Lessons from Nepal #6 - Stages of Meditation

After visiting Kopan Monestary in Nepal, we were unable to find a taxi, and walked back to town.  We were invited into the home of our new friend.  We were welcomed with open arms, given tea, and a tour of the home.  We saw living quarters, a dining area (where the children were doing homework), kitchen, and a very small prayer room.    

Being Americans in our first few days in Nepal, we were confused and amazed that the beautiful prayer room contained a monk, dressed in red and yellow, with a book in front of him, quietly meditating.  He briefly broke his focus (he did not seem happy in that moment), while our Neapli friend showed us the room and explained that the monk had to go through the book every day.  We stayed in the doorway hoping that we would not be offensive to the meditating monk.  We left the prayer room (and the monk), and shared tea.  It was obvious to us that it is a completely normal thing in Nepal to have a Buddhist monk meditating in your home.  It took us another 3 days to get enough courage up to ask any questions about the monk.  As it turns out, the meditating monk helps to prepare their home for the festival which was less than a few weeks away.

I hear a lot of Americans say that they are unable to meditate, because they just can't empty their minds or think about nothing.  You'll be pleased to know that according to the book, An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life by The Dalai Lama, that complete emptiness of the mind is not necessary to practice meditation.  There are a total of 9 stages of calm abiding.  I assure that the monk, although an avid meditator, was not completely undistracted when we entered the prayer room with our friend.   He did appear to quickly regain his concentration and proceed with his meditation (but even he wasn't "perfect" - what a relief).

    Stage 1 - Placement

During this stage, the meditator practices placing his/her concentration on an object.  Frequent distractions occur, and regaining focus requires great effort.  The idea is to become aware of that the mind has wandered, notice it without judgement, and continue the mediation.  Isn't great that the distracted meditator is at the first stage, and not unable to mediate!  Everyone starts somewhere.

    Stage 2: Continual Placement

During stage 2, the meditator may be able to continually place his/her mind on a chosen object of meditation for a few minutes at a time.  The mind is still distracted frequently, and the periods of distraction are still longer than the moments of focused mental stillness.  Again, notice the mind wandering and bring it back to the meditation without judgement.

    Stage 3:  Re-placement

During Stage 3, the meditator is able to immediately catch distraction of the mind, and quickly regain it's focus.    

    Stage 4: Close Placement

During this stage, the meditator may be able to complete an entire meditation session without the mind becoming distracted.  There is still the possibility of excitement or laxity during this stage.

    Stage 5: Disciplining

During this stage, the meditator has achieved a calm, focused mind and becomes aware of more subtle dullness or laxity.

    Stage 6: Pacification

During this stage, laxity no longer arises, and one's attention may be directed to subtle excitement.  Great inward focus is necessary at this stage.

    Stage 7: Fully Pacified Attention

The mind rarely experiences excitement or dullness, and it becomes easy to pacify and refocus.

    Stage 8: Single Pointed Attention

The meditator can now easily be focused on an object without the slightest experience of dullness or excitation.  How many of us thought that this was a requirement to be a "good mediatator"?  In reality, it would take thousands of hours of practice to ever have the hope of reaching this level.  Even so, every stage of mediatation is highly beneficial.

    Stage 9:  Balanced Placement

The meditator can now focus on an object effortlessly for as long as he/she desires.  

It is important for a meditator to avoid judgement of his/her ability to meditate.  Even the monk was obviously affected by the parade of Americans entering his meditation space, that doesn't make him bad at meditation.

 My meditation practice may never reach stage 3 or 4, but it is still beneficial.  I notice that I am generally happier, less reactive, and able to focus more easily during my daily life.  I am less judgemental and more aware of myself and others the more consistant my meditation practice becomes.  My personal practice currently includes a few rounds of Japa Meditation  followed by seated meditation.  I'm aiming for 20-40 minutes daily, in one or more sessions.

I urge you to commit to daily meditation without judgement.  Break it up into a few small sessions, or all at once.  Make it a priority in your life.  You may find yourself happier, healthier, and less stressed.  If you are new to meditation or just want guidance, The Simply Being App is helpful and available on itunes.  There are also guided meditations available for streaming on You Tube and Yogaglo, as well as a number of other meditation websites.  Happy sitting!

Namaste - Beth

Lessons from Nepal #5 - It Comes from Within

Imagine a boat, any type of boat will do.  The boat is taking on water, and in danger of sinking.  What is putting the boat in danger?  I'll explain some ideas, and answer the riddle at the end of this blog post.

I found the people of Nepal to be happy, gentle and strong.  They have the abiility to face adversity with a smile, a shake of the head, and the phrase "what can we do".  I witnessed drivers waiting in gas lines for 4 days.  I witnessed shop owners cleaning their shops and patiently waiting for tourists to return (as hotels were nearly empty).  The Yoga Sutras call for us to have these same qualities. 

स्थिरसुखमासनम् ॥४६॥  (Sthira Skuham Asanam)

sthira = (nom. sg. m.) strong; steady; stable; motionless
sukham = (acc. from sukha) comfortable; ease filled; happy; light; relaxed
āsanam = (acc. sg. n./nom. sg. n. from āsana) asana; posture; seated position; physical practice

This text is often something to strive for in our physical practice, which is a great goal.  Finding the balance between stable strength and comfortable ease is a challenge.  It is a great way to make sure you aren't pushing too hard, but is there more?  What if you could face your entire life this way?  What if you could find a way to face the challenges that come from the outside with a new perspective?  If you can remain strong yet happy and relaxed, despite all adversity, how would this change your life?  These are the exact qualities that I admire about the people of Nepal.  They have this Sthira Sukham stuff down like nobody else!

