Sunday, August 1, 2010

Love - Love

My new favorite yoga prop is yellow, fuzzy and bounces. It goes from lively to dead pretty fast, but for our purposes that’s just fine. A tennis ball's primary purpose in life may be submitting to repeated thwacking over (or into) a net by racket wielding aficionados, but, given the chance, they have another purpose even higher than a world-class lob.

Yin yoga enthusiasts learn the benefits of gently stretching connective tissue, the framework of fibers that form the support structure for the body’s tissues and organs. The rationale that supports the value of stretching connective tissue, particularly around the joints, is the same as that for muscles: mild, sensibly-delivered stress makes connective tissue stronger. And whether we’re talking house, relationship or body, strong framework is good.

However, connective tissue doesn’t respond well to rhythmic contraction like muscles do. It’s the patiently held posture that does the trick, allowing the tissue to slowly respond and eventually begin to release.

Here’s where the tennis ball comes in. Before you begin your next yoga practice, or anytime you feel tight, sore or underloved, try these three moves:

Love - Foot: From seated (on a chair) or standing (on a mat or other non-slippery surface), step on the tennis ball and roll it around beneath one foot, pausing at any spot that says “ooo-aaah”. Gently press into the ooo-ahh spot for 15 to 30 seconds, then release, switch feet and repeat.

Love - Glute: From sitting in a chair, place the ball underneath one glute or the other. Schooch around until you find a you-know-what spot then lean into to it, exhale and smile stupidly for 15 to 30 seconds.

Love - Back: Position the tennis ball between your back and a wall, anywhere from between the shoulders to on or above the glutes, then start channeling your inner bear scratching its back against a tree. When you come across the by now familiar “ooo-ahh” spot, pause, press, exhale, release.

And that’s it. Game. Set. Match. You win.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

And Never the Twain Shall Meet

There’s a man on Washington Island, my summer home, who does an amazing impersonation of Mark Twain. He’s got the hair, the mustache, the voice and the humor. He wears a custom-made white suit and riffs Twain-isms for a few hours in a solo show that, unfortunately, started about ten minutes ago.

I fully intended to go. I knew I’d enjoy it. But it rained off and on all day today before gradually stopping, and now the setting sun is shooting gold through the few drops still falling to the field behind my house. So here I sit, pausing every few words to look out at garden beds tipsy with water and overflowing with arugula, lettuces, basil, beans, peas, tomato and cucumber plants.

Wild grapes vine over the wooden framework of an ice-fishing shanty pressed into service as an arbor. In the distance sandhill cranes practice their throaty gargles. And the light. It’s Midwestern, mid-summer evening, otherworldly kind of light and nothing short of a tornado—and maybe not even that—will get me off the screen porch tonight.

There’s a lot going on around here in the summer. It can be hard to fit it all in, even the good stuff like a one-man-show or a yoga class. There are gardens to weed and children to hug; bald eagles to spot and cherry pies to bake. If the reason we miss an activity is because a moment in our lives is too sweet, just then, to leave it,

I think Mark Twain would agree.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Conversation Starter

Listening to my husband read a poem to me just now, it occurred to me how much poetry is like yoga. Or is yoga. Yoga initiates a conversation with the body while patiently seeking access to the mind and spirit; poetry sequences words for the mind to mull while its meaning melts directly into the heart.

Yoga may feel like a neatly organized parade of postures; we move this way and that, we stretch, we balance, we manipulate one side and then the other. We may wonder why some postures feel difficult for us and seem so easy for others. And as much as we try to leave our normal-life commentary off the mat, it often finds way to snuggle in next to us.

Unless. Unless the poetry of our movement succeeds in tapping into what lies beneath (and above, around) our well-entrenched, orderly consciousness.

Last Monday, Third Island Yoga students celebrated the summer solstice with the traditional practice of 108 Sun Salutations. Not exactly 108, but, after employing a sort of yoga-handicapping system, we got close enough—28, actually.

In each class, after the first fifteen or so repetitions, I saw the transition from prose to poetry begin to evolve. Even for those modifying with a chair, as the movement became intuitive, flowing grace replaced “reach the arms overhead, fold forward, lengthen, step back...”

Bodies were quietly conversing, minds were quiet, spirits engaged. The movements of individuals synched energetically to create a seamless whole.

