A friend recently prodded me into shooting this video gulfside. So now I am lucky enough to offer you this mini yin practice. It’s lower -back friendly, but please don’t attempt if pregnant, and always use caution. Namaste!
“Sit down. Shut up. Stop thinking. Get out!” Alstair Crowley, Eight Lectures on Yoga
I sat with a friend the other day. It’s been a few months since I meditated with anyone, other than the moments spent at the end of my classes as I sit with students in savasana. During my brief India jaunt, my buddies and I spent deliberate meditative time in each holy space we visited, partly in reverence, partly in compensation for our overstimulated senses. So as I wandered, a little fuzzily, into the studio on a Friday night to teach, I was already savoring the twenty minutes I would spend simply sitting, releasing the weight of my head and body to the companionable wall. It’s become a ritual for me to sit a few minutes before each class, appreciating the unique energy of each space in which I am lucky enough to teach.
I settled into my spot, closed my eyes, and connected with the rush of gratitude already flowing from my limbs, the small sob of acknowledged strain releasing from my mind. I sank into the space as into a warm bath and could barely lift my eyelids at the sound of motion in the studio antechamber. My quondam boss, one of my oldest friends, first teachers, and karmic sisters, swung open the door with the unhurried pregnant placidity of one moving through knee-deep water.
“I came to sit in the silence,” she said by way of explanation.
She posted her incubating self next to me. I looked at her belly and the unguarded sweep of her closed eyelids, releasing my head back to the wall. My biblio-crush of the week, Viniyoga guru Gary Kraftsow, writes that “in order to rise above our conditioning, free ourselves from suffering, . . . or find a deeper meaning and purpose in life, we must “go within ourselves.” For it is only when we return to the core that we can overcome our reactive tendencies and free ourselves from the attitudes and behaviors that are born from them.” With the weight of her familiar presence next to me I sat and let tension roll off me in waves and tears, the steady sweep of her breath keeping me anchored in my own. Next to her I felt all the unnecessary activity of my thoughts.
Some time later she opened her eyes. “I’m feeling such anxiety. We needed some stillness.” I could only laugh. The more I move in the company of yogis, the more I devote myself to study and practice, the more often I find the deepest stillness in the moments of greatest simplicity, the deepest gratitude in everyday occurrences, the greatest elegance of design in the little patterns of my life. When I look around me at the people I encounter every day, when I think of the love with which I have been taught these loving practices, I think of the words of the Sufi poet Rumi: “My heart, sit only with those who know and understand you, sit only under a tree that is full of blossoms.”
Living a limitless life starts with removing the limits we’ve physically embodied, starting a compassionate dialogue with the parts of our past that have settled into our bodies and become aches and pains. Yin yoga, with its long, meditative holds, allows us to crawl “inside the cocoon of long-held poses,” explains yinster Sarah Powers, giving us space to examine our physical history. Yin yoga goes beyond lengthening the muscles into gently stressing the connective tissues, the ligaments, bones, and joints, thus it must be performed compassionately and with full attention to the experience. The Tao Te Ching neatly encapsulates the mindset we seek for a yin practice: “The gentle and soft overcomes the hard and aggressive”.
Yin yoga can be viewed as the low-key counterpoint to yang styles of yoga like power yoga, Bikram, Ashtanga, anything hot, sweaty, strong, and fast. The rhythm and repetition of flowy yang yoga targets the muscles with shorter holds and greater cardiovascular engagement. Yin yoga, with its multi-minute holds of basic seated postures, targets the connective tissues, which yogi Paul Grilley envisions as taffy: “The analogy is that of stretching taffy versus stretching a rubber band. Muscles are like rubber bands, they can be stretched easily. Ligaments are like taffy, if they are pulled too hard they tear. But if a modest stress is placed upon them and sustained then they gently elongate without tearing.”