So, back to the boat.   In my eyes, it is the water inside the boat that is the problem.  How can you change from the inside, so that you remain strong, steady, and happy without letting the water get in and sink your boat?  It is something that I strive for, and something that my yoga and meditation practice bring me closer to achieving.  Look within yourself for the answers.  

Namaste - Beth

  

Lessons from Nepal #4 - Flat is Boring

While staying in Nepal, our guide frequently encouraged us to hire a cab to get around during our daily excursions.  We frequently complied with his request, as it was quick and provided work for the cab driver, but occasionally we opted to walk.  Our guide reluctantly complied with our wishes, often leading us through fascinating business and residential areas.  We were thrilled to watch the locals going about their daily lives and slow down to really see Nepali life.  Our guide was not impressed with these decisions, so we finally asked why he didn't like to walk.  "Flat is boring" was his reply.  Makes sense, the man does make his living as a trekking guide.  Flat walking did not offer panoramic views or cardiovascular challenge.  In cardiology, flat line refers to being dead and without a pulse.  Time to get off the flat line.

Moderate challenges did reward us with breathtaking views and new experiences.  By stepping out of our comfort zone and confronting slippery paths, leeches, and questionable roads, we were rewarded with the experience of a lifetime.  It is often like that in yoga as well.  When you are willing to step just beyond your comfort zone, amazing things can happen.  

In practice and in life, you need to experience both the flat lines and the uphill battles.  You need a moment to pause and reflect, and a moment to power through a challenge.  This is why there is more than one style of yoga.  We can't spend our entire practice resting in shavasana or sitting in meditation, but we can't spend the entire time giving 100% physical effort either.  

The challenge is to be happy with whatever life is throwing at you.  Can you enjoy that flat and easy path as well as the uphill battle?  Can you balance the rest and the work?  Try finding the balance between the sthira (strength and steadiness) and sukha (ease, relaxation, joy).  This is our challenge, and it is the work of a lifetime.

Namaste - Beth


Lessons from Nepal #3 - Slow Down

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I was a typical American entering Kathmandu.  The very idea of crossing the dusty, busy streets of Boudha, Kathmandu was daunting.  Maybe we didn't really need to ever cross the streets that were scattered with potholes, busses with passengers on top, motorcycles, "scooties", cows, water buffalo, taxis and people.  As there are no traffic lights or stop signs, there was never really a break in the traffic which seemed to be coming from every direction.  

My husband and I looked at each other, found a break in the traffic, and attempted to make a run for it.  Luckily, our guide was there with a quick "stop, hold my hands, I'll teach you".  We obediently held Shakti's hands, and at the age of 40+, were taught how to cross the street.  His message was simple, slow down, don't make any sudden movements, and let them know you're coming.  Create space for them to react.  It was like a game of frogger, moving, pausing, then moving once again.  During the 4 days that followed, we obediently held Shakti's hands whenever we had to cross the street so that he could teach us how to slow down for our own safety. 

My yoga practice has followed a very similar pattern.  I started out with a very fast paced, sweaty vinyasa practice about 16 years ago.  It was the feeling at the end of practice, the pause during shavasana that kept me coming back to the mat.  Some years later, I found an amazing teacher with the same message that I learned in Nepal.  She taught me to slow down, engage my muscles precisely, and find time to pause in the middle of my asana practice.  This pause allowed me to experience more subtle sensations and create space in my body.  

Even if you practice a very flowing vinyasa style of yoga, I invite you to take a moment to pause in a few poses.  You can play the game of frogger during your practice by pausing during a pose and experiencing the ways your body moves with your breath, or the way that grounding down through one area can help you open up somewhere else.  Much like crossing the road in Kathmandu, slowing down can let the driver (your mind) catch up with your movement & see that you're coming.  You will be able to appreciate more subtle aspects of the pose and fine tune your alignment.  This leads to a happier, healthier practice.

This lesson of slowing down can move off the mat as well.  During your busy day, maybe you can take a moment alone to pray, chant, or meditate.  Maybe taking a moment to pause and be with your family or loved ones will help both of you find more joy in your otherwise busy lives. Notice the areas of life where you would benefit by slowing down and creating space.

For those of you who were not around in the 80's, frogger was a popular video game where a frog tried to cross traffic without getting run over.   I may be dating myself by referencing it in this blog post.  Either way, play frogger.  Pause for a moment during life or your yoga asana practice (poses).

Namaste - Beth

Attentive Practices to Beat Stress

 

A moment of truth as I deal with my own stress.  After writing this entire post on dealing with holiday stress, I accidentally deleted it without saving, and had to start over.  Now I'll be taking some of my own advice, taking a deep breath, and enjoying a cup of hot tea while I rewrite this blog post in an attentive manner.

When our busy holiday schedules get the best of us, sometimes we miss out on all the great little moments.  Much like our yoga practice, there is no such thing as a perfect holiday, although that is often our goal.  Mindful practices can help reduce stress levels and allow us to enjoy our experiences more fully.

I'll list several practices to try.  Find the ones that appeal to you, and put them into practice when you're letting life's stressors get in your way.  Your nervous system will thank you.

Breathe

  1. The yogic practice of attentive breathing is a proven method to calm the nervous system.  Begin by noticing the length of your inhale, then try to extend your exhale to twice the length of the inhale.  Over time, if the length of your inhale naturally lengthens as you calm down, you can respond by lengthening your exhale even more.  
  2. Aromatherapy is a great way to relax.  Essential oils like lavender can be used in body products, diffused into the air, or added to hot baths.  I have been known to put a drop on a surgical mask when I'm working in a stressful surgical case during my day job in cardiology.