It was poetic.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Please Be Seated

Two of the six weekly classes I lead are called Chair Yoga, and I’ll admit that when we’re all seated together at the beginning of class, it looks a bit like an adult version of Musical Chairs. (For those of you who didn’t grow up playing Musical Chairs,—what are you, from Mars?—it’s a game where there’s a circle of chairs, music playing and a bunch of players who walk around them, then sit really fast once the music stops. All well and good except there are less chairs than players, so hilarity ensues when frantic people wind up in other people’s laps and are instantly expelled from the game. This rarely happens in Chair Yoga.)

I expected practicing yoga with the support of a chair to be good for people for whom “regular” yoga presented too many challenges to joints, hearts or balance. What I didn’t expect was how rich and authentic the practice can feel.

One student, an experienced practitioner whose mobility is compromised by an argumentative knee, worried that yoga with a chair wouldn’t be “real.” But as we moved through modified Sun Salutations and pose flows, finding our way into the same nooks and crannies more traditional practices invite access to, her outlook began to change.

Consider what the chair represents; the ability to connect with breath, movement and awareness while being held in a safe, accessible and supportive space. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.

Will someone start the music, please?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Have Your Race and Eat it Too

If age was like a speed limit and I was clocked in a 55mph zone, I might still get a warning instead of a ticket, but not for long. Like me, I suspect many of my friends are still surprised to be old enough to qualify for training-level senior discounts. Or to notice when the newest issue of AARP Magazine has a celebrity on the cover who’s younger than us. While no one I know dreams of turning back the clock, aging does float a boatload of interesting food for thought.

My richest friendships have always been nourished by activity: horseback riding, biking, running, swimming, skiing, yoga. Competing or not, our adventure dial has been happily cranked to “high” for over thirty years. So I’m not one bit surprised that people who’ve been consistently active can stay fast, fit and strong despite the increasing density of their (old growth) forest of birthday cake candles. What’s interesting is what sometimes happens to the desire to ignite them.

Last weekend a friend of mine competed in a half-ironman distance triathlon after somewhat reluctantly training for several months. She’s a half-iron veteran, this one, so the distances—1.2m swim, 56m bike, 13.1m run—were no surprise. Despite getting kicked in the head in the swim and having to scramble to retrieve her cap and goggles, she rallied to cut her previous best finish time by 22 minutes. She stroked, she pedaled, she flew, she celebrated—and then she retired from racing. Give the kid a break, after all, she’s 61.

I love riding (bikes or horses), swimming or, especially, practicing yoga with friends. But these days, like the Reluctant Triathlete, if there’s less combustion before the cake gets cut, it’s usually okay. Of course we’re all different—ask any 80-year-old marathoner or the 70-something nun who can’t wait for the Ironman Championship in Kona, Hawaii, every year.

Can an older athlete eat up a race course and order dessert? Yeah, baby. My friend didn’t retire because she can no longer do it. She retired because she’s ready to find other ways to feel full.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Fill 'Er Up

Nothing like a fiery Argentinian M.D. yoga master to rock your practice. During extended trips to India, Ranjani Cobo studied with Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Sri Desikachar, and Indra Devi. In Calcutta, she treated leprosy patients alongside Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. Worldwide, she championed the healing power of food long before the term “integrative nutrition" was coined.

Ranjani is one of very few women whose practice includes the advanced series of Ashtanga Yoga. Last Tuesday evening she was at Junction Center Yoga—a beautiful barn-turned-studio in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin—to share some wisdom with eight spellbound students, including (yippee!) me.

For nearly three hours we listened, flowed and learned while she performed adjustment wizardry on poses from Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle) to Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand). Think winged chiropractic asana. Ranjani’s postural assists were precise, confident and liberating. Her physical mastery breathtaking. But, days later, it’s the sound and effect of her breath that still echoes.

Her breath sounded primal, an amplified audible energy that lifted her body through poses more airborne than earthbound. Imagine Darth Vader as a chuckling, mewing, dancing force for good. It wasn’t enough just to listen, we all started to breathe, really breathe. Each inhale opened space between grounding and freedom; each exhale unlocked tension and expelled inhibition.