Powers outlines three simple and effective principles for a safe yin practice:
1.Come into the pose to an appropriate depth
2.Resolve to remain still
3.Hold the pose for some time
Only you know the appropriate depth– there should be sensation, but nothing sudden or alarming. The pose should be maintainable. You should be able to breathe slowly and deeply while un-engaging your muscles. Yin poses can be held anywhere from one to twenty minutes. Start slowly and use a timer, or before you begin, time out how many breaths you take in one minute to use as an indicator. While in the poses relax, watching yourself and your attitude towards yourself, watching your breath, your sensations, your thoughts. Just explore, observe and breathe. “The cure for pain is in the pain,” says Rumi. Be brave and find something in your sensations to look into.
Our yin pose today targets the kidney and urinary bladder meridians running respectively up the center of the body and down the back of the body. Kidney energy is connected to our fluid systems and the moisture content of our body, while kidney-focused yin yoga is cooling and balancing to all the organs and systems.
Bound Angle- If you have lower back history, try supine bound angle: lie on your back, bring the palms of your feet together at a comfortable distance from the body, let your knees open out, and rest your hands palms up at your sides. If you have no lower back history, try the pose upright or folded. Sit upright, bring the palms of your feet together so that your legs form a generous diamond, and relax your knees. Stay here, or gently, over time, begin to fold forward from your hips. You can let your spine round a bit, dropping your chin and shoulders to bring the pose into the neck and trapezius. Then stay where you are for at least 30 slow breaths. To exit the pose, move like you’re underwater–very slowly. Roll up vertebrae by vertebrae and rest in a neutral position.
To further benefit your body, close your yoga interlude with pentacle, the yin version of savasana, corpse pose. Lie down and spread your arms and legs as wide as you would like, palms up. Pad beneath your knees, neck, or spine for added comfort. Feel your entire body supported by the floor and come back to the rhythm of your breath. Rest here for at least six minutes, staying as long as you like. You’ve just touched into the practice of the yoga of insight, intuition, and dreams, awakening your moonlit yin side. How do you feel?
I was recently invited to meet and flow with a lovely out-of-town yogini, Rina of RinaYoga Miami, in a previously unexplored space, the local pole-dancing haven, Apple Jelly Studios. As I trundled my post-acupunctured body and eight pound mat down the long silent hallway to the studio, the frosted glass door increasing in brightness as the music seeping around its edges increased in volume, I started to suspect that I had been missing out on something entirely different from my usual serene, still studio spots. But I was still unprepared for the massive windows, the wood floors and vaulted ceilings, the forest of poles, and most of all the laughter that greeted my entrance.
When Rina went from mat to mat, introducing herself and gathering medical histories, I realized I was in a rare set of safe hands. But it was her completely conscious decision to face the class towards the setting sun, away from the floor to ceiling mirrors, that cemented my allegiance, enthusiasm and surrender. I never questioned the use of a mirror until I was in a studio without one, and then my yoga was forever changed by the freedom I found behind my closed eyes. Rina had a similar philosophy, based around the idea of pratyahara, or sense withdrawal, one of the stages of meditation. Closing the eyes or keeping them still helps the mind to become still.
Now, after a few years of yoga, the mirror, in front of which I basically grew up as a dancer/figure skater, reminds me of nothing other than the work of twentieth-century philosopher/psychologist Jacques Lacan, who posited that infants go though a traumatic “mirror stage” at the first recognition of their reflection. In the mirror stage, “an external image of the body . . . produces a psychic response that gives rise to the mental representation of an “I”. The infant identifies with the image . . . but because the image of a unified body does not correspond with the underdeveloped infant’s physical vulnerability and weakness, this imago is established as an ideal-I toward which the subject will perpetually strive throughout his or her life” (English.hawaii.edu).
In friendlier language, the recognition of oneself in a relatively stable image in the mirror can be fragmenting for the child that feels itself a bundle of impulses and change. The mirror image becomes an ideal to work towards or fight, a face to deserve or become. In learning through yoga to turn my back and examine my own lifelong relationship with the mirror, I have shifted my focus from performance to enjoyment, from physical perfection to emotional capitulation. A polished mirror, says Rumi, cannot help reflecting. And my own mind, as a mirror of reality, is way more enlightening to look at than my abs. So next time you find yourself glaring at your sweaty warrior one, close your eyes. Withdraw your senses. And turn up the corners of your mouth.