Move

  1. Take a long walk, preferably outdoors.  Put your phone away, and really stay in the moment.  Practice hearing the rhythm of your footsteps and breath, noticing the sights, sounds and smells around you, and put your to do list away.  Take the time to be mindful as you walk.
  2. Yoga is an obvious choice as a way to move mindfully.  You may be able to take a full class at your favorite studo.  If not, consider a home practice.  That may mean a few of your favorite poses, or sun salutations on your own, or you can search You Tube for a free class that meets your needs.
  3. Tai Chi and Chi Gong are great gentle ways to learn mindful movement.  I advise seeking out an instructor or class if this practice interests you.

Stillness

  1. Meditation is a great way to focus inward and reduce stress.  Medical studies have shown changes in the brain structure of meditators with as little as 20 minutes of daily practice.  Some of my favorite people are regular meditators!  Tara Brach has many great meditations that are available for free online, and it's a great place to start.

  2. Mantra is another way to find attentive stillness.  You may choose a phrase that means something to you or try a more traditional mantra.  I'm a fan of Om Mani Padme Hum, in the Tabetan Buddhist tradition.  So Hum (I am) is another common mantra.  Simply think or say so with the inhale, and hum with the exhale. 

  3. Restorative yoga is a great way to relax.  Classes are available in studios and online.  Legs up the Wall is a great restorative pose that can be practiced in just a few minutes.  It is practiced by quite literally laying with your legs resting up against a wall as shown here.

Taste

  1. Enjoy a nice glass of tea.  This has been a favorite method of stress relief my entire life.  While in Nepal, tea was regularly offered when we entered people's homes.  I love this tradition!  Don't multitask or pay bills while enjoying your tea, although a nice conversation with a friend or family member is encouraged.

  2. My 95+ year old grandmother and 13 year old son agree that a very small piece of dark chocolate is something to be savored and enjoyed.  Rather than diving into your child's halloween stash of candy, try allowing yourself to take a moment to really experience a small amount of your favorite treat.  No guilt allowed.

If you already practice mindfulness, be sure to keep it up during the holiday season.  If you don't, or if you're looking for something new, try a few of the practices on this list.  Notice how you feel, and enjoy a stress free life during the holidays and into the New Year.

 

Namaste - Beth

 

 

Lessons From Nepal #2 - Daily Practice

My Yoga Practice in Pokhara, Nepal.

My Yoga Practice in Pokhara, Nepal.

Here at home, I frequently hear the yoga community speaking about a goal of daily yoga practice.  There are yoga challenges set up to encourage us to practice yoga poses every day.  We may speak about getting our "yoga practice in", meaning exercise, and something to do and help us with the rest of our day.  Yes, physical exercise and yoga postures are important, but isn't there more?

I observed several friends in Nepal practicing yoga, even though they have never been in a single yoga pose, let me explain. While attending a Yoga Nidra class with Beryl Bender Birch, she told us she is frequently asked if she practices yoga every day.  Her answer was perfect, "yes, I practice yoga every day, but I do not practice asana every day".  Asana (the poses) are just one of the 8 limbs of Patanjali's Yoga.  The other 7 limbs are all vital to a yoga practice!

  1. Yamas (restraints)

    1. Ahimsa: nonviolence

    2. Satya: truthrulness

    3. Asteya: nonstealing

    4. Brahmacharya: countinence

    5. Aparigraha: noncovetousness

  2. Niyamas (observances)

    1. Saucha: cleanliness

    2. Samtosa: contentment

    3. Tapas: heat, zeal, discipline

    4. Svadhyaya: Study of spiritual scriptures and self

    5. Isvara Pranidhana: surrender to God

  3. Asana (yoga postures)  Through the practice of the physical postures of yoga, we develop discipline, focus, strength, ease, clarity, and balance our energy.  This is a good prep for daily life, or for a meditation practice.  It is not the only part of yoga.                             

  4. Pranayama (breath control)  Literally translated as "life force extention", breath control is intimately connected to our nervous system.  Breath work provides a link between the breath, the mind, and the emotions.  I consider it to be vital, and begin each personal practice with a little bit of breath work.  I hear feedback from students that this is a helpful practice that they bring into their daily lives.               
  5.  Pratyahara (withdrawl from the senses)  Moving our attention away from physical sensation allows us to focus inward.  According to Yoga International, "pratyahara exercises require concentration and the ability to focus on the inner sensory and energetic experiences of the body".  So you are not asleep, and you are not lost in your phone or your to do list.  Your mind has an inward focus.

  6. Dharana (concentration)  During asana, our focus changes, during dharana, our attention falls on a single mental object.  This may be an image, a sound, or a specific energetic location in the body.  This practice can be considered the gateway to meditation.

  7. Dhyana (meditation)  Durning meditation, there is an unwavering flow of concentration.  Medical science now supports the fact that meditation is a very beneficial practice on it's own.  Although my friend in Nepal meditates for 2.5 hours every day, you can start with as little as one or two 5 minute sessions and find a practice that works for you.

  8. Samadhi (bliss)  When we experience samadhi, the mind is free from all distractions, and we experience inner consciousness & light.  You may wish to think of this as heaven, enlightenment, or just peace.

