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“Free your mind, and the rest will follow…” ~~ En Vogue

FreeYourMind

Photo Courtesy of Soul Flower

Whether you’ve been practicing yoga for years or have just started your practice, many of us have a hard time turning off our “monkey minds” when we step onto our mats. Not sure what a “monkey mind” is? That’s when your mind acts like a monkey – jumping all over the place, from one thought to the next, in a very unsettled, indecisive and restless manner. Who wants that?

One of the benefits of a regular yoga practice is that it is extremely helpful in quieting and settling our minds. But accomplishing this is very hard for many of us, and I’ve seen it frustrate many yoga students, myself included. For example, I notice that when I’m unable to turn off my “monkey mind” in class, I am off balance, my breathing is erratic, and I get very negative and frustrated with myself. At the end of classes like that, I walk away feeling very disappointed, and I usually feel more stressed than I did before I walked in the door.

What about you? Have you ever had a practice where you were completely able to focus on the present moment? If yes, then I am willing to bet you felt amazing afterwards…calm, confident, rejuvenated. And have you ever had a practice where your mind was all over the place for most of the class, and you just couldn’t seem to concentrate AT ALL? How did you feel after a class like that? You probably felt very much like I mentioned above. Have that happen to you enough, and you’ll eventually feel the repercussions both mentally and physically. It’s amazing how that “monkey mind” can wreak havoc!

So what can you do? How can you get yourself to a point where you can turn off that “monkey mind” and stay focused on the here and now? Well, there is no one answer, as we are all different, and different things will work for some of us than for others. Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

For me, who is constantly battling this issue, meditation and breathing exercises have really helped. It took me awhile to find the meditation techniques that resonated with me the most, as some seemed to make my “monkey mind” worse. I spent a lot of time talking to people who I knew had a solid meditation practice, I Googled a lot to learn everything I could, and I also downloaded a ton of free Podcasts to see if there were any I liked. I also attended a meditation workshop recently and was able to walk away with a nice toolbox of techniques that resonated well with me. When it came to breathing exercises, I again found that some seemed to agitate me more, while others were pretty good at calming me down and getting me focused. When I first began working on meditation and breathing exercises, I needed a guide, so the Podcasts and YouTube videos I found were great for me. But now that it’s been several months, I have actually ventured into guiding myself, and it’s been working rather well. I can definitely see that it’s become easier and easier for me to settle down, relax, and focus on the present. More and more, my “monkey mind” is becoming a thing of the past, which has freed me to concentrate on the things that matter and that I can actually do something about.

Maybe meditation and breathing exercises aren’t your bag of tea. That’s OK. But I encourage you to explore what works best for you in terms of helping to turn off that “monkey mind”. Start by practicing this on your yoga mat, if this is all new to you. For example, when we flow in our Sun Salutations, try to really focus on moving one breath with every movement, and see if you can make your inhales and exhales the same length, so that your flow is smooth and controlled. When you put all your focus into something like that, you have no choice but to be present in the moment. Or maybe, when you’re in a pose that you’re holding for several breath cycles, you take the time to notice which muscles you feel working, and then focus on breathing into those specific muscles. Again, that may be a nice way help you stay in the present moment.

We’ll be working on this in class this week. Hopefully, you’ll be able to step off your mat with a clear and present mind, a relaxed and rejuvenated body, and a smile inside and out.

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“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.” ~~ Lao Tzu

5elements

Photo courtesy of Taichido.com

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a Yin Yoga workshop that will be applied towards my 500-hour yoga teacher training. This was one of the trainings I’ve been waiting for, as I first began practicing the Yin style of yoga on a more regular basis over this past year. It’s been very therapeutic in helping me with the chronic pain I’ve been suffering in my muscles and joints due to having Lyme Disease. Over this past year, I’ve asked my teachers lots of questions, I’ve done a lot of research online, and I’ve purchased quite a few books on the subject. If you know me well, then you know that this is simply what I do with everything…I research everything to the fullest extent, because I am always asking “Why, why, why???” until I get all my questions answered.

For those of you who don’t know what Yin Yoga is, it is considered to be a very therapeutic form of yoga that is particularly helpful with stretching the connective tissues around the joints. To do this, you follow three basic principles:

  1. Come into the pose to an appropriate depth. Think about finding your “edge”…that point where you feel like you’ve reached a degree of stretch that is in balance: intensity without pain, use without abuse, strenuousness without strain.
  2. Resolve to remain still. The idea behind this is that anytime the body moves, the muscles engage, as they naturally want to take over any stretch for the body in order to protect the joints. So, if we remain still, the muscles are able to be “quiet” and allow the effect of a deep stretch to sink into the joints, and the connective tissue surrounding them.
  3. Hold the pose for a long time (typically anywhere from 3-5 minutes, though I’ve heard stories from others who have been asked to stay in a pose for 10-20 minutes…yikes!). The reason we need to hold poses for a long time in this style of yoga is because the connective tissue is much denser than muscle, so it takes time to “dig in” and stretch it out properly.

