-cream-case of yoga and selected ashtanga for myself.  But I can’t.  It was pure providence that led me to my first ashtanga yoga class – which was also my very first yoga class.  Had I turned up in another kind of class, the practice may not have “stuck.”  And I shudder to imagine my life without this sustaining daily practice.  You see, throughout the years, ashtanga yoga has always been a perfect match for me.

 

In the beginning, I was searching for a way to regain my body after years of sharing it with babies.  I craved the physical.  I needed the endorphin high of a good work-out to carry me through the grueling day ahead filled with diapers, bottles, heavy car-seats and temper tantrums.  I yearned to look good again.  Heck, I yearned to simply feel good.  Ask and ye shall receive.  Ashtanga yoga fulfilled all these desires and then some.  The challenging asanas toned and strengthened my body.  The vigorous, at times speedy, flow steadily increased my stamina and endurance.  The stronger and fitter I became, the better I felt.  My regular ashtanga yoga practice had completely revamped my physical body.

 

Time passed (as it does) and I changed (as we do).  My babies got bigger and the challenges that filled my days changed.  The demands I faced were no longer as physical.  I needed the wherewithal to focus on thirteen things at once – imagine three simultaneous requests for help with math homework while cooking dinner, folding a load of laundry and developing a marketing plan for my new yoga studio!  I needed the self-awareness to understand that my short temper had more to do with an over-abundance of volunteer commitments than with my husband and children.  I needed the prescience to see past the scowling face and rude demeanor to sense that something had happened at school to upset my child.

 

Again, ashtanga yoga met my needs.  The ashtanga series requires high levels of concentration and focus.  As my abilities to focus on one thing at a time and to stay present in the current moment developed, I found myself better able to deal with the multiple demands for my attention one at a time.  As I was learning to be curious and aware of myself – my feelings, my fears, my reactions, my ego – on my mat, I became more tuned into what was behind my feelings off my mat.  This awareness also resulted in a heightened sensitivity to the feelings and needs of the people in my life.   My regular (now daily) practice of ashtanga yoga was transforming my relationships – with myself, with my family and with my friends.

 

With time, discipline and dedication, my practice continued to deepen.  My times on my mat became more inwardly focused.  As I became stronger and more flexible, I began to be able to relax into the postures.  The more comfortable I was in the asanas, the less mental energy was required of me to stay in them.  I could now sink below thoughts of alignment and balance into the quiet of moving meditation.  As my physical practice matured, I began to work more diligently with my breath.  Ashtanga’s ujjayi breathing became a point of meditation for me, taking me even deeper into a meditative state.  And, as meditation became more natural for me, my rests in savasana at the end of my practices became richer and more rewarding.  Day after day while I practiced, I drew closer to the divine spark of life and love that is at my core.  Day after day, I recognized that same spark in the people I met after I rolled up my mat and moved on into my day.  My daily practice of ashtanga yoga was transforming and expanding my spirituality.

 

Why do I choose ashtanga yoga?  Like with Rocky Road ice cream, I can’t think of a single reason not to!  Why do I choose ashtanga yoga?  Like Rocky Road ice cream, I choose it because I like it!  Why do I choose ashtanga yoga?  As I said before, I shudder to imagine my life without it.  Physically, mentally and spiritually, the practice is transformative — and as wholly satisfying as a scoop of ice cream.  Just as Rocky Road ice cream is the perfect flavor for me, ashtanga yoga is the perfect yoga for me.  What about you?  What do you choose?

I tried this as an experiment recently: Sivasana at the beginning and end of class.  I’ve decided that it’s an advanced practice.

Doesn’t sound tough does it? It’s like nap time at the beginning. But have you watched three year olds who just came in from recess try to lay down? It’s like that pop-up gopher game where you’re meant to pop the puppets back down with a soft mallet. Monkey mind most active.

What a tremendous testament to our practice. Sivasana is nearly torturous for many at the beginning, and almost always luscious at the end. What’s changed? The embodied mind.

If you want to try this practice of playing dead both before and after, I suggest that you give yourself some structure for the beginning. Begin by noting sensation in your extremities. Really pay attention and feel it. Then pay attention to your sensation in your core (if you can find any at this stage, you’re particularly in touch that day). Then with each breath draw the sensations from your arms and legs and neck into your core. Now, I’m not suggesting you draw in pleasure or pain, just the unnamable raw sensation, unjudged. Some might call it energy. But it’s very concrete when you locate it within your body: the sense you have of your own body. Use your breath to draw it in.

Finally, draw all your attention to sensation down to your low abdomen and feel it expand and contract with each breath. By relaxing and contracting the low belly when breathing you are mechanically & chemically signalling your “slow down” nervous system to wake up. That’s right, wake up to slow down. There are all kinds of opposites that come together on the mat.

“The light which shines above this heaven, above all the worlds, above everything, in the highest worlds not excelled by any other worlds, that’s the same light  which is in you.” ~Chhandogya Upanishad

What if all the thinking, all the words, ideas aren’t our minds? What if they’re the covering over our minds? Don’t get me wrong – they’re great tools. But what’s overseeing the job site? They’re not the tools you’ll need if you’re looking for your true self or for a steady place to stand.

Science tells us our minds are decentralized in the body. Yoga helps us settle into our heart, where wisdom and intelligence reside. Of course when we talk about heart in yoga, we’re not just talking about the juicy pumping muscle to the left of center in our ribcages. There are a lot of bits housed around there – chemoreceptors, baraoreceptors, lungs, thymus, arteries, lymph nodes, spine, circulating blood and air, esophagus, diaphragm. When we bring our attention to this area, when we just feel what comes up, we are contacting the heart of yoga. Our yoga.