Boudhanath Sthupa - Kathmandu, Nepal

Boudhanath Sthupa - Kathmandu, Nepal

I may not have practiced asana every single day while I was in Nepal, but I did practice and observe yoga every day.  I observed practices and ways of life that will forever change the way I think.  I observed people facing extreme hardship with a smile and a shake of the head ("no problem" - just like in Jamaica).  If it was something they couldn't fix, they just faced it & moved on.  I observed women happily washing their clothes on a rock in a stream.  I was welcomed whole heartedly into people's homes, and allowed to interact with their children.  I observed the daily prayers of monks.  I walked with hundreds of dedicated people doing their daily meditative walks around the Boudhanath Sthupa, spinning prayer wheels and chanting Om Mani Padme Hum.  We witnessed people buying brass objects for honoring parents who had died and those people preparing for the festival.  The people of Nepal have impacted my practice off the mat in so many ways!

Don't get me wrong, I love asana practice.  My teaching style is rooted in physical alignment, strength, stability and self observance, but there is so much more to yoga.  If you don't manage to fit in any asana today, think like a Nepali, "no problem".  You can always practice a little meditation, or any combination of the 8 limbs.  They're all yoga (even Beryl Bender Birch thinks so).  

Namaste friends,

Beth

Lessons from Nepal #1 - Open Heart

My husband and I were walking along the lake in Pokhara, Nepal enjoying the views of nature, shops, and people that we saw along the way.  An elderly Nepali man was sitting near the path splitting wood with a handheld tool.  As our path crossed the area where he was working, I became fascinated and paused to see what he was doing.  "Eyes broken",  he questioned as he stopped working.  I was processing his intent and did not respond in words or expression.  A louder and angrier "eyes broken" met my silence.  You could feel the hostile energy as his eyes met mine.  We quickly continued along the path, and I was filled with fear.  At a week into our trip, this was our first day without our guide, and I longed for the ease that came with his guidance and friendship.  We were truly in another world.

Later in the streets near our hotel, we passed an elderly Nepali woman.  Her gray hair was pinned back, she was carrying a bright pink umbrella to shield herself from the afternoon sun, and was wearing a beautiful pink sari.  There was a beauty and grace about her, and I admit that I stared a bit too long.  My eyes met hers and I gave her my warmest smile.  She greeted us with a "namaste", and we returned the greeting.  After we passed, her friendly voice commented, "always smiling, never talking".  Her words stuck with me as we continued on our way.

"Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." - Rumi

We all hold some sort of barriers.  I believe that every interaction can be a lesson.  Both of these encounters point to some of my personal barriers.  Caution and reserve are my protective bubble, and they are driven by fear and shyness.  They are a barrier to experiencing love and friendship.  They can close relationships before they even start.  Would the man have responded differently if I had said, namaste, may I watch you work?  Maybe, and maybe not, but his words can be a lesson and a gift. 

I found most of the people in Nepal to be open, loving, kind and giving.  I have new friendships that I will treasure forever.  It is also glaringly obvious that as a personal practice, I must begin to enbrace these qualities.  My meditation, my yoga practice, and my daily life will focus on breaking down barriers and finding an open heart.  Very often, what you give is what you get.  Give what you seek, and it will return to you.

  "Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, 
and the life of the candle will not be shortened. 
Happiness never decreases by being shared." - Buddha

Happiness and love are contageous.  Take a few moments to ponder each of your interactions (even the negative ones).  They are a gift, and contain lessons that will help you find what you seek.  Each day, share a little more and watch the beauty that unfolds.

Namaste - Beth 






Yogo Mat Review #2 (after the trip)

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The Yogo Ultralight Mat couldn't have been more perfect for my trip to Nepal.  It took me from my hotel balcony, to a rooftop class (that I ended up teaching), to a mountaintop at sunrise.  When you set out on this type of adventure, compact portability is a must.  I was not willing to compromise my daily yoga practice.  I was relieved to find the Yogo Ultralight Mat.  It has more features than I thought possible.  Here I'll list the things that I loved about the mat.

  1. It fits neatly inside my bag, or clips conveniently to the outside of my backpack.   
  2. The practice space is always clean because it folds in on itself.
  3. It is sticky, I don't slide on it, and it does not slide on the floor.
  4. It is very lightweight.
  5. It washes easily in the shower, and can drip dry by hanging from it's own straps.

The list of cons is short, but worth mentioning.

  1. It's slightly smaller than the average mat.  If you are a small yogi, you'll appreciate it, as this cuts down on weight and makes a compact fold.  The Ultra is available for those who require more space.
  2. It is thin and doesn't offer much cushion (duh, it's a travel mat).  I did find myself placing my clean yogo mat on top of a studio mat that didn't appear sanitary.  Score - clean and cushioned!

Honestly, I'm looking for more ways to use this mat.  It would make a great Christmas Gift for the yogi on your list.  Here's a link to the company's website (or order it on amazon.com if you've got amazon prime).  It'd be great during a picnic, hike or run.  It can easily attach to several places on my bicycle, backpack, gym bag, suitcase, below a child's stroller, or in a desk.  Many happy hours of practice await me and my Yogo Ultralight Mat.  Happy practicing!

Namaste - Beth     

Washes easily in the shower and hangs to dry from it's own built in straps.

Washes easily in the shower and hangs to dry from it's own built in straps.

Even attaches to my bicycle!

Even attaches to my bicycle!

Yogo Mat Review - A Different Travel Mat

I'm about to head to Nepal for more than 2 weeks with nothing more than the things I can carry on my back, not to total more than 15.4 pounds (plus a purse - plane restrictions) - Yikes!  Although  Mr.M8 was super supportive and tried to assure me that I could find adequate yoga and mat purchasing in the birthplace of the Buddha, I became completely obsessed with finding a mat that could be easily carried on my back without taking up too much of my precious weight limit.  

