Friday, August 16, 2013

Of The Earth

Written on July 26, 2013 while on retreat in Italy.

As our yoga retreat continued, we were introduced to Dante's next progression. He first experienced transformation in the Inferno. The next took him to Purgatory. As our yoga guru described, this can be thought of as our place on the earth. It is our actions, thoughts, and movement through this existence. How we interact with others and our relationship to nature. It is our connection to all things.

In our yoga practice, we experienced grounding and balancing. I think these types of poses help us to establish a strong connection and a sense of being rooted to the earth. Balancing, particularly balancing on one foot, tests that connection. Does this added challenge bring wariness, distraction, or even discouragement? Standing on one foot may bring us to greater awareness of how we remain balanced: the resources we must tap into in order to stay still, solid, and connected. This simple standing yoga practice can bring light to how we are connected to the earth.

Mountain Pose
Stand near the top of your mat with your feet about hip distance apart. Look down at your feet to be sure your toes are pointing directly forward. Stand tall. Feel length through your legs, torso, and arms. Even feel a length through your neck to the very top of your head. Be aware of your breath. Take slow easy breaths so that you can actually feel breath move through your entire body. Feel your breath and hear your breath.

Bring more energy into your body by feeling your feet root more deeply into the earth. Actually become the mountain. Know that it's bedrock is deep in the earth: tall and strong with a solid base. Grip your mat with your toes to bring this idea of the solid bedrock beneath you. Further, breathe into your feet. As you send this energy downward, feel the reciprocating energy arise from the earth through your feet, through your legs, and experience it coursing upward through your body. As this energy rises, feel yourself grow taller. Create space between each vertebrae as your spine extends upward right up to the crown of your head. Further, feel this energetic connection move through your shoulders, arms, and hands. Open your palms wide to continue this flow of energy through your fingers. Continue to stand as a mountain for 5-10 breaths. Embody the strength and stability of the mountain. Know that you are one with the earth.

Tree Pose
Now, shift your weight gradually to your right foot. Still imagine this energetic force coursing through your body, perhaps from your core down your right leg and into the earth. Exhale to draw your belly in toward your spine to help initiate this balancing pose. Lift your left foot by bending your knee. Place your left foot on the inside of your standing leg with your knee pointing outward. (You have some choices as to where to place your foot. For a bit more stability, place your left heel against your right ankle bone with your left set of toes, or the balls of the foot, still on the floor. Or you may slide your foot higher up on your calf muscle to create a sense of balance. Or slide the foot even higher to your inner thigh to challenge your Tree Pose. I suggest that you do not place your foot on your knee joint. That particular joint already receives enough pressure, so let's free the knee from any added pressure.)

With an inhale, extend your arms straight to the sky while keeping your gaze forward. Exhale to continue the connection to your center and core body. You will find that the exhale will help to stabilize your balancing posture. Stay here and focus on your breath and your simple gaze forward. Don't worry if you waver and fall out of the posture. Simply take a breath and return to the pose. Even feel free to modify the pose if needed. Notice what allows you to stay grounded and connected in this pose. You are only on one foot which is naturally more challenging than standing on two feet. Test yourself by distracting yourself and see what happens to your pose. What occurs when you begin thinking of something other than your breath and the posture. Notice what happens when you turn your head in either direction. Again, if you find that you waver, you have the choice and ability to return to your balanced connection. After 5-10 breaths, change sides.

This balancing posture can be a reflection of how we move through our daily lives. We may think we are rooted and connected, but can be easily distracted by the details of our actions. See if you can embody the essence of the tree: connected to the earth through its roots, strong thick trunk, and extended branches, and leaves that rustle in the wind. Even in strong storms and high winds, the tree can remain strong and still. So, if you're able to become the Tree, even in the midst of a stormy day, you may sense a stronger connection to the Earth and Self.

When you have completed your Tree Pose, return to Mountain Pose for a few more breaths to regain that full connection to the earth. Allow this yoga practice remind you of your full connection to the earth and all things.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Surrender to Stillness

(Written on July 25, 2013 while on a yoga retreat in Italy)

A week has gone by since I started my travels to Italy. For the entire trip, I have been with 18 other yogis. We share common areas in our villa-farmhouse, practice yoga together, eat together, travel together. Our excursions only take us into larger crowds of tourists admiring the wonderful sites around us. The experience has been worthwhile and amazing, but for me, it was time for a little break.

While some of the group took a 2 hour drive out to the beach and the others got pampered at a nearby spa, I stayed at Ebbio for a little R & R. For me, it was time for a little stillness and silence. An opportunity for me to reconnect to self and my surroundings.

So, while sipping an expresso, I enjoyed some time to read and write. I listened to the sounds of nature: the nearby crowing of a rooster, the the cackling of chickens, the rustling of the evergreen leaves of the olive tree, and the scratching song of the crickets. I enjoyed the solitude while feeling the cloud-filtered sun as my light and the occasional breeze as it blew gently through the open windows.