If you look on the schedules of many yoga studios and fitness studios where yoga is offered, you’ll very rarely see a class labeled as “Yin Yoga”, because most of us in the western world are always on the go and cannot fathom the thought of having to “stay still” for long periods of time. But if you see classes labeled as “Deep Stretch”, or “Long, Slow, Deep”, then you can bet that you’ll be getting a good bit of Yin thrown in, and the benefits can be amazing!

Until this weekend, I’ve always thought the Yin style of yoga was very rigid in format (refer to principle #2 above). It’s the way I’ve always practiced, for the most part, in the classes I’ve attended. My teacher this weekend has a very diverse background in yoga, massage therapy, meditation and Chinese medicine. And because of this diversity, she emphasized that in her way of teaching Yin, there isn’t necessarily a “one size fits all” approach. It depends on the body and the issues its experiencing. So on the first day of the training, we did most things in the traditional Yin style, holding to the three principles above.

But on the second day of the training, she showed us how we can explore the five (5) elements of traditional Chinese medicine in our poses. It is believed that the mind, body and spirit are all endowed with the five elements, which are: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Traditional Yin Yoga utilizes mainly the Earth element. However, it is believed by many that practicing Yin Yoga utilizing all the elements can perhaps more effectively provide improved health, greater vitality, heightened awareness, and freedom of movement and ease with the body.

All I have to say is, the practice we did on the second day made me say, “Wow! This is what I’ve been looking for!” As we went through the poses, we did almost every one in different ways, incorporating each element, so we could explore and pick the best variation for our own bodies. I quickly discovered that I love the water element in my poses, as it’s very fluid and it really did wonders for easing pain and stress in my body. The earth element was a close second, as it’s very grounding, and allowed me to settle in when I really needed to.

Even though I traditionally teach a Power Yoga format, we always have a good 15-20 minutes at the end of each class where we practice deep stretching. So this week, I will be using this last portion of my classes to introduce this way of moving your body in various ways, in an attempt to help you find which element resonates with you the most. You may find that different body parts respond to the elements quite differently. You can refer to http://www.taichido.com/chi/taoist/five.htm for an easy-to-understand explanation of the five (5) elements, but here is some basic information you may find helpful:

WOOD

Wood is associated with the season of Spring, and is thought to help us with the capacity to look forward, plan and make decisions.

Wood energy is rising, expanding, and is the force of growth and flexibility. When you move your body in a “wood” way, it’s like the sensation of drawing an arrow back on a bow, just before you shoot it at your target. In other words, your body is very taught. So if you’re in Dancer Pose in a “wood” way, for example, it should feel as if you let go of your foot, you’d feel the same sort of “snap” release as if a bow had just shot an arrow.

FIRE

Fire is the element of heat, and is associated with the season of Summer, and it symbolizes warmth in human relationships. Its motion is upward.

When you move your body in a “fire” way, it’s very active and dynamic. Those of you who practice more active styles of yoga, like Power Yoga or Vinyasa Yoga, are moving with this element predominantly. Some breath work, like the Breath of Fire, utilizes this element as well.

EARTH

Earth is the element associated with the season of Autumn. This element is also regarded as central to balance and the place where energy becomes downward in movement. It is the symbol of stability and being properly anchored.

When you move your body in an “earth” way, it should feel very grounding and stabilizing. The traditional way of doing Yin Yoga, for example, is done utilizing the earth element, where you just let go of all muscle energy and sink into the pose. For example, if you do a Seated Forward Fold in an “earth” way, you would turn off all the muscle energy in your legs and in your spine, and just let gravity pull you into wherever your body needs to be. It then becomes less of a hamstring stretch, and more of a stretch on the backs of the knees.

METAL

This category includes the Western idea of the air element and is not associated with any specific season. Metal energy is consolidating and with inward movement.

When you move your body in a “metal” way, it is very straight and strong. Very linear, so to speak. For example, if you’re in a Seated Forward Fold in a “metal way”, you would hinge from the hips, extending the spine long, with your arms long and straight by your ears, keeping your legs straight and strong. There would be no curves…your body would be more like a sword, so to speak.