Bringing ease to the muscles and joints around this area can be the beginning or development of this process. This is where many of us Western Yogis start, with asana. Maybe a little breathing practice. Then we might start calling that pranayama. Maybe we meditate for stress reduction. Somewhere along the way we realize these pesky emotions are less pesky, the aches are less achey, the mind is less muddled.

“The heart is the resting place of the pranas, the senses and the mind. It’s your true self, which is identified with intelligence and which finds repose in the space within your heart.” ~Nikhilananada’s Intro to The Principal Upanishads

So then we explore pratyahara – sense withdrawal. But then, where do the senses go? Niky above, says to the space within your heart, your true self. Makes some sense – it’s quieter there than the head or stomach. The feelings come up, but maybe we’re in a place where we can uncouple them enough from the words and judgments to just let them be a bit.

Now we’re practicing saucha in our hearts. Saucha – cleanliness, purity. We don’t often think of it in regard to our hearts, but after we’ve gotten glimpses of the Love that lives there, it makes sense not to store our crap on the porch. If we keep the windows clean maybe it will shine more brightly. The Sanskrit word for this place – Anahata – can be translated “unstruck”. “The space within your heart  is omnipresent and unchanging.” (~Chhandogya Upanishad ) Always with us, always available for us to touch and feel is a place that is unstruck by the blows of life, unmoved by the compliments and criticisms, the lost jobs and the awards. It is always what it is. We are always who we are. Sometimes we just cover it up with judgments, which are really old experiences in new clothes. Film on our windows.

Maybe this is the impetus to poke our noses into the pesky ethical side of yoga.  But if you’ve been cleaning your windows all by yourself, and someone gives you a step ladder and an extension for your sponge, you’ll be pretty glad to pay attention. And they’re pretty simple, deceptively so. Love, Truth, Conserve your energy, Be quiet, Be fierce, Stay Open, Be present, Learn you’re not in control, Study your experience, Respect Others’ Boundaries. But Wow! try to practice ’em all at once! That’ll give any college Ethics Professor a run for her money.

So you keep coming back to the place of quiet stillness to which your mat has become the doorway. “The heart is the hub of all sacred places; go there and roam.” ~Bhagavan Nityananda 

As I was building my website over at yogaeveryday.org and typing my slogan, I was struck by how it read differently in that commercial setting. True, it’s also a yoga website. And it’s my business, how I let people know what I have to offer. And in that context, it suddenly struck me: am I pimping yoga?

Will yoga give you love? will it make your words true? and will it make you beautiful? and what’s this “Here, Now” stuff? What am I, a three year old? Immediate results?

And the answers are no, yoga will not give you anything. Because anything that can be given is a) not already present in the receiver, and b) an object. That’s the “Yoga IS…” part. Yoga isn’t a plan or program and it’s not a way to find love or beautify your body (though these things happen along the way). Yoga is the space between awareness and thought that Eckhart Tolle spent 10 weeks pointing toward and getting us interested in. Yoga is the silent space where what is has room to breathe and reveal itself. Yoga is the shadow under which we find shade for rest and contemplation of the deeper grains of our existence.

Love, Truth, Beauty: Here, Now. It’s my way of pointing with words to that expansiveness of mind we’re all seeking, the eternal Now in which the chatter vanishes or becomes so remote as to be inconsequential. The eternal Here in which we realize the rock bottom truth of our oneness with all beings. It is not a love we are given, it is The Love we Are. It is not the truth of argumentation or description – those all rely on dualism and leaving something out, the something that would shift the gestalt onto a tangent – it is the Truth we are under all the masks, and to which we return, and – when we are acting from this Truth – from which we proceed with certainty. Yoga is Beauty, not the one you’ll become, but the revelation that you already ARE.

I’m well into the week of the Camel and some days I’ve indulged in a long Camel-centered practice, breathing length and openness into my shoulders, exploring the relation of my triceps to my shoulder girdle, using them to open more fully. (More on that in another post!) Some days I’ve had 5 minutes there of Sun Salutes, 10 of standing and busted out a camel in between.

I’m reminded through all of this that what camels do is store water. So, am I storing refreshing hydration for extended use, or shedding what has been stored because I didn’t digest it when I first took it in?

And I realize, the camel can’t drink until it creates room anew. It has to use its precious store of glistening droplets before it can drink deeply once more.

And the beauty of this pose is that I’m releasing and drinking simultaneously. I am storing sustenance. I am also letting go to make room. Exchange.

And the letting go can be hard. I’m through the initial terror I wrote about last year (see previous post) . And your responses have taught me that I have been in good company: many of us have stored scary and scared feelings in our guts, hearts and voices.

My new challenge is to release through all the layers of my existence. I’m finding that little – one might even say, petty – annoyances and feelings are coming to light. Feelings, judgments, ideas, words I thought I’d left behind. Ones that don’t bear repeating, but let me assure you they’re embarrassing to find tucked away. And they don’t just confine themselves to my mat. They help themselves to the rest of my day, too. Rude these little judgments are. See! There’s another of those rascals!

What is different is that while they register as feelings, they register as “mine” at first, I am finding it possible to let go of the embodied hooks, see them as “not mine, not not mine”, and not re-store them in new the clothes and layers of new judgments. Now, this isn’t a seamless process, and I’ll be perfecting it a long while. But I’m noticing noticing these packages I’ve left for my new self from all my old selves, and it’s allowing me to be more loving to all of them. And to let a lot go.

So that’s my challenge in the week of the Camel: to be a witness to my own experience, to not get lost in it, to let it do what experience does, which is to pass. And so to be able to fill up anew.

What’s yours?