She’s physically diminutive, Ranjani. But when she breathed, she outgrew the studio, then the whole barn. Next time you practice, picture rafters, a far-away ceiling, a well-worn wood floor. Then feel what happens when you fill the space with the sound of your breath.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Bearable Lightness of Being

Growing up, the best part about being stuck at Camp Lutherdale the first two weeks of August each summer was getting to watch the movie The Red Balloon. It’s French, won all kinds of awards and was filmed in 1956. So yes, my younger friends, it was a hot new release when I first saw it.

I suspect The Red Balloon has pretty obvious Protestant overtones (persecution, redemption, ascension, etc.); it was, after all, Lutheran Camp Approved. But as a kid, all that registered was that tragedy can be followed by magic. Also, that sadness is heavy and happiness is weightless.

Training with a new teacher last week, I sensed the airy pause in her jump forward from Down Dog as we warmed up side by side through rounds of Surya Namaskar, Sun Salutation. We paused to go deeper into the move—not a jump, after all, but a fluid, flying arm balance—to find and hone the essence of its weightless quality.

While she stood with her back against the wall, I faced her in Down Dog and practiced sending my sit bones up, toward the ceiling, instead of forward. Each time, she caught my hips against her torso until I trusted the shift onto my arms and could quietly, lightly touch my feet to the floor between my hands. I began to have the sense of being barely tethered to earth, and in that balanced hesitation, a weightless, timeless blink of happiness.

Feel for lightness the next time you practice. Find enough space between flesh and mat for electricity to arc from one to the other. Leave a whisper between your palms in Namaste. Converse with treetops as if you held a thousand balloons.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


If you’ve ever been in a yoga class where the teacher asked you to “find the yoga between the poses,” you may have wondered just where that yoga was hiding. With so much to think about—breath, alignment, gravity—while listening for directions about what to do next, it somehow doesn’t seem fair or feasible to add hide and seek to the flow.

Think of it as a cue that’s more about journey than destination. In a vinyasa practice, it’s the action that links Trikonasana (Triangle) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon). It’s the inhale that guides the step forward, the sense of the supporting foot receiving balance and energy, the fingertips lightly meeting the floor or block, the exhale as the body unfurls into the pose. It’s pause, prep, transition and grounding.

In a Sun Salutation, it’s the fold to Uttanasana, the step-back to Plank; the descend through Chaturanga Dandasana to Upward Dog; the elegant sweep from Up to Down Dog; the step or jump forward. Like a dance within a dance, these essential links are themselves a practice even while informing and enriching the whole.

The word link is of course both noun (something that enables communication between two people, things or situations) and verb (connect or join physically), but my favorite definition has historical roots. In the early 16th century, link referred to a torch of pitch for lighting the way on dark streets.

There’s a lot of yoga hidden between poses. Find that link to brighten the journey and illuminate the destination.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Ragged Island is at the very tip of the Jumentos Cays, a crescent moon shaped island chain in the far southwest Bahamas. It has a population of sixty hearty souls who share nine square miles of sand, salt ponds, coconut palms and one DC-10 airplane wreck that for years was a bar but is now a family home.

It may be smack in the middle of the middle of nowhere, but there is nothing ragged about Ragged. The landing strip is being extended, a new harbor dug and Duncan Town, the island’s only settlement, has a clean and hopeful look. Every day nine children report to the All-Age Primary School dressed in crisp white shirts and plaid skirts (girls) or black pants (boys). The teachers, a married couple from Guyana, are responsible for preparing these students for secondary school available only on other, more populated islands.

Despite the fact that Ragged Island is nothing more than a tiny dot in a vast ocean, as is far away from rules, regulations and watchful eyes, school starts on time. The kids are respectful, neat and polite. There is a schedule and it is followed. Lots of learning takes place.

Several days ago during a morning yoga practice, I found myself hurried and distracted. I cut short my warm-up and pieced together poses without much thought or intention. When I heard the beep of an incoming e-mail I left the mat to see who it was. Ten minutes later, I left again to answer the phone.

Later, resting in an unearned Savasana, I made a pledge: When I step onto this rectangular island I will show it the respect it deserves. I will start with a plan, and maintain a focused practice even as it evolves and changes. I will close with my palms together in a seal of gratitude. And if the computer beeps or the phone rings, I’ll think of nine children in uniforms sitting in a classroom in the middle of the middle of nowhere, and stay right where I am.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In Season. Organic. Locally Grown.

