Here in the mountains of Colorado, the beautiful spring rains have given way to the annual pine tree pollen season. If you, like many others, are suffering from pollen allergies, you’re probably feeling anxious to be over and done with spring!
While allopathic/western medicine has multiple over-the-counter and in-clinic options for Allergic Rhinitis, not all of us are able or willing to use these pharmaceutical remedies. If you’re one who prefers to avoid pharmaceuticals and take the more natural approach, or you’re simply looking to add a few extra moves to your seasonal allergy-kicking regime, yoga and ayurveda have some user-friendly options for you.
Ayurveda and the Season of Allergies
Earth, just like our bodies, has seasons. And each season – also like the body – has a predominant dosha that affects prakriti, or the natural state of its existence. Those doshas are vata, pitta and kapha. Allergy season happens to be at the turning point of vata and pitta, when spring turns to summer. Vata is ruled by air, whereas pitta is ruled by fire. So it is no wonder that this time of year affects the area where we breathe, causing our sinuses to become inflamed and irritated.
The Nasal-Clearing Neti Pot
I get a kick out of watching people use the neti pot for the first time. I get the same experience when I use it for the first time after a long break, or at the beginning of the allergy season. It feels unusually familiar to doing a faceplant in a moving ocean wave. And yet it works remarkably well for cleansing the nasal passageways, and relieving sinus pressure, eye irritation and blocked ear canals. Likewise, it alleviates post-nasal drip, decreasing the chances of a cough and inflamed or irritated bronchials. Here is a quick video on how to use a neti pot:
photo from WebMD.com
Use a minimally processed natural sea salt rather than refined or processed salts when hitting the neti. Have your neti fun once in the morning and once in the evening for best results.
Yes, yoga for your face. Why not, if there’s a yoga for everything else? Here’s a picture of what your sinuses look like:
(Imagine what Alex Grey would paint of an allergy sufferer!)
To practice face yoga:
- Sit comfortably tall with eyes closed.
- Make the number 3 mudra with your hands by touching your pinkies and thumbs together.
- Place the pads of your 3 fingers on your cheekbones and begin outward motion massage circles around the arch of your cheekbones, inhaling as you move your fingers up and out and exhaling as you move your fingers down and in. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Make the number 2 mudra (like the peace sign but with your fingers together) and place the the pads of your fingers on your cheekbones. This time, make outward motion massaging circles around your eyes: from your cheekbones to the bridge of your nose then third eye on the inhale, and from the crest of your eyebrows to the temples and back to the cheekbones on the exhale. Repeat 3-5 times.
- With your number 2 mudra, make full circles around your whole face: from your cheekbones to nose bridge, pass the third eye and out to the temples on the inhale, and to the corners of your jaw, along your lower jawline, around the corners of your mouth and back to your cheekbones on your exhale. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Once you have mastered all 3 of the above exercises, you can do any combination of them as needed.
Alternate Nostril Breathing, or Sun-Moon Breath
Pranayama is more than just some fancy pasta dish. Having a pranayama practice is essential to healthy living and is a good practice to do after using a neti pot, or anytime. Prana (vital life force, or breath) + yama (ethical practice of purification) is a practice of awareness through breathing.
Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) or Surya-Chandra Bhedana (Sun-Moon Breath) is one of my favorite pranayama exercises because it has a funny way of both clearing the entire nasal cavity and refreshing the sinuses and brain alertness. Like a good vinyasa yoga class, Sun-Moon breathing will give you a natural yoga high!
In this video from Om Yoga of NYC, you will learn the Nadi Shodhana method:
An easier practice for sinus congestion is to practice the Sun-Moon breath first:
Food as Medicine
- Inhale through the right nostril and exhale through the left (sun breath). Repeat 3-5 times.
- Inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right (moon breath). Repeat 3-5 times.
- Alternate sides, inhaling through the right, exhaling through the left, then inhaling through the left and exhaling through the right (alternate nostril breathing). Repeat each cycle 3-5 times.
- Take 3 slow and deep cleansing breaths through both nostrils to complete your practice.
Much of the practice of Ayurveda is centered around the idea that diet and food, when treated as medicine, can cure many ailments that otherwise plague the body. Food, like too much of anything, can be harmful to the body if we unconsciously consume it. On the flip side, it can also heal longstanding problems with just a few small changes to our diet. Below is a suggestion of foods and drinks to either consume or avoid during allergy season, according to the Ayurvedic method.
- Drink water! Lots of it. Especially warm (but not hot-hot), like herbal teas with locally-sourced honey.
- Avoid icy cold foods and liquids.
- Ghee (or my preference, natural oils like olive mixed with beeswax) placed lightly inside the nostrils
- Enjoy healthy fats like avocado and coconut for supporting healthy mucosal lubrication.
- Enjoy fresh mild leafy greens like lettuce, spinach and chard, and naturally cooling veggies and fruits like celery, jicama, parsnips and melons.
- Avoid dairy products, which increase mucous membrane activity; opt for milk alternatives, especially coconut!