WATER

Water is associated with the season of Winter, and its motion is downward.

When you move your body in a “water” way, it is very fluid and flowing. Think of it as being very organic…any movement that feels like what your body needs is totally acceptable. Neck rolls, shoulder rolls, hip circles…all of these could be considered “water” movements.

“So be wise and keep on reading the signs of my body.” ~~ Shakira

Slideshow-Hip-Openers

Photo Courtesy of Fit Sugar

As I was planning out what I wanted to work on in my classes this upcoming week, I knew I wanted to spend some good time focusing on the hips. And for some reason, every time I started thinking about a particular pose to focus on, I kept hearing “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira playing over and over in my head. Before I realized it, I was moving and grooving to my own beat, swirling my hips in all directions. And it felt GOOD! As a runner and cycler, I’m so used to moving my hips in just one direction. Except for when I am on my yoga mat, I don’t get a lot of lateral movement. Keeping up in this pattern is a main reason why many of us end up with super tight hips and IT Band issues. The hip is one of our joints that actually is able to move in ALL directions, so it’s important to put them through their full range of motion as much as possible.

If you hike, ski, run, bike, walk, and/or sit at a desk, you fall into this category of not getting enough lateral movement…and chances are that you have tight hip flexors. Hip flexors are what allow for forward movement and the ability to lift the leg up. They are made of three different muscles – psoas major, illiacus, and rectus femoris (which is part of the quadriceps). If you can spend just a few minutes stretching these areas, you can prevent injury and even boost your performance, as well as feeling more comfortable overall in your daily life.

In yoga, hip openers often coincide with emotional release, because it is thought that the hips store strong emotions of anxiety, sadness, depression and being guarded. So don’t be surprised if, when practicing some of these hip openeners, you experience some sort of emotional release.

We’ll be playing with a variety of hip openers in class this week. Some will be extremely challenging, while others will be incredibly restorative. Either way, I encourage you to completely surrender to the experience. Be wise, and listen to the signs they send your way. You won’t be sorry, and you may even find some freedom in your body you didn’t know you had!

Namaste,

Melanie

“Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.” – Ann Landers

DyingWarrior

Dying Warrior.
Photo Courtesy of http://www.freretstreetyoga.com/videos.html

Last week, we talked about the lesson the sage, Vasistha, taught to King Ram about how to let go of the things which do not serve you so that you can focus your time and energy on things that will bring contentment to your life and to the world. I heard back from some of you, and the overwhelming thought that came through was, “Well, how do I do that? How do I let go of things I’ve committed to? People are depending on me!”

OK, OK. I get it. I totally get it because I have the same problem. It’s a little easier to say no to something I’m being asked to do that I haven’t already been doing. But to tell someone I can no longer do something I’ve been doing? That’s a completely different scenario for me, and I’m willing to bet it is for most of you as well.

For me, when I have to tell someone I need to give something up, I feel like I’m admitting I’m weak. When I observe others around me (at work, at church, my friends), it seems like they’re able to do it all, so why can’t I? But I am committed to doing the things I need to do in order to be happy and healthy, so I really appreciated coming across the above quote by Ann Landers today. I love that I always seem to find the words I need right when I need them! It was comforting for me to look at giving things up as sign of strength instead of weakness.

There is a yoga pose that I did for the first time in one of my trainings this past April. My teacher called it “Dying Warrior” or “Wounded Warrior”, but there is no known Sanskrit name for this pose that I can find.  It’s a rather awkward pose to get into the first time or two (at least, it was for me), but once I did, wow! I knew it was supposed to be a great release for the hip and IT Band, and depending on the variation you do, it can be a great shoulder stretch and a detoxing twist (here’s the link to a video that shows how to do the twist with the shoulder stretch variation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLJxKHGOu04).

Once I stopped looking around the room at all the others in the pose, and once I stopped trying to force it, I really felt it. Not just the stretching and the other physical sensations. I felt myself letting go. Just giving in to the experience and letting it be whatever it was going to be. How freeing that felt for me! For me, someone who is always trying to stick to a schedule, who freaks out when the unexpected comes my way, it was nice to just sink into the pose and feel it. We stayed in that pose for 5 minutes on each side, and it was so nice to have a solid 10 minutes of my life where I truly felt no worries.

There are a variety of ways, as I mentioned, for you to do this pose. We’ll be covering some variations of it in class this coming week. Get ready. Get ready to let go. Find your freedom!

Namaste,

Melanie

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