In standing postures, once the feet are awake and sending energy up the leg, a natural current of power is created between the heel and the sitting bones of the pelvis. “Sitting bones” is a much friendlier way to refer to the ischial tuberosities, which sounds like something a beet would sprout if left too long in the ground.

Whatever you call it, this sit-bone to heel connection has everything to do with how well the energy you’ve generated ultimately transmits from the pelvis into the spine. When you line up the sitting bone with the same-side heel you’ll immediately feel a change in your base of support. It’s one of the best ways I know to self-adjust postures like Virabhadrasana I & II (Warrior I & II), Trikonasana (Triangle) and Parsvakonasana (Extended Side-Angle).

Why is this important? Because if your ischial tuberosities have drifted away from the line of energy your foot is so cheerfully delivering, you start working really hard at a poses that should make you feel glad you’re alive, not wish you were doing something else, like digging beets.

Here’s how to plug into that powerful energy stream: Step into a Warrior II stance with the right leg leading. Before you bend the knee, imagine a straight line running from the heel of the right foot to the instep of the back (left) foot. Now as you bend the right knee towards 90º, bring the center of the knee and the right sit-bone onto that line extending from the right heel. Widen the stance if you need to; when you look down you should only see the big toe of the right foot.

Now, take a breath, let the soles of both feet dance in place then feel for a zing of happy as it rockets to the top of your noble and deserving head. Smile. Eat your beets.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Magic Afoot

It’s one thing to try and stay relaxed while learning or practicing a standing pose, and often another to actually do it. We’d like it to feel easier, more natural, and there are those magic moments when it does. You’re balanced, you’re breathing, on the fast track to bliss. The only thing missing is the assurance you’ll be able to find that happy place the next time you practice.

But even David Copperfield would say the most elegant, transcending magic starts with a few basic tricks. He might tell an aspiring magician to practice his illusions; I’d say masterful sleight of hand for standing yoga poses starts with the feet.

“Ladies and Gentlemen! May I have a volunteer from the audience? How about you, madam? Please come forward. Now, pick a pose, any pose, as long as at least one foot is on the ground. Ah, nice choice. May I present Virabhadrasana II, ladies and gentlemen, otherwise known as Warrior II.

First notice our volunteer’s alignment: front knee over the ankle and bent near or to 90º; center of knee points the same direction as the center of the foot; front sit bone is tucked under; back thigh pressed back, front pelvis slightly lifted off the thigh. Observe her shoulders aligned above the hips, her spine lightly lengthened, chest open to the side, arms extended at shoulder height as she gazes beyond the leading hand's fingertips.

Now watch closely! This pose is about to change before your very eyes! Madam, please bring your attention to your feet. Spread the toes and liven the arches. Feel for even contact under the soles then gently press them into the earth. Think yield. Imagine that the more you yield, the more your feet conduct the energy surrounding you from air and earth, pulsing prana (chi), into every cell of your body. Ladies and gentlemen, please observe: she no longer holds the pose, the pose holds her.

I’m going to walk all around our volunteer. There are no props, no strings, no gimmicks. But there is magic afoot.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Clutter Cutting

Sometimes I think we yoga enthusiasts get lost in all our gentle terminology; words like cultivate, allow, engage, effortless. There’s nothing wrong with the words. They’re great words. Any one of them (and dozens more like them), can be the cue that changes how we experience a pose, a breath or a concept.

It’s when the words blend into blah, blah, blah patois that “gentle” can fade to anemic. Yoga Muzak may be more pleasant to listen to than elevator Muzak, but it’s still background noise.

What if you took a yoga class and on that day there was a posture that just wasn’t happening for you. And your teacher, instead of putting on a pair of white gloves and making a tasteful suggestion, took one look at you and said, “Dude. That is so not even close.”

You know I’m kidding, but every now and then it might be refreshing to let some breeze blow through what can sometimes feel like a rarified atmosphere. In the olden days, when I was in the advertising profession, we talked about “cutting the clutter.” If yoga is a method, a technology, for cutting through the clutter in our lives to find the hidden bit of “real” we know is there, doesn’t it make sense to keep our language clean, direct and sometimes startling?

Which brings me to a story about one of my yoga school buddies. (You know who you are, you of the cute new dress in Todos Santos who wishes she hadn’t eaten the fish from the street stall.) One afternoon, she was teaching our group and while I don’t remember the exact pose we were in, some of us began to get a little tired and some of us decided to exit said pose without explicit permission from our leader, who then spun around, glared at us and shouted, “You WIMPS!”