- Avoid allergens in carbohydrates like wheat, gluten and yeast; opt for a low carbohydrate diet or long grain brown rice.
- Avoid alcohol, which can cause allergy flare-ups.
- Use cooling and anti-inflammatory spices and herbs like turmeric, cardamom, coriander, fennel, mint, dill and fenugreek.
If you are suffering from an allergy attack, the following poses may help relieve some of the pain and stress associated with pollen allergies:
- Uttanasana (standing forward fold) followed by Tadasana (mountain)
- Sphinx or Bhujangasana (cobra)
- Adhomukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) with a block under the third eye
- Ustrasana (camel) with wall support in front for legs, hands and chest
- Virasana (hero) with Sun-Moon breath
- Supta Baddhakonasana (reclined bound angle) with blanket/bolster supports under spine, neck and head
...and for the ambitous ones out there....
- Sirsasana (headstand) followed by Bhalasana (child’s pose) with a block under the third eye
Good luck!The information offered above are merely suggestions that do not replace proper medical attention. Please practice at your own risk; of course your own intuition is your best guide!
"When the mind and the heart are stretched together in expanding self awareness, I assure you, there is instantaneous self transcendence and, therefore, limitless freedom." -Sri Swami Nirmalananda
Ironically, although having studied politics as an International Affairs major in university, as a yogi, it is not often that I find myself engaging with heated political issues. However, the national and international rise in participation of the Occupy Wall Street movement has sparked my inquiry and curiosity.
As a practicing yoga teacher and yoga therapist, my job is all about viewing a system as a whole – that system being primarily the human experience – and offering tangible suggestions and advice for improving the efficiency of that system as it relates to the inquirer or practitioner. While in western yoga the body is the primary vehicle set in motion for that system through asanas, the body system is not exclusive of the mind or soul, which is why a wholesome yoga practice also includes other practices like pranayama and meditation. Likewise, the human experience is also effectively inclusive of external factors such as our relationship to a larger system: a community, a governing body, a society or culture, a planet, the greater cosmic universe. A system is never complete on its own; it must rely on the interconnected relationship with other systems for its long-term survival, just as the physical mind cannot live without the body, a fish without clean water, or the tides without the cycle of the moon.
From this yogic and vedic perspective, the Occupy Wall Street movement is equivalent to the body’s reaction to pain experienced during an intensely challenging asana. Whereas, one part of the body may be enjoying the long-held and deep stretch of the pose, another part of the body may be screaming and begging for mercy. “Get me out of here! This doesn’t work for me! I have rights too, ya know!”
Herein lies the dualism and karma of asana practice. For most yogis, I think, we take the body’s conflicting reaction to the pose as a message of either curiosity or betrayal. We learn to either adapt, include, or exclude the pose altogether. We deduce from the experience that something must be done, must be corrected, or must be ignored in order to move on. Similarly, the Occupy Wall Street movement is a societal response to an economic pose that simply cannot be sustained within our everyday practice.
As I watched the YouTube video of yogini superstar Seane Corn lead a group of NYC yogis through commandeering prayer and group chant for the participants of OWS, I felt a sense of needing to not just address the uprising response of protesters, but the system of our society and economy as a whole body. Does our liver hate our spleen for being different? Do our feet feel envious of our hands because they are more tactile and versatile? No. Even with the multiplicity of differences occurring everyday in our own body, the body system manages to work together to do its best in giving us an experience of being whole and complete.
So then, yogis, how do we bridge the 99% with the 1% of our social economy just as we might bridge the dualism of a pose that we both love and hate? How does one find balance between the duality of politics and spirituality? Perhaps through awareness in listening... body awareness... breath awareness... mindfulness in the moment... stillness within action... curiosity and exploration.
The vedic masters claim that the bliss of yoga comes from seeing God in all, as all. Through this path, a yogi must continuously practice bridging the values of the ego with the values of the soul in every moment. Whereas, politics is akin to the ego and the body like money to material desires, spirituality is akin to the soul and consciousness as love is to a pure and open heart.
How then do we bridge the body with the soul, or even conservatives with liberals? The answer already exists. It is our ability to listen – to listen ever so closely – to the messages, and to make modifications and adjustments that include and accept. Just as anger is the ego’s expression of the soul’s desire for love, there is a message in everything. When we tune in to possibilities not formerly within our scope of awareness, we unlock a world of potentiality, a fruit-laden tree of sustainable relationships that connect us to a greater system beyond our everyday awareness.Setu Bandhasana: Bridge Pose
Bridge Pose opens and elevates the sacral, naval and heart chakras. These are our centers for creativity, self-expression, action, acceptance and love. When practicing Bridge Pose with a dristi (focused/intentional gaze), set your internal gaze on allowing more of these qualities into your life, and your external gaze on bridging any dualities that arise for you, such as a conflict between a staunch politician and your desire for a financially secure life, or the conservative peer that scoffs at your liberal beliefs (or vice versa).
- Begin lying on your back with arms by your sides and feet hip width apart.