After tireless research of all of the big name companies, I still wasn't happy.  Luckily, I'm injury free, so I didn't really care about extra cushion.  I'm only 5'6 with a small to medium frame, so I didn't need a giant space.  I just wanted a light weight, compact, easily portable yoga mat to use while backpacking around a small asian country.  You'd think they'd be a dime a dozen, but none of the big companies stood out from the rest of the pack.

I'm a huge fan of amazon.com, and they didn't let me down this time.  I found the Yogo Mat with a handful of positive reviews, great features, and it seemed to be just what I was looking for.  Check out their ad below.

These people understand what I want.  Lightweight, small, clean, foldable, eco friendly, sticky, and I can attach it to my purse or backpack with it's integrated straps.  Finally, someone seems to understand my needs!  When my mat arrived, it was everything that I wanted.  It is a little smaller than my normal mat, but there is a larger size available if that's what you need.  For me, the original mat was unbeatable!  

I'll let you know how this works when I'm done practicing yoga in the Himalayas!

Namaste - Beth

Shake up your Yoga Routine

Ever feel like your yoga routine has become a little too predictable?  Working with a new teacher, in a new space, or with a new group can really help.  I just returned from the Sukhava Bodhe Yoga & Music Festival in Illinois, where I tried many things that are not in my daily practice.  I left feeling strong, relaxed, and inspired.  Here are a few of my favorite finds from my trip.

  1. Thai Massage - Although this wasn't my first Thai Massage Workshop, it was the very best way to start our day.  My friend, Katie and I learned how to incorporate massage, posture assists, and sitting (yes, sitting on people) as a way to reduce muscular tension.  Our concentration was upper back, but the leg sitting was fantastic.  Bonus for my husband and a few lucky coworkers, I need to practice if I'm going to maintain these new skills.
  2. Acro Yoga - This was done in groups of 3, we rotated through being the flyer, the base, and the spotter.  We met a new friend from the Northwest, and quickly found out that we needed to trust each other and be there for one another.  We rotated through 3 poses, and we all really enjoyed the experience.  If you're looking for a yoga experience that includes strength, fun, and relationships, this is a great practice to try.  
  3. SUP Yoga - Although I've done some paddling on my own and have an Ocean Yoga Board for indoor use, this was my first Standup Paddleboard Yoga Class.  My entire experience was without a doubt challenged by the man that was next to me.  It takes a whole new level of concentration to balance on an unstable surface knowing that someone 1 foot from you is about to fall into the water (again and again), and you're attached to a rope & can't escape him.  On a positive note, the experience made me keenly aware of the importance of my focal point (drishti), and that is something I'll be teaching in classes this week.        
  4. Hip Flow - Since I've been teaching and taking a lot of alignment oriented Hatha classes with long holds, this was very different for me.  At this point in the day, we were on class number 5, and this class was a great way to end the day.
  5. Restorative Yoga - OK, this one wasn't at the festival, but as someone who had avoided restorative yoga, this has become a new recent addition to my practice.  It's a great way to start a weekend, reduce stress, and relieve tension.  Why not shake things up by slowing down?
  6. Yoga Rope Wall - This amazing tool can help you find core strength, new ways to access the same poses, practice alignment, and decompress the spine (with supported inversions).  Check out my class schedule to try it out.

While I don't suggest that you abandon your favorite class, studio, or teacher, I do suggest shaking up your routine every now and then.  Maybe you're lucky enough to hit a festival like I did.  If not, I'd encourage you to put something new into your yoga practice on a regular basis.  

Namaste - Beth

Guided Meditations

While I prefer a silent (or sometimes a mantra) meditation practice, many people who are beginners or those experiencing anxiety, stress, fear, insomnia or pain find a guided meditation extremely helpful.  It can be difficult to actually take the time to meditate, but the benefits are great.  Try to set up a regular schedule, and see my last post if you need a few tips on becoming a regular meditator.

Here are free downloadable guided meditations from Tara Brach.  I believe they are all about 20 minutes, although she also offers a 10 minute download if you sign up for her mailing list.  She is knowledgable, soothing, and will guide you through 20 minutes with ease. 

This is a 5 minute gratitude meditation with Elena Brower.  The video is 6 minutes long because she spends about a minute teaching you how to set up for meditation.  

A YouTube search will bring up a list of guided meditations, and there are also several meditation apps available on Itunes.  I've used one called Simply Being & it allows you to choose music, nature sounds, guided meditation, and meditation length.  This App puts a meditation easily within reach.  While it was free when I downloaded it, there is now a $1.99 charge, but this is a small price to pay for the rewards of meditation.  

If you have any questions, please ask, or see me at the studio.

Namaste - Beth

 

From Social Meditator to Daily Meditator

It is easy to say you'll become a daily meditator, but it is very challenging to actually do it.  I'll be the first to admit that I was a social meditator.  I'm defining social meditator as someone who will take group meditation classes, maybe even practice for about 2 weeks, then once you've missed one day, the practice is gone.  The good news is that in each day, in each moment, we can choose to begin again.  

Here are 6 steps to help you move from social meditator to someone with a solid daily practice.  This would work easily for any other habit you're looking to develop.