(image via the awesome elephant journal)
The opening page of my first yoga notebook set the tone for numerous macabre illustrations to follow: a microcephalic skull grins blankly, pinioned atop a miniature spine set on a massive pair of hips and femurs. “THE PSOAS” the page proclaims in both ink and pencil, my handwriting and my teacher’s. What I did not fully appreciate at the time however, was how much of an effect that Siamese-twin set of muscles, the iliacus and the psoas major, was having and would have on my life. The psoas is actually two muscles, the psoas major and iliacus, which attach at the upper trochanter of the femur and run respectively to the lower four lumbar vertebrae and the ilium of the hip.
The psoas is so deep its everywhere—in your core, your hip, your lower back and deep in your belly. Its strength gives all the anti-gravity poses like headstand and handstand, while its flexibility allows backbends like full wheel. It’s slow to heal, but runner’s lunge can stretch it, while boat can strengthen it. And this weekend, kicking up into forearm stand after an enforced marathon session of boat pose, I found a new grasp on my legs and lower body, a new logic in the organization of my balance. I found a place of action and adjustment instead of fear and brain-freeze. But I also, upon coming down, found what I had always verbalized as “back pain”—a nagging ache in my posterior hip that I suddenly, in a blaze of defeated giggles, identified as my all-powerful psoas, pulled on the ice when I was around twelve. I suddenly remembered months of numbness in my leg, days of being nearly unable to walk. And I suddenly found, in way more sensational detail, my toes. So go meet your psoas: hold boat pose for ten breaths. And don’t pretend it isn’t fun.
(image via yoganatomy.com)
I recently got to hang out with one of my India buddies. A South Beach doppelganger, E was the girl who kept me convulsed in laughter amidst the chaos of India, bringing me to giggles in train stations, restrooms, tourist arcades. She had stayed longer in India, passing on to Menali and Dharamsala after I left. So I pointed my car south to Miami with eagerness, but I was trying hard to ignore the waves of exhaustion that had been rolling over me for weeks, trying to ignore the tug of anxiety building in my chest. I wanted to hear about India.
By the next morning, as I drove over the bridge to Sobe, joining the slick flow of traffic, the hubbub of construction, my hands were shaking. And all during my reliably soothing practice at Shakti Yoga, my anxiety kept pace with my breath. I kept getting annoyed: with two of my buddies on either side of me, E and owner Silvina, and a thoughtful yoga flow provided by a grounded dude teacher, why was my body still freaking out?
But as I followed E from the studio to her house, tracking her slim frame aboard vintage Vespa, the pace of Sobe began to set in, and I started to work with the tension in my breath, sucking in beach air, the perfume of freshly cut grass from the golf course, overtones of gasoline.
At her serene Spanish house we sat in her kitchen and she had me instantly convulsed with laughter. Despite the fatigue I could see clinging to her body, her eyes were brighter and the worry that had been etched there when I met her in India was gone. The sight of her was literally like a poultice on my stressed-out senses: with each giggle I became more aware of the tension laying like layers of winter clothing over my skin, more aware of the self-imposed armor atop my chest.
She insisted we see Sobe by bike. Dissipating some of my panic by lowering the bike seat to my childlike height, she refused to say the obvious. “You’ll remember,” she cackled. “It’ll come back. Hopefully before we encounter traffic.”
And so I biked, tailing E and the plume of her blonde hair as she led me a few heart-pumping blocks to the retro oasis that is the Standard Hotel. At the waterside café, I ate a vegan ding-dong as we caught up, insulated by layers of lush gardens from the rush of the nearby city. But still, behind the placid flow of the gulf I could feel the pull of concrete, metal, glass, feel the drag of desire that I saw as making up my life.