- Turn your palms face up, offering your intention to accept what is. This will also open the awareness in your heart center as your shoulder blades respond, tucking under your sternum.
- Feel into your footing. Feel the solidarity of the earth beneath your feet. Imagine both rooting into the earth and wrapping around the curvatures of the earth as you go deep within and, at the same time, reach wide toward your distant connections that contribute to the wholeness of your experience.
- Begin building your bridge. First with the tailbone, then sacrum, then belly button, ribs and finally heart center. Rise one at a time, offering a single inhaling and exhaling breath for each center before moving on to the next. Rome was not built in a day. Take your time building your bridge. Rushing through the creative process will weaken your vital points and crumble your opportunity to gracefully construct openness, acceptance and strength.
- Once you enter the full bridge, you are welcome to go deeper with Active Bridge. Firmly engage the palms together by interlacing the fingers under the spine parallel to the floor. This opens the heart more deeply and inspires the body to take on a higher state.
- Advanced students are welcome to enter Urdhva Dhanurasana – Wheel Pose – grounding the bridge into the hands and feet and opening the torso fully to the heavens.
As we enter the season of fall, many of us find ourselves feeling nostalgic or forlorn, holding tightly onto the good old days of summer where the weather is warm, outdoor activities are plentiful, and sandals are a daily part of the wardrobe. Autumn is a profound time of change for many creatures, a time when the season of abundance begins to fade and the harsh reality of winter sinks in. Change is evident in the air: the drying of creeks, the shade of color on leaves, the shift in wardrobe, the length of daylight, the heavier foods now in season. Fall is a ripe opportunity for looking inward, for self-reflection and acceptance of all the aspects of life that are changing and of all that has changed over the greater part of the year. It is an auspicious time for preparing for the things that will continue to change, just as we prepare for the slumber of winter.
In Ayurveda, this time of year is the season of vata. Airiness, coolness, mobility, lightness and subtlety are general qualities of vata. When deranged or overstimulated, vata can increase feelings of fear, emptiness and anxiety, hence feelings of nostalgia, or even depression when the weather shifts into the grey months of fall. Autumn is an appropriate time to calm the vata tendencies that can quickly overwhelm like a fallen leaf riding the unpredictable currents of a late October wind. It is also an opportunistic time to practice the ever-challenging path of vairagya.
Vairagya (pronounced “vair-ah-gyah”) is dis-passion, or the willingness to let a phenomenon arise without reacting to it. It is the practice of choosing not to get caught up in the drama of life. Holding oneself back from yelling at another driver who cut you off in traffic, committing to take a big leap in a new business or job, marriage or move even when fear arises, or being able to say goodbye to a loved one who has passed are all masterful examples of vairagya. More simply, it is the ability to pick yourself up after you stumble, however big or small the pebble on the path may be.
I once witnessed a young boy around the age of 5 or 6 who seemed to have tripped over his own feet in public. I was standing far enough away that he did not take notice in me watching him. After a moment of shock, he looked up to see if anyone had witnessed his fall. At first, the expression on his face was an arising emotion of suffering felt in response to the phenomenon of hitting the pavement. But when he realized no one had witnessed the phenomenon, the arising emotion shifted from suffering and soon after dissolved into pure presence with the moment. The boy picked himself up, shook off the pain and then ran along again to catch up with his friends as though nothing happened.
Abhyasa – focusing on the cultivation of effortlessness – and Nirodha – the stilling of thoughts – is synonymous with Vairagya. These three practices are the next steps forth on the path of the final four sutras of Patanjali – Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi – but are not isolated to these limbs alone, as they can be accessed in any moment of life. The young boy who fell was a perfect example of the immediate choice we all have to make when we experience pain. When he realized that no one had witnessed his fall and therefore had no reason to show his shock to the world, he immediately made the commitment to still his thoughts of suffering (nirodha) and focus instead on moving on to easier and more important subjects like playing with friends and feeling generally well (abhyasa). Although I’m sure this young boy had no idea that he exemplified vairagya at its best, the pureness of his true nature shone through so brilliantly in the moment that it caught my attention, however unconscious his choices may have been for him.
For the majority of us adults enmeshed in modern culture, vairagya is much easier said than done! When change is a constant state of reality, particularly when it lies within the natural essence of vata, learning to continuously roll with the punches time and time again, falling only to pick ourselves up once more is no easy feat. Which is why mindfulness with vairagya during the cooler months of fall is an auspicious time for anchoring oneself in the chaotic currents of change.
This summer, I had a difficult personal experience that called my attention to the need for vairagya in my own life and the memory of the boy who picked himself up: My husband and I learned that we are expecting a child in January and, just less than two months after discovering the news, my beloved dog and best friend, Karma passed away after being struck by a car. In a short period of time, straddling the bridge between life and death, I experienced a jolt of life’s joyful awakening and the painful shock of heartbreak and loss. As I saw friends in passing, I was greeted with both congratulations and condolences in one package. The human heart is only designed to take on so much; when faced by both the arising emotions of joy and sorrow, the only choice that made sense to me was the middle road, witnessing as much as I could sustain in the moment in order to fully understand and appreciate the sudden life changes occurring around me. If I was a fully enlightened yogi, I would have left it at that and returned for a pleasant evening of meditation in my mountain cave by the river. But I am only human and, as a humble human, phenomenons and subsequent emotions arise and pass. It is the very pureness of our emotions that can either quickly turn into vices gripping us into a story of suffering, or work as tools for helping reconstruct sense back into life. Grief overwhelms just as joy can override. We can choose to give into the wayward ride of vata, or we can choose to witness the feelings and emotions that will continue to arise rather than letting them become us.