  1. Start Small - You would not run a marathon without proper training, and you should not set meditation expectations that are too large.  You may try  2-5 minutes dailyto start.  You may choose once a day, you may choose twice a day.  Maybe mornings are crazy, but you can fit 5 minutes in at lunch or before you go to bed.  Once you are well established in your small start, you can build your practice from there.
  2. Cue - Strong habits (good and bad) have cues that trigger behavior.   My cue has been feeding the pets.  They don't let me forget.  Once the pets have been fed (they have to be monitored or they share food), it is time to meditate.  
  3. Routine - Structure is your friend when it comes to habit formation.  If you like a guided meditation, have your favorites readily available.  This is not the time to begin searching YouTube for a new mediation.  If you like to do a little reading first, keep your book in the space where you meditate.  If you like to do some light stretching first or head directly to silent meditation, do that.  Establish a routine that works, and stick with it.
  4. Reward - The rewards of meditation itself are many, any no doubt that you've read about or experienced them for yourself.  It may be enough of a reward just to take a moment to enjoy the feeling after a meditation session.  If you need a more tangible reward, don't judge yourself.  You can meet yourself with kindness, and find a reward that works for you (plus you'll still have all of  the great mediatation benefits).  Maybe you wait to have that first sip of coffee or tea until after you meditate.
  5. Share - Humans are social, and it is only natural that we benefit from sharing our experiences with others.  You may reach out to a meditation group or a friend who is either an established or beginning meditator.  Social media is a great resource when it comes to connecting with other people with similar goals.  My friends have started a small meditation group on facebook.  Click here for the link.
  6. Non Judgement - Be kind to yourself.  If you miss a day, just begin again.  If you're running short on time, maybe you can squeeze in a fraction of your normal meditation time.  If it takes you a year or two to reach your goal (that may be 30 days straight or it may be 20 minute session), just be OK with working from where you are.

With consistent drive, compassion, and attention, you can move from social meditator (or non meditator) to someone who is enjoying the benefits of a strong daily practice.

 

Namaste - Beth

Raw Cacao Truffles

I'm all for making a somewhat healthy, very yummy treat to share with friends.  When I needed a snack for an end of Yoga Intensive Party, I knew I'd go with something sweet and healthy.  These Raw Cacao Truffles fit the bill.  I doubled this recipe by The Rawtarian, with a few minor modifications.  I soaked the dates in hot water for 20 minutes, and I used raw cacao powder instead of cocoa powder.  After rolling, I coated half of them in coconut flakes.  Purely delicious!  They are vegan, gluten free, and free of processed ingredients.  Truffles like this are really costly in a natural food's store, so this recipe is a keeper.

Raw Cacao Truffles

1 Cup Raw Sunflower Seeds

1 Cup Walnut Halves

1 Cup Dates (soaked in boiling water for 15-20 minutes)

1/4 Tsp Salt 

8 Tbsp. Raw Cacao Powder

Optional Coconut, nuts or cacao nibs to coat the truffles once they are formed.

Use a food processor to grind the nuts until they form a fine powder, but not a paste or nut butter.  Drain the dates, and add the dates, salt and cacao to the nuts.  Blend until well mixed and sticky.  Roll them into small balls.  Leave them as is, or roll in coconut, nuts, cacao nibs, or anything you choose.  Delicious!

Namaste - Beth

Yoga for Hips - series post #2

The hips are complex joints that have the ability to make several different movements, and also have a great impact on the way our lower backs feel.  For this reason, the next pose in our Hip series is Crescent Lunge.  This superb pose strengthens, lengthens, and gives us a solid base to support our spine.

  1. Stand with your feet hip width apart and the space between the 2nd and 3rd toes facing forward.  Practice standing here with strong legs by slightly squeezing in about 2" above your ankles and squeezing out 2" above your knees.  This should distribute your weight more evenly over your feet.  Remember what it feels like to have that action in your legs.
  2.  Step back with one foot, both knees remain bent and the back heel is lifted.  You're not on a balance beam, make sure your feet are wide for stability.
  3. Notice your feet, press down evenly through the inner and outer feet.  Next, engage your legs again.  This means that the area 2 " above your ankles hug in slightly and the area just above your knees hugs out slightly.  Notice your front knee.  It should track over the ankle but not beyond.  Your front knee may want to hug in, don't let it, keep the area just above both knees pressing out.
  4.   Now that the legs are in place, extend the tailbone toward the back heel, and scoop the front sitting bone toward the front knee.  Both legs are staying engaged as described in step 3.
  5. Begin to straighten your back leg if you are able to do so while maintaining steps 3 & 4.  Otherwise, back knee can remain a little bent.
  6. Bring your arms over your head, and attempt to bring your shoulders over your hips.  Your pinkie fingers will face front.  
  7. Make your spine a little longer.  First, lift your front and back ribs away from your pelvis equally.  Lift your midspine by allowing your shoulder blades to lift toward your hands.  Lift the very top of your head toward the ceiling.

Hold this pose before repeating all of the steps on the other side.  You may want to start with 30 seconds, and work up to 2 minutes or beyond.  Try to keep all of the muscle action while taking long full breaths.  

Keep practicing Pose #1.  We'll keep building a hip practice as the weeks continue.

Namaste - Beth

Yoga for Hips - series post #1

I am frequently questioned by athletes with tight or painful hips.  Sometimes they are willing or able to take a class (which I prefer), and sometimes they just want a few poses to include in their normal workout routine.

 One such friend had developed a painful limp over a long period of time, and NEVER did any stretching.  A full hour yoga class was totally out of the question for him.  Instead, he asked me for one pose to help.  That's a really tall order.  I talked him through a modified pyramid pose, with very specific core engagement.  The following day, he reported reduced pain and that his limp was gone.  I got him to agree that we would add one pose per week to work at the hip from various angles.  I'll blog about our progression, and list the poses that have become his homework.  Follow along if you want to avoid or reduce pain, or if limited hip flexibility is keeping you from advancing in your sport.