I guess it was just her way of suggesting that we allow ourselves to cultivate more energy.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Something to Declare

I have a wonderful 78-year-old friend who lives next door, next door being a quarter of a mile away. June is from Fort Vermillion in Alberta, Canada, which is north of Edmonton, which is already north of just about everywhere else in the world. She is who Meryl Streep’s character in “Out of Africa” would have become if she’d stayed in Africa instead of going back to Denmark.

For the last thirty years June has traversed Crooked Island’s backroads, first by scooter, later by van, taking food and a listening ear to folks from Cripple Hill to True Blue. She knows everyone. Everyone knows her. She is much beloved.

But even though June specializes in selflessness, I guess you don’t grow up in Fort Vermillion without learning how to take care of yourself, too. So every now and then she announces it’s a National Holiday.

National Holidays can be declared for any number of reasons, or no reason. On National Holidays you don’t owe anyone (including yourself) an explanation for anything. The day is yours.

There’s a world of difference between thinking or saying “I’m stressed, I’m sad, I need a break, and hot dog, it’s a National Holiday.” One feels like defeat, the other, celebration.

We all work really, really hard at being good at everything we do in life. On a National Holiday, deserving Third Island friends, you will be held accountable for one thing and one thing only: the quality and longevity of your savasana.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Gated Community

Some people meet through their spouses. Some through their kids. Two decades ago my friend Carla and I met through our horses. We had the same trainer, and though we usually took lessons on different days, we (and our horses) spent years together jumping fences in arenas and on desert mesas, walking mountain trails, galloping across fields. There are some experiences in my life I would trade, but not those.

Many of the other riders in our hunter-jumper barn were teenaged girls with fancy, expensive horses. Typically, they’d arrive before a scheduled lesson, groom and tack up their mounts, walk to the arena, warm-up, jump whatever was set up for them, cool-down, dismount, walk back to the barn, etc.

Week after week, they repeated the process. Most got really good at jumping fences in a gated arena and won many ribbons at horse shows. Carla and I won ribbons, too (well, mostly she did), but much of the joy I found riding came from the out-of-arena experiences we had.

The other day someone told me about a friend who’d said she couldn’t do yoga for a couple of weeks. Why? Because she was on her way to visit a relative in a town that didn’t have a studio dedicated to the particular style she practiced.

That's when I started thinking about horses, jumping, arenas and this bit of wisdom from Rumi:

“...there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

In other words, open the gate.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Will U B Mine

You’ve probably read about this phenomenon: sometimes when people get heart transplants, in addition to inheriting a healthier cardiac muscle, they inherit memories, cravings, predispositions.

A 47-year-old man received a heart from a teenaged girl who’d had an eating disorder. He began to feel nauseated after eating and developed a tendency to giggle. When an eight-year-old girl received the heart of a 10-year-old girl who’d been murdered, the recipient developed nightmares that eventually led to her donor’s killer.

Memory is not solely the domain of the brain. Hearts have neurons. Every cell, in fact, has memory. When a memory is loaded with emotion, it makes sense that it gets stored in the heart.

Try remembering with your heart. Here’s what it felt like for me: Heart led to Valentine’s, Valentine’s led to a memory of cards exchanged with kids in grade school (Be Mine, I Luv U, etc). From there it was a short trip to remembering the boxes we brought to school for the cards to be deposited in.

In my school there was always a contest for the best Valentine’s box. I always won, because my dad spent days, sometimes weeks, shamelessly constructing them for me. The only one I clearly remembered was a shimmering gold and red Viking ship. But when I turned my heart loose on the memory it, just like that, unearthed a pirate’s treasure chest covered with hearts, brimming with cards.

Aye, mateys. The heart remembers.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Smart Heart

When you’ve got some time and you’re in the mood for an experiment, try this: Find some music (preferably instrumental) that’s somewhere between nod-off and finger-snap. If you’ve got an IPod and can put together playlists, select enough songs to total about ten minutes. If you’re not IPod rated, find a CD that fits the above description. The music should make you happy, but not to the point of dancing.