It is very easy to get caught up in things, even when you go on vacation. I invite you to take a moment out of your day to surrender to stillness. Maybe it's just sitting for a few minutes on the sofa with a short magazine article you've been wanting to read. Or taking a walk down to that flower shop you drive by everyday but haven't yet visited. Or looking out at the city scape while sipping a cup of tea. Or closing your office door, popping in your earbuds, and listing to your favorite song. Or....the list is endless. Make it simple, make it short, just make it your own. Honor yourself today, by giving yourself that gift of stillness and silence. This, TOO, is an effective yoga practice.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Giving It Only 60%

Another day in the magnificent Tuscan Valley, took our yoga group to the city of Siena, famous for being the rival to the city of Florence. We encountered the incredibly unique Siena Duomo (Cathedral) and the "candy-striped" marbled architecture of this gothic monument. A light caprese salad and bubbly water was enjoyed in the Piazza il Campo with a clear view of the Palazzo Pubblico.  And of course, a refreshing gelato to complete the day's excursion.

In light of the struggle that Florence and Siena experienced as rival cities for many years, I am also reminded of the struggle that I place on myself at times. When I practice yoga, and even sometimes when I teach yoga, there is an element of pushing or working hard. The goal, though, is not to strain or hurt the body.  The intention is to move through blockages of the mind and body, revealing that you are capable of reaching your fullest potential even when there are challenges in front of you. In addition  to this intention, it is also important to be light, kind, and gentle on the body/mind during the yoga practice. There is the effort, as my yoga instructor stated, to move into the pose, but also the settling and softening into the posture. The intention is to get there, then BE there. As I'm reminded of this wonderful lesson, I have been moving more slowly and gently in my yoga practice during this retreat. Rather than moving full steam ahead, I have held back a bit to experience the softer side of the practice to truly experience a sense of Being in the Moment rather than forcing my body into the moment.

This may seem like an odd analogy, but I am reminded of a particular season of "The Celebrity Apprentice" where Lou Ferrigno (he's Italian, right) was one of the celebrity contestants. (For those who don't know or don't remember, he is most famous for his television depiction of the Incredible Hulk back in the 1980's). Whenever, Lou Ferrigno found himself on the losing team and defending his actions in front of Donald Trump, he would often and regularly say, "I gave it 110%." I find this an interesting way to describe one's efforts. That in order to convey that your efforts were good enough, you have to go beyond 100% and give it 110%. It suggests going beyond your limits in order to show your best.

As mentioned, my yoga instructor at the retreat, offered another way to approach the yoga practice. Arrive at each pose more gently and kindly. Perhaps arrive at 60%. I applied this idea to my practice by moving slowly, modifying my poses, and not overextending my body in order to sufficiently, yet successfully, arriving at the pose. The result was wonderful. My body felt just as opened and challenged as if I had given the whole 110%. The results were the same and I would have to say.....better!

When you arrive at your next yoga practice, I offer the invitation to scale it back from your normal routine. Instead of pushing toward the 110%, try dialing it back to 60%. (That's a full 50% discount on your practice, but receiving a 100% quality product at the end.) Use props like blocks and straps to support your yoga poses, move more slowly, or just simply modify your posture and see how you feel afterward.

Take a pose like Side Angle Pose. When you see a picture of this posture, you see the yogi with legs wide (creating a 90 degree angle in the front leg), the corresponding hand planted palm-down on the floor while the opposite hand extends (as if with no effort at all) straight up or overhead. One can easily modify the pose and experience great benefit of the posture without pushing the body into the position depicted in Yoga Journal Magazine.

Try Side Angle Pose with a shorter stance. (Perhaps the left foot is in front in this lunging posture.) The angle of the front leg does not need to be 90 degrees. Rest your left arm lightly on top of the left thigh so your body can open easily in this hip opening posture. Your right hand can reach upward toward the sky. Breathe into your hips, inner thighs, and the right side of your body. Remain here for 5-10 breaths. Repeat the same modified pose on the other side.

I think it is ok to scale back at times. I think we are encouraged and maybe even pushed sometimes to give it our all...ALL THE TIME! Try applying a lighter touch to your tasks. Take your time when you do simple things like driving to work, making dinner, or speaking with others. The result may be the same...or even better using this technique rather than becoming the Incredible Hulk 110% of the time.

Written July 25, 2013 in Italy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sweet Darkness

If you have been reading the last few blog entires, you will know that I was on a yoga retreat in the beautiful country of Italy. In between our yoga lessons, we had the opportunity to visit local areas and take in all the wonderful sites of the countryside. We have toured and visited some of the amazing cathedrals, museums, and galleries. We have tasted the Chianti wines, the flavorful gelatos, and a slice of pizza or two.

Continuing with the yoga retreat theme of transformation, our next yoga practice had us think about stepping into darkness. Sometimes as we experience shifts and changes in our lives, it is not always smooth and pleasant. We may often have to walk through challenging and trying circumstances before we can reach our final destination. Those trying times may also be dark and mysterious. They may even be scary and uninviting. This darkness may entice us to stop the journey, turn around, and go back to where we started, having never reached the completed transformed self.