I braced myself for the ride back. But as I jumped upon the bike, fortified by my first commercially vegan meal in months, my feet slipped easily onto the pedals and my body found that peculiar rock of weight necessary to ride the bike without sitting on the seat. I avoided parking meters and lightposts with unconscious ease as E and I yelled back and forth. Cars honked at us, not even trying to disguise their desire to run us off the road. E stayed unflappable, hair streaming, narrating the chronicles of the neighborhood: “Here’s my dry cleaners, that’s my salon, this place is great sushi . . . This house took five years to renovate, this one is from 1926, and Michael Bay owns this one. ” Each building had a meaning in her life and a story behind it. I fell in with the rhythm of her narrative as we both slowed our pace. By the time we reached her house I could fully feel and thus fully release the anxiety that had been building for weeks. Against the tempo of South Beach, my racing heart found a new cadence: the melody of flowers, oaks, shady side streets and small-town mobility.
As I found my tension I found myself, and recognized that the buoyancy of my blonde tourguide was so comforting because it was so like my own. In the time I’ve been seriously practicing yoga, my definition of the word family has deeply changed. One of my students introduced me to the idea of tribes, a tribe being a group united by their similar energy, a karmic family. So as each day passes, my tribe gets bigger, and my family gets stronger. And staying light becomes like riding a bike: easier when someone gives me a little push, but doable either way.
At the request of a student I’ve recorded a breath-based mini-meditation, perfect for the days when your respiration gets challenged. Its super simple and rather physical: I guide you through finding, deepening, balancing and resting in the breath. This little examination of and engagement with oxygen is how I start every class and personal practice. It’s not however, a fantastic recording. Expect sleeker versions soon.
The mantra gives a place of refuge, an oasis in which the mind can rest.
–Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
So, many studios in the US advertise “no chanting”. I’m not sure when I first heard mantra introduced into a yoga class, but I was never invited to join in until I was in training. At that point, after being educated in the history of yoga and the basics of Sanskrit, I could put mantra into context and enjoy it. But to many yogis, mantra can be intimidating or off-putting.
Put simply, a mantra is a helpful pattern of thought that can replace an unhelpful pattern of thought: “Mantras start a powerful vibration which corresponds to both a specific spiritual energy frequency and a state of consciousness in seed form. Over time, the mantra process begins to override all of the other smaller vibrations, which eventually become absorbed by the mantra. After a length of time which varies from individual to individual, the great wave of the mantra stills all other vibrations.” (Thomas Ashley-Farrand)
The word mantra literally means “to free from the mind”: the first syllable “is “manas” or “mind” . . . The second syllable is drawn from the Sanskrit word “trai” meaning to “protect” or to “free from.”” Each mantra calls on a different and specific energy and there are many of them; there are mantras for healing, enlightenment, support, fertility, financial success, and for each chakra. Mantra heals whether you listen or chant, but is actually most powerful when recited silently. Yoga lore even indicates that some of them can be dangerously powerful, but you won’t encounter those in general use.
I was an instant fan of mantra, as I respond quickly to the calming influence of sound, but I was unsure of how to approach using it in my teaching. As always, one of my yoga inspirations helped me out without being asked. One evening, as I rested in savasana at the end of a class, I felt the gentle presence of the teacher Silvina near me. And I felt what I could only interpret as her step- by -step laying down of her emotional armor: I felt her energetically strip down to absolute and utter vulnerability, and I somehow knew what was coming. As her voice piped up into a sad, slow, haunted rendition of the Gayatri mantra, another piece of my existence slipped into place. I suddenly had a purpose for my voice: healing.
Our teacher in Rishikesh, Shailender, alias KuKu Ji, taught us to focus on one mantra, rather than many. Comparing mantra to digging holes, he encouraged us to direct our effort to digging one deep hole rather than many shallow ones. Dig deep enough into the earth, he said, you will hit light, you will hit core. On my last day in Delhi, I recorded a few mantras (digging indiscriminately!) against the backdrop of the city I so loved. This one, Ad Guray Nameh, is clearing, and roughly translates to “I bow to the Primal Wisdom/ I bow to the Wisdom through the Ages/I bow to the True Wisdom/I bow to the great, unseen Wisdom.” Yogi Bhajan says “when you cannot be protected, this mantra shall protect you. When things stop, and won’t move, this makes them move in your direction.” Let’s get moving.