Much like the Middle Way of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path – choosing neither extreme austerities or sensual indulgence – vairagya is like the pedestrian in the middle of a busy intersection, observing traffic so as not to get hit when crossing. Sometimes accidents happen, sometimes we have to run or dodge our way through the constant traffic of the mind. As yogis, perhaps some of you have experienced this in class:
“The show-off across the room can do a handstand. Right... I'd certainly fall and break my neck”... “My hamstrings are too tight, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to reach as far as the teacher does”... “Stupid tree pose. Who needs to stand on one foot anyway when I’ve got two?”... “Gawwwwd, that guy is such a loud breather. I can’t concentrate as long as he’s in the room.”... “Just a little further... a little higher... I’ve gotta prove that I can still do this wheel thing. Ow, my back!”
Next time you practice yoga, whether on or off the mat, take notice of the mind’s tendency to drag itself through a story. Can you witness the story itself arising and, consequentially, a heightened state of emotion in reaction to it? Can you find a state of suspension in a moment of passion and allow yourself to simply remain there? Can you remove yourself from the passion of the emotion altogether and observe your ability to choose how you want to experience the current state?
Here are a few vairagya tips I learned from the young boy who fell and picked himself up again:
- Reality hurts. We can choose to let it hurt us or we can choose to stay present with it.
- Pain is a natural emotion, but suffering only really matters when someone is around to witness it. Suffering loves to play the lead part of a good story.
- If no one is around to witness the pain, well, shucks! Better to shake off the pain, regroup and anchor back into the moment.
- Keep up with life! Even amidst the shock of change, there’s bound to be something else interesting or exciting just around the corner.
- Humility is our best teacher. It anchors our mind-body and opens the heart to the reality of change.
Of course, if we could all be as enlightened as that young boy was when our own phenomenons arise, the world would be a much less complicated place. Remember, change rarely happens overnight, but is abundant in any given season. The practice of vairagya is exactly that – practice. Above all, have compassion for your own faults and wayward tendencies and offer gratitude to the teacher of humility when it arises... then dust off your pants and keep going.
This month, I have the pleasure of writing this blog while surrounded by an alpine lake and a bird's eye view of the Continental Divide atop one of Colorado's fourteeners, Mount Evans. Modern technology has provided me with a laptop and America's highest paved road to get here, making the mystical journey to this alpine tundra summit a lot more comforting than other mountainous climbs!
As I comb through the Mount Evans Wilderness Guide in search for inspiration, I am reminded that, just like Death Valley or the Saharan Desert, the tundra is also a scarcely hospitable environment for only the toughest of wills. "Only living things with highly specialized adaptations exist," the guide says. In fact, very few creatures have adapted to this environment, and the ones that have – Mountain Goats, Bristlecone Pine, Marmots, Bighorn Sheep, and several other species – are surely an example of tenacity, fearlessness and a highly adaptive nature within a seemingly harsh and unforgiving environment. Up here, every wind gust tries to pull the breath right out of me. The feeling of being both on top of the world and also very far from home is livening, to say the least. The bitter chill in the air is less than pleasant and the intensity of the sun and wind tells me I have either much more meditating or evolutionary adapting to do if I am to enjoy myself in this reticent and frigid environment like that Mountain Goat grazing peacefully across the rocks.
Adapting or meditating. The restless enthusiast in me knows discomfort is a state of mind and, with a little encouragement, is able to coax the native California blood in me into enjoying this bitter sweet mountainous moment. I breathe in the crispy thin air like a rice cracker curbing a day fast. I begin to presence myself with the sweet slowness of my breath and the nourishing air that enters my nostrils, however cold, dry and thin it may be. The sensation of working to mindfully fill my lungs with this air is like pouring water into a glass from 10 feet above. I sense the massive amount of earth beneath my feet and I swear up here I am lighter, like that single raven floating on the mountain top's current at the edge of the world with me. Imagine, the tenacity of that bird, to drift in such a strong breeze and feel so content. Or the mountain goat that hops from one peak to the next, rock by rock, unmoved by the severity of its reality. And here I thought Richard Freeman’s advanced class was tough.