Pose #1 is Pyramid Pose.  If you google this pose, you're sure to find lots of photos of people who can kiss their shins.  That is not our goal.  You may find that by backing out of the pose and engaging core muscles really shows you what the pose has to offer.

  1. Step one foot back, keeping the feet at a hip's width.  You're not on a balance beam., wider feet are better.
  2. Slightly soften the front knee, and press the ball of your foot into the floor.  Press the heel into the mat as well, and try to balance the effort so that your feet are evenly pressing into the floor (front to back and right to left).  
  3. Place your hands on a wall, chair back, or counter.  Lower your chest and lift your tailbone (in my classes, mooning the back of the room gets the most people in the correct position).  
  4. Re-visit the feet, and make sure they are still pressing firmly into the ground, then stay here or begin to straighten the front knee.  Only straighten the knee as far as you can still moon the back room and keep the feet strong.  This should result in a deep hamstring stretch.  
  5. Please do not lock the knees!  Hold the pose for 1-2 minutes on each side.

I will be adding to my friend's routine weekly, and I'll post each new piece of his "homework".  Follow along every week, and comment on your progress or other muscle groups that you'd like to see me cover.  I suggest taking the time to do a few long held, mindfully controlled stretches at the end of every workout.  The goal is to keep you active and trouble free for years to come!

Beth Martin

I'm on facebook as Yoga M8 - Beth Martin

I'm on instagram as Yoga.M8

Yoga for Your Health

Even just entering my yoga practice space has calming effects.   I have observed that when I sit down in the yoga studio, my natural respiratory rate drops from 12 breaths/minute down to about 6.  This is before I even start any asana (poses) or pranayama (breathwork).

Physicians are recomending yoga for their patients, and a broader range of people seem to have found a regular practice.  Yoga is offered everywhere, from college campuses to retirement villages.  With great classes like chair yoga, yoga for athletes, and yoga for men, there is something for everyone.  Do these people keep returning to the mat because of benefits like the ones I've observed?

I found a few small studies that highlight the benefits of yoga practice.  For the purpose of this article, when I refer to yoga I'm including asana (poses), pranayama (breathwork) and chanting. 

  1. This study was a small one performed in Italy in 2001.  The physicians observed the subjects respiratory rates, pulses, and baroreflex sensitivity (ability of the nervous and cardiovascular systems to regulate blood pressure).  They observed rosary prayer and mantras during natural and metronome controlled breathing.  Using prayer and mantras, the subjects respiratory rates slowed down to 6 per minute, they had more heart rate variability and better variability of blood pressure.  Hmm, those numbers sound familiar to what I've experienced.  Cool!
  2. This paper from 2010 describes a small study of the effects of yoga on people in a traumatic situation.  The study was performed on flood victims over a 6 week period.  The yoga included 10 minute warm up, 20 min asana (poses), 25 min pranayama (yogic breathing) and 5 minutes guided relaxation.  The yoga group showed a decrease in sadness, while the non yoga group showed an increase in anxiety. 
  3. I also reviewed this paper, a comparison study written by 2 nurses.  It concludes, "The studies comparing the effects of yoga and exercise seem to indicate that, in both healthy and diseased populations, yoga may be as effective as or better than exercise at improving a variety of health-related outcome measures."

 If better stress response and better health sound like something you might be interested in, head to your local yoga studio as soon as possible.  There is a class for everyone, and it's never too late (or early) to start!

Beth  

Follow me on Instagram using the name yoga.m8

You can find me at The Yoga Place in Ephrata and West End Yoga.

      

 

4 Ways to find the Magic in Your Yoga Practice

John came to my yoga wall class completely unaware that he was about to give me the biggest compliment ever. After class, I asked, "how do you feel?"  He answered " it was challenging and relaxing at the same time."  Best compliment to a yoga teacher ever!  

The yoga that I have come to adore is far from the big, showy, hyper flexible photos. It is far from the sweaty workout based flows (although my teacher makes us work harder).   The yoga that I love centers the mind. It is challenging and calming at the same time. It balances the sthyra sukham (Strength & Ease) of the Yoga Sutra (my favorite Yoga Sutra Ever). It holds both calm and challenge at the same time.  This is part of the magic of a yoga practice.  Here are a few ways that you can find the it in your practice.

  1. Hold the poses for a long time.   It did take quite a long time for me to enjoy practicing this way.  Maybe the poses aren't quite as big, or you may take a modification halfway through, but this will give you a chance to express the pose more fully.
  2. Concentrate on one key movement.  Maybe you fully root into your hands and feet, taking the time to notice what actions in your legs and arms make a change in your connection to the earth.  Maybe you concentrate on hinging at the hips, or keeping your abdominal locks engaged.  This can take us out of our heads, and gives you a point of concentration during long holds.
  3. Use breathwork.  Maybe you concentrate on Ujjayi breathing (sounds like Darth Vader) or taking long even breaths to a count of 6-8 in and out.  You may play around with extending the pause at the end of the inhale and exhale.  The sounds of the world can fade around you as your full focus moves toward your breath.
  4. Find your Drishti.  Drishti, or focused gaze is the key to make balance more achievable and is soothing for the mind.  It takes comparison out of the picture (you can't truly keep a focused gaze on one thing while comparing yourself to whoever is on the mat next to you).  If you find your mind wandering, remember to find your drishti (find a focal point) .