I'm reminded of the journey of the lotus flower and how it comes to be. The seed of the lotus plants itself in deep, dark, murky waters. As it sprouts, it must take on the journey to find the light in order for it to finally blossom. This may seem like a simple task, but think of the obstacles the plant must face in order to reach the top: the refracting sunlight on the water makes if difficult for the plant to see the light clearly. But instead of turning back and giving up, the lotus plant continues to grow upward until it finally reaches the light where it can then blossom into its full potential.

Lotus Pose
The Lotus Posture is a very symbolic yoga position. It represents peace of mind, stillness, completion, arrival, etc. It is often the seated posture used for quiet meditation and chanting. Although the pose represents peace and stillness, it can be a challenging posture to move into - just like the journey of the lotus flower itself. But once achieved, having moved through the darkness, one can experience bliss.

Disclaimer for this pose: it is recommended that one has fairly open/flexible hips and ankles to achieve this pose. If you are not as flexible as you'd like to be yet in these areas, try a modified seated posture like Easy Pose (simply sitting on your yoga mat with your legs comfortably crossed.)

To move into Lotus, sit on your yoga mat and bring one foot high up onto the opposite lap. As you're able, take the other foot, cross it over the first leg, and take it to the opposite hip bone. Both feet will be resting visibly on your lap. Simply sit here with a fully extended spine for 10-20 breaths. If you'd like, cross the legs the other way (the bottom foot now on top) and remain for an additional 10-20 breaths.

Candle Gazing
To further your journey in this pose, here is a meditation exercise that can truly settle the mind. It is called Candle Gazing. It is an ancient practice, yet simple to do.

Light a candle in a room without much light. While sitting in your Lotus Posture, stare at the candle without blinking for 20 seconds to start. Then close your eyes for 20 seconds. This is round one. On the second round, open your eyes and stare at the candle flame for 30 seconds, then close your eyes for 30 seconds. You can do as many rounds as you'd like. You can keep the time period the same for each round or increase the time you stare at the candle and have your eyes closed as you desire. (This exercise is best done when using a timer that tracks the time you have your eyes opened and closed.)

Notice how you feel after this meditation practice. You don't really need to bring anything to mind while doing this practice. Simply be at peace, in the darkness, and drawn to the light of the candle. Become the lotus plant moving through sweet darkness to reach the light ready to blossom into a brilliant flower.

Written on July 24, 2013 in Italy.

Friday, August 2, 2013


My travels have taken me to the beautiful countryside of Tuscany, Italy. I am traveling with others from the United States to enjoy a relaxing yoga retreat led by some very special friends. We are staying at a 14th century farmhouse called Ebbio. As we journeyed along the speedway, we noticed villas on the hillside, lush vineyards, and even vast fields of sunflowers. At our retreat location, we have an amazing hilltop view of Monteriggioni Castle and the surrounding national forests. We have been treated to fresh vegetarian meals, a lush garden, farm animals, and lovely hosts.

The theme of the yoga retreat is borrowed from the famous poetic story written by Dante Alighieri called The Divine Comedy. It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante is exiled to these distinct territories and is forced to rediscover himself through a series of adventures. He experiences through his journey a transformation of himself.

We, too, can experience transformation; discover new parts of ourselves or even re-invent ourselves. Sometimes yoga can be thought of as a process of birth and rebirth. We move in and out of postures to tap into parts of ourselves that we did not know existed. We can use yoga poses to experience a sense of healing and cleansing. All of these, and more, can be thought of as transformation.

Seated Twisted Pose
Twisting postures in yoga can provide that sense of changing, shifting, transforming. In twisting positions, I imagine a wet sponge being wrung out. When we unwind, a freshness enters our being. It is a release of the new to invite the new. Try this posture to experience that sense of cleansing and becoming anew.

Sit on your yoga mat with your legs extended straight out in front of you. Bend your right leg, and hub your knee up toward your chest. Then, step your right foot over your extended left leg so that now your right foot is on the outside of your left leg. You're welcome to keep the left leg extended or bend this leg so the foot draws near the right hip bone. (Your left knee will be lying on the floor.)

Inhale and extend your left arm out in front of you. As you exhale, wrap your left arm around the bent right knee twisting your torso toward the right side of the room. As you complete the twist, hug the leg closer to your body. Inhale again to ensure a long spine followed by another exhale to twist more as the body allows. Hold the posture for at least 10 breaths.

As you remain in this seated twisted pose, imagine the internal and external changes your body is currently experiencing. Some changes may be subtle, some will be more apparent. Feel free to move into this pose with the intention of desiring change and shift in your body, mind, spirit, life. As you release the pose slowly, return to Staff Pose (legs extended out in front of you), and experience the body opening up to new sensations. Repeat the pose on the other side.

Even if you don't set a specific intention while practicing this yoga pose, your body, mind, and spirit can be open to change and transformation if you are open to receive it. 

Written on July 23, 2013 in Italy.