The air here reminds me of when I discovered I had exercise-induced asthma. About 10 years ago, I played on the UC Santa Barbara women’s rugby team. Though this may surprise some of you (I surprise myself with my own stories sometimes too!), this sport is one of the most challenging sports every played or practiced, in my opinion, which is why I enjoyed it so much. I pushed myself hard on the field, often to the point of sheer exhaustion, mostly because of my aversion to being tackled. I hated getting the wind knocked out of me, especially when I was always experiencing a lack of it in the first place. In rugby I always felt so challenged to keep up, like I could never take in enough air for the amount I needed. I thought I was just not as fit or as healthy as other athletes. I remember having my first big asthma attack and feeling so helpless and confused, only to later discover that my ability to survive was in my ability to adapt to the elements.
It wasn’t my doctor, but a yoga class that taught me how to find my breath again. At that time I was still discovering yoga and its health benefits. So, during class I began paying close attention to the breathing exercises and commands and how I could apply deep breathing to intense activity. I soon learned that I had a much greater lung capacity for my breath if I could just slow it down during moments of discomfort. I eventually learned that when an attack came on, 3-Point Yogic Breath was a way out. A few years later, herbalists in New Mexico taught me that cutting dairy from my diet could provide relief to my mucous membranes and histamine responses for the lingering asthmatic moments I was so driven to rid myself from. After trying it for a month, to my amazement, it worked. Now, today, I practice 3-Point Yogic Breath every morning and evening, every time I feel anxious or nervous, and every time I feel discomfort or pain both on and off the mat.
Through my own experience with asthma, I learned that presencing the mind in the breath is by far the best practice for achieving peace and grace during states of discomfort. When I am able to completely center myself in my breath, I truly feel I am touching heaven. Being able to touch heaven is knowing the divine, and knowing the divine is both dying and living in a single breath: letting go of the mind’s attachment to fear, discomfort and helplessness in exchange for the simple bliss of a single living breath. And this state is accessible to us all in any given moment if we should choose to experience it.
Next time you hold a yoga pose, are having a hard time breathing, or are experiencing discomfort, allow yourself to truly arrive in that experience. Show up. Be present. Stand tall. Breathe. If you’re in a yoga class, don’t worry about what your neighbor is doing, if you’re the slowest cat in the room, or if the teacher is instructing faster than you can breathe. Enjoy your moment. Revel in your practice. Catch your mind when it wanders and bring it back to a single breath. Laugh when you stray. Smile when you come back. Find the humor in the humility when you notice the simplicity of such a difficult practice that sounds so easy. Above all, enjoy the experience with gratitude and be open to your connection with the divine.
Practice 3-Point Yogic Breath
*When practicing any breathing exercise, listen to your body. Stop if you feel lightheaded, dizzy or nauseous.
*If you have a medical history of heart disease or high blood pressure, avoid practicing the intermediate and advanced practices described below unless they have been approved by your physician.
1. Begin lying on your back in Savasana.
2. Place 1 hand on your belly at your navel and the other on your chest.
3. Take a full slow exhale to clear the lungs.
4. On your next full deep inhale, notice where your breath enters. Do you feel your chest moving more? Your belly? Both? Nothing is right or wrong, this is simply a practice of awareness. Exhale fully as needed. Be mindful of the fluidity of your breath. Avoid holding your breath at any time.
5. On your next inhale, slowly begin to fill the lower lungs first. To fill the lower lungs is to belly breathe, expanding your belly first when air enters the body.
6. Fill the width of your ribcage second. To fill the width of the ribcage is to diaphragm breathe by expanding the circumference of your torso after your belly is full.
7. Fill the upper lungs third. To fill the upper lungs is to chest breathe. Expand your chest after your belly is full and your ribcage is fully expanded.
8. Reverse the breath on your exhale (similar to raising your arms and then bringing them back down at your sides) by releasing the air from your upper lungs (chest) first, your diaphragm (ribcage) second and, finally, your lower lungs (belly) last. Using imagery of the ocean’s tide as it laps onto the shore (inhaling) and back into the ocean (exhaling) is a nice complimentary visual practice.
9. Repeat steps 5 through 8 two more times for beginners, 4 to 8+ more times if you are an intermediate or advanced practitioner.
10. Practice 3-Point Yogic Breath sitting up tall, or while in a yoga pose that you generally experience discomfort in. Pigeon pose, Kapotasana is a great asana for this!
11.Take notice of your awareness and your body. Can you feel discomfort in your body dissolving as you stay present with your breath? Do you notice an ability to remain calm and centered in the breath? Are you able to enjoy the simple practice of breathing over and over again without getting ahead of your breath, or falling behind?
12. As you improve in your pace, volume and awareness of breath, practice Reverse 3-Point Yogic Breath: Inhale into your upper lungs (chest) first, diaphragm (ribcage) second, and lower lungs (belly) last, then reverse the exhale accordingly (belly first, ribcage second, chest last).
Intermediate and advanced practitioners:
13. Complete 3-Point Yogic Breath for 3 repetitions, followed by Reverse 3-Point Yogic Breath for 3 repetitions to create one full round. Practice in rounds of 3, 6, 9 or 12.
14. Complete 1 repetition of 3-Point Yogic Breath followed by 1 repetition of Reverse 3-Point Yogic Breath to create 1 set. Practice in sets of 3, 6, 9 or 12.