Now roll out your mat. Find a comfortable, seated position, adjusting it at any time during the practice if you need to. Close the eyes. Release the day. Take three complete breaths with your heart instead of your lungs. On each inhale, pulse peace into all your cells. On each exhale release something you dislike about yourself. (If there’s nothing you dislike about yourself, you can substitute something you dislike about someone else. If there’s nothing you dislike about anyone else, I would like you to be my teacher.)

With the eyes still closed, lace your fingers behind your back. Roll the shoulders back and down and open the chest. Inhale into your heart and feel 5% more love for yourself than you ever have before. Exhale and feel for sensation in your heart and chest. Repeat several times, then release the hands and lace again with the opposite finger on top. Take a couple more breaths: love on the inhale, sensation on the exhale.

Place the hands comfortably in your lap. Let your heart capture your next thought before your mind puts its spin on it. No matter what the thought, use your heart to feel, rather than think, your reaction to it. Take the feeling, dip it in compassion and sprinkle clarity on top.

Slowly open your eyes. Feel free to dance.

Friday, April 9, 2010

DNA You Say?

Being a right-brained kind of person, I don’t have much occasion to stand next to the cutting edge of scientific thought. So while the results of the following experiments (first conducted fifteen years ago), have had lots of time to disseminate, they’re news to me.

HeartMath, a non-profit research organization, decided to explore and measure the effects of emotion on physical health. First, maybe after a morning cup of tea, they identified and documented an electromagnetic field of energy that not only surrounded, but extended way beyond the heart. (We’re talking five to eight feet in diameter here - imagine yourself in the middle of an invisible net large enough to catch a juvenile pterodactyl). Then, with the hypothesis that emotion originates from the heart, not the brain, they decided to see if the energy field had anything to do with conducting emotions generated by the heart to other parts of the body.

They trained people in a super-charged form of feeling called “coherent emotion.” Coherent emotion is developed by purposefully shifting focus from the brain to the heart. It is intuitive, positive, powerful and takes time to learn. Once their team was able to emote some high-voltage unconditional love they turned them loose on beakers containing human DNA samples. And then they measured the physical effects of conscious loving intention.

The next time you think (wait, don’t think, feel) your heart-centered feelings have only nominal effect, consider this: HeartMath’s DNA samples were both visually and chemically altered after receiving a dose of positive coherent emotion. DNA molecules actually wound or unwound depending on the intent focused on them.

How can we mere mortals access “coherent emotion”?

By developing an intelligent heart.

(To be continued).

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sweet Spot

To: Aeron, Barb, Beulah, Carla, Carolyn, Christel, Cindy, Clancy, Eric, Fritz, Hanne, Jean-Marie, Jeff, Joann, Julia, Kari, Mary, Melina, Nancy, Paula, Rachel, Sandy, Scott, Shirley, Sue, Hanne, Wanda, Wendy, and anyone I missed.

This winter, we centered and stretched and moved and breathed together. Some of you came to class once. Many came twice a week for several months; others several times while visiting Crooked Island.

To all of you who shared the experience of yoga nourished by the sound and rhythm of the ocean and smell of salt air, I thank you. Whenever peaceful consciousness and gentle intent is shared by a group, it brightens not only our individual interior landscape, but sweetens the space around, between and beyond us.

The world needs more of that kind of energy. We did our part, guys. Well done.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Chicken Soup for the Pose

I’m always amazed at how many “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books there are out there. There’s probably even a “Chicken Soup for the Yogi” book, but I’m afraid to look. Actually, I have nothing against them (she wrote placatingly), in fact I think it’s a great idea to customize comfort and even nomenclature as per one’s hobbies, avocations or life situations. To show my support, I’ve renamed a dozen yoga poses to reflect a more tropical island-y feeling.

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend): Sea Glass Collecting Pose

Virasana (Hero’s) Neptune Pose

Vrschikasana (Scorpion): Lobster Pose

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel): Helm Pose

Krauncasana (Heron): Flamingo Pose

Natarajasana (Dancer’s): Figurehead Pose

Halasana (Plow): Upended in Hurricane Pose

Jathara Parivartanasana (Belly Turning): Heeled Over Pose

Navasana (Boat): Keel Balance Pose

Garudasana (Eagle): Osprey Pose

Deviasana (Goddess): Mermaid Pose

Pincha Mayurasana (Elbow Stand): Easier Done in Water Pose

Savansana (Corpse): Buried at Sea Pose

It’s not chicken soup, but it was fun. Look for the Mountain, River and Desert series available soon at a blog near you. And, by the way, Happy April 1st.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stand By For Hugs

My favorite lesson from teacher training last year is the one we learned during the first fifteen minutes of the first day.