It takes time and effort to practice in this way.  Do not judge yourself if you find your mind wandering, because it happens to everyone.  Try to return your attention to the practice.  Using one or more of these ideas can help make that concentration a little more achievable.  How do you find your focus when your mind wants to wander in class?  Where do you find the subtle magic in your yoga practice?

Namaste - Beth

Homemade Chai Masala Recipe

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Since childhood, I have loved the calming ritual of tea time, therefore making my own Masala Chai is a labor of love that I enjoy to the fullest.  This is my basic recipe (minus a few of my secret ingredients).  I use whole, not ground spices and toast them at 325 for 8-10 minutes.  

Once your toasted spices are cool, grind them.  I use a Vitamix, but any spice grinder will work.  Mix the Masala (spices) with the tea and add cacao, toasted coconut, or get creative if you wish.

Store your Chai in an airtight container.  I use 1 tbsp per large cup of boiling water, then add sweetener (I prefer Stevia, Sbut you may perfer something else) and  milk (I use almond, but coconut milk provides great richness).   

Ingredients

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  • 1 1/2 Cups Mamri Tea (available on Amazon or at an Indian Grocery Store)
  • 2 Tbsp Cardamom Pods (I use a combo of green and black)
  • 4 Star Anise
  • 6 Cinnamon Sticks
  • 1 Tbsp Fennel Seeds
  • 2 tsp Cloves
  • 2 tsp Whole Black Peppercorns
  • 2 tsp Corriander seeds
  • Dried Ginger to taste (I use whole and grind it in my vitamix)
  • Optional Cacao, Coconut, or find your own secret ingredients (it's fun to personalize a recipe)

 

 

 

Modern Ways to Share Yoga

Like it or not, the modern yoga practice is evolving.  I used to be the typical American yogi.  I did home practices several days a week, and usually took a live class at least once a week for live instruction.  Since this was the 1990s in Lancaster county, I had videos instead of  You Tube and Yoga Glo, and I had a class at a local gym instead of a studio or a large festival.  

Since then, times have changed.  In some ways I was highly resistant, and some changes I embraced with open arms.  Here are a few of the changes to the American yoga culture as I see them.

Yoga Studios

Fine Spirit Yoga Studio in Ithaca, NY

Fine Spirit Yoga Studio in Ithaca, NY

 Even the availability of a variety of yoga studios is a fairly recent development.  There is now accessibility to a nearby yoga studio in nearly every town in America.  Easily accessible yoga studios with live teachers offer great benefits.  A live teacher can answer your questions, and correct your alignment.  A live teacher may offer alternative poses based on what they see in your body.  A live teacher can see your progress, encourage you, and lead you in the right direction. 

These studios all have their own teachers, styles, and a thriving community of yoga students.  Having several local yoga communities to choose from has been such a great development over the last 15 years.  Yoga classes are places where I can feel at home and find loving people with interests that are similar to my own.  Practicing in a loving, welcoming community can bring a sense of kinship with others off the mat too!

When I'm traveling, I love picking out a few yoga studios to visit.  In Ithaca, NY I visited several studios, but recommend Fine Spirit Yoga Studio and The Yoga School.  In Corpus Christi, TX I loved Crossroads Yoga, and in Austin I enjoyed a lively practice at Black Swan Yoga.  In Asheville, NC I found a thriving community (and improved my headstand) at  Asheville Community Yoga.  If you're in Lancaster County, PA, visit my home studios  West End Yoga and The Yoga Place in Ephrata.  I clearly spend a lot of vacation time finding yoga studios.

Electronic Classes

Out with the DVDs and VHS tapes (yes, I'm that old), and in with the You Tube and online services.  I have been suprised to meet several yogis who fully embrace the yogic lifestyle, yet have never set foot in a live class.  Many of them practice with free classes that are available on You Tube.  There are also several online services that offer a wide variety of classes for a monthly subscription.

Electronic classes are a great way to fit a practice into a busy life.  They offer the benefit of a wide range of practices that can be done any time day or night.  People without the background to develop their own home practice can find safe home practices that have been developed by a professional.  I discourage people from practicing exclusively online, because it is so important to connect with other yogis and assure safe alignment.

Media

There is now so much more to yoga media than a print magazine or two.  Yoga is everywhere.  It advertises yoga and non yoga products.  There are blogs, facebook accounts, podcasts and instagram accounts all dedicated to yoga.  Largely due to these influences, the media is now making an effort to  broaden the American image of a yogi.  Yogis of different races and sizes grace the covers of yoga magazines (although I'd still like to see more fetured male yogis).  The message is becomiong more inclusive (although my local yoga studios really already are that way).  

Some yoga purists may shun some or all of these types of yoga practices, but it is bringing the benefit of yoga to the masses, and how can that be bad?  I have dedicated students who have tried yoga based on facebook posts.  I have peers in the yoga community who have never set foot in a yoga class (and they're just as passionate as I am).  Maybe as yogis, we can find a way to be more inclusive and embrace the changes that are taking place in the yoga community that we love.  It's time to share the benefits of yoga with the world!  

If you're interested in ways that I'm contributing to yoga media (other than www.yogam8.com), check this out.  

My Articles for Do You Yoga 

        4 Awesome Benefits of Yoga for All Athletes

        5 Ways the #Selfie Encourages a Yoga Practice

        10 Steps to Have a Yoga Retreat at Home

        How Does Yoga on the Rope Wall Work

Instagram Account

Facebook Account

Namaste - Beth