*Always rest in your normal breath for at least one minute after practicing advanced pranayama exercises before moving on to other activities or asanas.
photo from flickr: Andrew Meyers Photography
- Teaches balance
- Strengthens legs
- Builds stamina
- Opens chest/heart and shoulders
- Strengthens and promotes the health of the spine
The Hindu god, Shiva, also known as the nataraja, or “lord of dance” charms us with his divine dance of destruction and creation. This universal dance symbolizes the death of the old and weary and the cosmic process of birth and life. Shiva dances the eternal cycle of transformation, preservation and dissolution. And what better time to celebrate this divine dance than the transition of springtime into summer, an elation of quiet poise and stillness within the motion of transformation. Natarajasana teaches us to rejoice in the playful spirit that dances between chaos and order and to embrace life’s transitions with a courageous and open heart. Shiva shows us how it is possible to be both balanced and playful within the cycle of life, and to seek grace as one’s guiding star for navigating through a sea of obstacles. With introspection and a focused and calm mind, we too can dance like Shiva dances, poised and centered within the cosmic motion of life.Practice the Dance
1) Dancer’s Pose is a tonic for the shoulders, chest, abdomen, spine, hips, thighs, knees and calf muscles. Practicing a warm-up series such as Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) before this pose will assist in a deeper exploration of the asana and prevent any unwanted injuries.
2) Begin in Tadasana, rooting your feet into the earth. Connect with the divine energy that rises from the ground through your feet, climbs the spine and reaches for the heavens from your crown. Feel your entire body engage with the subtle strength of your creative source that surges through the core of your being. Focus on the breath. Breathe in this life force, and breathe out the dissolution of negativity and other obstacles in your awareness that no longer serve your path or purpose. Open your heart as you inhale, reaching courageously to the heavens. When you arrive on an exhale at a still and focused mind, settle your dristi (gaze) on an unmoving object. A flower, tree branch, house plant or candle flame works well for this, or anything else you find that embodies the cosmic stillness residing within motion.
2) When your awareness is present, inhale your right arm to the sky and your left hand to the inside of your left ankle (with your inner arm facing outward). This marks the universal cycle of life and death as you connect the circle at hand and foot, and makes the cosmic connection when you reach for the heavens. Exhale into your center of stillness again, keeping your hips and shoulders evenly parallel to each other and your tailbone anchored into the earth.
3) On an inhale, open your heart to the heavens once more, allowing it to guide you through a forward and uplifting motion. At the same time, begin moving your left knee behind you, being mindful of the hips as they work together to stay centered while in motion.
4) As you exhale, radiate your divine creative and destructive forces out of your heart, your solar plexus, your sacrum, your left knee and foot, and extend your right arm forward from your heart-center. Focus your dristi on the stillness of being, on your anchor to earth in your standing foot, and your divine reach toward your higher self from the heart and the crown. Allow any mental obstacles that arise to fall to the wayside as you remain poised in your divine center. A mudra of index finger and thumb together in your right hand may help with this. Notice the introspection and stillness of the mind necessary for this pose to deepen. When we move gracefully from the center, we find stillness amidst the movement. Here is where we can also find playfulness naturally arising in an open heart.
5) When you deepen your pose, be mindful of the hips and shoulders. Keeping them facing forward (rather than opening out to the side) will assist in centering your balance. Place your right hand onto a wall if you find yourself teetering. Use the buttock (gluteus) muscle of the left leg to lift the knee and thigh parallel to the ground, and the front of the left thigh (quadricep) to draw your heart open at the foot. Resist the temptation to pull back the left shoulder; keep your shoulders and heart centered to guide you through the challenge. Lengthening your lower back into the tailbone and engaging your inner thighs (adductors) and lower abdominal muscles will also prevent any impingement of the lumbar spine.
6) Repeat 2-5 on the other side.
Several months ago I received word that a dear elder friend of mine was preparing for her death after a long but beautiful battle with breast cancer. Her journey to accept her defeat and pass with honor struck a chord with me that resonated for weeks. As strong as her faith and willpower was, for the first time I began to see her true light shine forth when she finally committed herself to her final rite of passage: Death.
Then, just last month while my husband and I were honeymooning in Central America, we received word from his family that our sister-in-law's brother had been killed by gunshot with little reason or warrant to his death. Just as Jesse and I were experiencing our own rite of passage – marriage – our brother-in-law was suddenly thrown into his unexpected passage of death. For several days we shifted our focus from the path we just started to the path that our sweet friend, Roland was now journeying on as well.
In the life cycle of one human, several rites of passage can be experienced which lead each of us through a journey of self-exploration, transformation and change. Birth, puberty, marriage, parenthood and death are the most common rites of passage. Among those, death is one that continues to mystify our curiosity and challenge our ability to face it with courage and fearlessness. What scares most of us about death is the seemingly innevitible consequence of the otherwise comfort of life that is so familiar to us. To some, death is the be-all, end-all, the grand finale, the final score in the game of life. But does it really have to be this way?