We were all a little nervous, I think, at least I know I was. Here was a group of accomplished yoga practitioners and teachers ranging in age from 22 to 60, from Toronto, London, New York City, Los Angeles, Aspen, Whistler, B.C., Mexico. Oh, and Washington Island, Wisconsin.

After introductions, our teacher asked us to come into Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Beginning with the feet, he cued our alignment, asking us to rock forward and back from heel to toes, feeling for equal and balanced weight distribution with all four corners of the soles as we quieted the motion. Then a slight lift of the inner arches, the sensation of the calves pressing forward as the thighs pressed back, the tailbone drawn forward to the pubis as the navel and low ribs drew back into the spine.

He then asked us to gently tilt our heads forward and backchin towards chest, then back of the head toward shoulder bladesuntil the head found its balanced center on top of the cervical spine. Add broadened chests, fingernails magnetized to the earth and deep, Ujjayi inhale and exhales, and I doubt there were eight better-looking mountains that side of Rockies.

Then, for the first of many, many, many times, our teacher took our mountains and moved them. He walked up to a lovely, experienced, Iyengar-trained classmate who stood with beautiful balance and symmetry, so perfect, so...stiff, and hugged her. He hooked his chin over her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her, bear-hug style. He stood that way for at least a minute. I watched her eyes mist and her face soften. Then he stepped back and smiled. She hadn’t moved a muscle, not one muscle, but she was soft and open and happy. And standing in Tadasana for the first time.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Please join me on a trip to the Land of Stress. It’s not too far away and the fare is cheap. I can’t promise comfortable accommodations, but I can share some travel tips and tell you what to watch for along the way. It is a safari; there will be animals. Watch them closely.

While the emotional landscape that causes you stress may be different than mine, your best friend’s or your life partner’s, the physiological reaction it causes is generally the same: shallow breathing, rapid heart-rate and an invisible, powerful hormonal release.

Just like other mammals, stress is the finger that pushes your brain’s primitive “fight or flight” button. Once the button is pushed, the body is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, which provides the energy to respond to the crisis. But what if your stress is the result of losing a job or having an argument? I suppose you could punch something or run away really fast, but that’s not always practical. More than likely you sit and think about your problem(s), stewing in your own excessive hormonal juices, wondering why you suddenly feel the urge to eat Kit Kat bars or cry.

Now take a look around. There are zebras and elephants and water buffalo in the distance. From time to time they, too, experience stress, like when competing for territory, food or a mate. But unlike humans, once the crisis has passed, they instinctively know how to flush lingering hormones from their bodies.

They shake. Trunk to tail, ears to hooves, tusks to rump. They shake off their stress-leftovers and go back to grazing, side by side.

You don’t have to travel to the Land of Stress to know it’s a physical as well as emotional state. Whether you shed lingering stress in a vigorous sun salutation or whirl in a vibrating dance, creating your own cleansing ritual restores calm and ease to both body and mind.

Leave it to nature to shake us up with wisdom.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hip Hip Hooray

In yin yoga it’s called Shoelace Pose. In yang styles, it’s Fire Log. In sanskrit it’s Agnistambhasana. In my practice it’s known as Goodbye Mrs. Williams.

Think of an expanded Sukhasana (Easy Pose), with the lower legs (knee to foot) stacked one on top of the other, like two logs. Once the legs are positioned you fold forward from the groins, bringing your hands, or perhaps forearms, to the floor in front. (Yoga Journal’s website has a step-by-step description of the pose’s finer points and nuances).

Shoelace-Fire Log-Agnistambhasana-Goodbye Mrs. Williams is a hip-opener. The hip and pelvic girdle’s intricate web of muscles, fascia, connective tissue and ligaments specialize in holding tension, trapping pain and restricting movement. Hip openers, especially this one, are like skeleton keys that unlock these hidden caches of discomfort, and I don’t mean just physical ones.