This week is Holy Week for many Christians and Jews with Passover, Good Friday and Easter Sunday being the feature ceremonial traditions. Ironically, all of these ceremonies and celebrations occur around the theme of death and its transformational process into rebirth. The great Exodus of the Israelites in Egypt and their swift escape from slaughter and slavery to the holy land of Jerusulem, Judas' betrayal of Jesus that led to their capture and humiliating crucifixion, the resurrection of Jesus... all folklore traditions in our culture that symbolize death, transformation, and the opportunity to ascend into a new paradigm, to awaken and be birthed once again.
Likewise, Holy Week marks the arrival of spring, Mother Nature's own folklore of the rebirth of her little green children after the death of a hard, cold winter. Each year we commemorate this rite of passage of death and rebirth by honoring the deaths of our past and present. We till the old soil and fertilize it with fresh compost, plant seeds, hide spring-colored eggs for children to find and admire the tenacity of tulips as they bring life even in the threat of death. Let this time of year also be an opportunity to acknowledge the little deaths that you experience: the death of a day, the death of an old habit, the death of an old you. We may not always realize it, but we have an abundance of opportunities to experience death everyday, and if we open ourselves up to the process through small practices in this important rite of passage, we might just learn how to have a little more courage and a lot less fear with the big ones.
As a yogi, each asana I step into and each breath I exhale is an opportunity for a little death to occur: the death of stressful day, the death of an old lingering injury, the death of a tight hamstring... the death of a friend that I am devoting my practice and the accompanying pranic energy to... the death of doing things the old way in order to birth into something new. And each inhale is an opportunity to be transformed and rebirthed into a new experience.
In your next yoga session, practice identifying an opportunity for a little death to occur. What does it feel like to let something die? What is dying, or what needs to die? Is there a rebirth of something arising in the process of death? Can you commit to supporting or accepting death in order to allow for something new to come forth? What lesson or wisdom is held in that pose, that breath, or that essence of where you are right now, cradled in an opportunity for transformation? When you reach Savasana (Corpse Pose) in your practice, give yourself the opportunity to rest in devotion to the death process, whether it is with your own small death, or the death of a loved one, be it a pose, a job, a plant, an animal, or person. Give yourself fully to honoring its/his/her life and ask the universe how you can embrace and embody the new life that desires to come forth through you. Just as a sprout innately reaches for the light of the sun when the tempurature is right, awaken from Savasana when you feel your heart is ready to reach fully to the light that shines in and around you, and your body and breath feel enlivened and refreshed by the opportunity to experience something new.
I recently returned from a 10-day trip in Costa Rica with my husband, where we reveled in the kindness and simple life luxuries found so abundant throughout the majority of the country. One area where we visited made a particular impression on me. High in the mountains just east of the Nacoya Peninsula is Monteverde, a tropical cloud forest vibrating with such rich life. While this beautiful bosque nuboso
seems to have such an abundance of life, it is also a rare beauty in the world filled with plants, birds, bugs and animals found nowhere else but there. Cloud forests cover a mere 1% of the globe's woodlands, and this particular one is a small 810 acres of sheer beauty and balance. In order for it to exist in such a small space with such a wide variety of species, it must learn to find balance and interdependence with every aspect of itself, from the mysterious jaguar to the courageous and tiny hummingbird.
The simple perfection of the bosque's ecosystem brought tears to my eyes. How is it that a giant, centuries old tree can have over 40 other plants growing on it in perfect balance and thrive in such an environment continuously for millions of years, yet we humans struggle to get along with our neighbors and even other humans living oceans away? Is there something happening here in the forest that we are not aware of yet
Indeed. In the forest, epiphytes are abundant plants that thrive non-parasitically on the trunks and limbs of larger trees and retain moisture from the air. As trees grow tall reaching for the sun and sky, old branches that are no longer needed break off, fall to the ground and decompose. The decomposing matter is nutrient rich soil for ferns, lichen, moss and other ground dwelling plants. The ground dwellers, in turn, strengthen the soil with their root systems, protecting other larger trees and plants from unrooting during heavy rains. Birds fly from one branch and flower to the next, pollinating and fertilizing the ground as they live out their day. Bugs move along the decomposing process and aerate the soils, along with the birds who hunt for the bugs. Each species of bird also feeds on particular insects to prevent over population of pests (you will rarely get bitten by a mosquito here). The moisture in the high altitude air creates clouds that linger amongst the tall canopy of trees, becoming drinking water for the epiphytes and eventually condensing further. The liquified water runs down the large leaves of the trees, to the slightly less large ferns (though still very large by my standard!) and eventually into the ground. From there, some water turns into creeks and waterfalls, becoming drinking water for larger animals like the jaguar and ocelot. And the rest.... does it all over again. Evaporating water turns once more into the canopy of cloud cover, and life continues its cycle.
What I noticed most about the cycle of life there was the commitment involved by each species present in the forest to create a community of interdependence. And that interdependence equals balance for everyone involved. Each species was able to have its needs met simply by the existence of another species. Aside from the occasional squawking parrot to another, each species was exactly in tune with the whole and had no complaints about their own commitments.