Depending on your anatomical structure and degree of flexibility, Shoelace-etc. Pose varies in intensity. The first time I held the pose yin-like, for several minutes, it felt like electrical charges were firing deep into both hips. It was like hovering on the edge between noooo and yessss. Three minutes into the pose, the voice of Mrs. Williams, my nasty 5th grade teacher, reprimanded me one last time for misspelling Illinois (Illinios) on my year-end report. And then she took her black-framed glasses and metal rulers and left for good.

You’d be surprised at what strange, hurtful and occasionally silly stuff we carry locked in our tight hips. Spend some time in Agnistambhasana and you may release your own Mrs. Williams, whether or not your spelling improves.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Good news for anyone under fifty reading this:

You’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Good news for anyone over fifty reading this:

Well done, brothers and sisters.

I don’t know why you’d want to, but if you’re looking for someone who’s afraid of aging, look for someone who didn’t get the memo about points, years and the accrual thereof.

When I was growing up we saved S&H Green Stamps. (So did you, if you’re over fifty). Every time my mom came home from the grocery store, I grabbed the stamps she’d earned with her purchase, ran for the fulfillment book, found a blank page and commenced to lick.

What was more satisfying than a full S&H Green Stamps Book? Each one of them stuffed with hope, history, dreams and the promise of a big pay-off: The moment you pulled your prize off the shelf at the fulfillment center.

But really—and you know where I’m going with this—the pay-off began the day you picked up a blank book. You dug past canned corn to pull strips of stamps from the grocery bag bottom. You looked forward to the stamp’s sicky-sweet taste on your tongue. You slowly filled each book, earning points, saving for one prize, then starting again.

If you know someone who’s afraid of aging, get them a copy of this memo:

You’re born with a blank book. You earn a stamp for every day you live. Your job is to dig, rip, lick & affix until your book is bulging, uneven and gloriously messy. You get extra points for popsicle stains and taped-together covers.

Once you’ve earned 18,250 stamps you may puff your chest and begin to strut, waving your book. Not there yet? Be patient, keep licking.

Monday, March 15, 2010


After waxing (un)poetic on the yogic high road of non-striving it’s only fair to acknowledge: There are times when one looks in the mirror and the image looking back is not one’s usual calm, rose-sniffing self. Call her whatever you’d like - alter ego, inner imp. If (s)he’s winking, I suggest you warm up.

It happens to me when the triathlon bug bites. Scratching the itch involves lots of time, focus and expensive products. I’d like to say it’s effortless: the miles, the hills, the waves. But it’s work, and sometimes (usually) it gets ugly before it feels beautiful.

Sound familiar? You too might occasionally want to take your body out for a spin, 0-60, top down, radio cranked, just to see what s(he’ll) do. It’s like a reward for all the careful prep, the gradual build, the quiet, centered moments. I’m not suggesting you throw safety and common sense to the wind. I’m saying that every now and then, it’s okay to step on the gas when you come to a hill. If your body’s begging for a cruise on the wild side, it’s probably because you’re ready.

If you’re a runner, it’s the day you push through your milage or speed barriers. For cyclists it’s cranking to the top of the tallest hill, then riding back down to do it again. In your yoga practice it may be the days you sweat through a Bikram class, flow through your own energetic sequence or change your view of the world with challenging inversions.

You’re still on the high road, but this one’s got climbs and curves. You’ll be too busy to look in the mirror but next time you do, wink back.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

With Apologies, from the Bad Poet's Society

There was once a yogini named Cloe

whose postures were really quite showy,

She could revolve a half moon from 11 to noon,

but sitting still made her really quite screwy.

Her teacher spoke of the stillness within,

that when practicing yoga one can always begin

to peel away fluff and return to real stuff,

no effort, no drama, all win.

Cloe listened but to herself she would snicker,

give me bakasana with a side crow kicker.

Her mind did protest: Who am I if not best?

(But already some doubt was a-flicker).

Our true selves, her teacher remarked,

can surely tell light from the dark.

It’s all about presence and not so much pretense,

less effort, less striving, more walk in the park.

So enjoy the mechanics, the poses, the sweat,

but remember these words just in case you forget.

If you dance through life’s forest (no pressure, no contest),

when you reach the far side, your true self you’ll have met.

Cloe nodded - It could have some merit,

to sit quietly pondering this rare bit.

“I like what you’ve said, it’s gone straight to my head.

Now show me that pose nicknamed upside-down ferret.”