Next time you step on your mat for practice, try stepping into the world of a bosque nuboso. Honor your practice space and how you are participating in the lineage of it. Listen to the environment around you and praise it for nurturing your continued growth. Be present with your commitment to improve a little more each day in service to your community as much as yourself. Offer gratitude to those around you – even the noisy parrot-like neighbors – who are in this community with you, constructing the community of humans and other creatures around the world also striving to survive and thrive. Give thanks for the process... for your process... and for the process of others... for death and decomposing also feed the renewal of life, evolution and growth. Breathe into the prana... inhale... exhale... like the clouds that become the rain that becomes the water that becomes the life of you and all that is around you. Breathe in beauty... breathe out love.
OM. For more information about the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, visit:
The last several months I have been working on developing a podcast. I'd like to think that sharing my lessons learned and skills mastered with the world might help others in their own universal and self mastery. At first I thought creating a podcast based on simple yoga and yoga-fusion routines would be enough, but now I am beginning to notice the importance of truly sharing the deeper profound revelations that have both pushed me deeper into a state of unknowing, as much as awakened me to enlightening ancient wisdoms and unviversal truths in everyday form. You could say that the spectrum of reality is endless for each individual on this planet. But there is also a container of comfort that many of us like to get cozy in... sometimes so cozy that entire societies deem these containers to be the "norm", the standard experience that all of us should be having.
I've been thinking about this "norm" space. Being an aquarius, I have a natural tendancy to want to test the limits of any container, to feel the freedom of expansiveness, and stretch the boundaries of reality a bit. But, another lesson I have been learning is the mastery needed to successfully practice balance and master the continuous push and pull of non-local polarities while still knowing exactly where both common reality and non-being reside in each moment. This is the path of the Tantric Yogi. The Tantric Yogi knows exactly when to go deeper, when to stretch further, when to embrace the challenge, and when to break free from the impulse of desire to experience the pureness of the moment. The Tantric Yogi takes pleasure in pain and pain in pleasure, and yet attaches to nothing. The Tantric Yogi sees his or her experience as universal and unique all at the same time. This is where the reality of the Tantric Yogi lies: in everyone and with no one, in everything and no where at all. Breathe. Die. Life as both full and void. It's all in the moment.
How far do you go? What do you consider mastery? What do you consider balance? Where and when do you experience boundaries, polarities and centers?
To help me better define what containers to test and push in my upcoming podcast, I'd like to inquire from you what you think a modern yogi is. We all have some element of interest or investment in the fundamental interests of a yogi – mastery, practice, willingness, embodiment, humility, health, spirituality, consciousness, connection – though we may not all be fully aware of it. What is your idea of a modern yogi? Do you see an aspect of yourself as a modern yogi?
I hope you will all feel free to share with me your thoughts, opinions, ideas, rants and raves as I contruct this playful paradigm of what it means to be a modern yogi. Your input is greatly appreciated!
I recently picked up the book American Veda by Philip Goldberg. In my opinion, there are as many “yoga” books for sale today as there are individuals looking for spiritual enlightenment, so I am discerning with all books that find a place in both my home and soul long after it leaves my hands. But, after reading an Elephant Journal review of Goldberg’s book, I was convinced to learn more about this man’s interpretation of American Yoga. Between Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras, and Ghandi’s interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, I decided it was time to add some pop culture to my literary yoga wardrobe.
Within the first 2 chapters, I began to notice what Goldberg’s American Veda was all about: the American tradition of soul liberation. America is a melting pot of traditions, cultures, religions and lifestyles. But there is one distinction that seems to unite us all, and that is the idea of freedom. Is this a political concept or a deeply ingrained truth in our society? Perhaps freedom goes deeper than the surface of our history books and constitutions. Perhaps the concept of freedom is not that of being able to democratically do whatever we want, but a liberation of the soul to simply be.
Over the last 30 years, the practice of Yoga has become more than an American trend of pop culture. Yoga seems to have become a revolution of the soul. And all revolutions seem to beg for evolution, to break free from traditional nuances and cultural stigmas that have generated long-standing beliefs systems which are no longer necessary or useful. More people today are beginning to ask their yoga teacher for health advice than their doctor, and yoga classes have replaced the once popular jazzercise workouts. But what is it about yoga that has us so enamoured? Aside from the admiration of gracefully flexible yogini women and lean yet superman-strength men who can do an airborn salutation 20 times over, yoga is more than just a physical practice. Yoga is the language of the soul.
Yoga graces us with the ability to undergo both physical and mental stress and come out floating in the clouds afterward. For the majority of Americans, no desk job or laboring skill has ever been able to help us accomplish this unique state of bliss. Yoga teaches us to listen. Yoga teaches us to become aware of the subtleties that exist in one’s own reality, that reality being the imprints our experiences stamp on the body, the mind, and the soul. Yoga teaches us to be mindful, to walk the middle path between impulse, instinct and intuition. Yoga teaches us to act from our integrity, to engage from our high state of consciousness, to develop our prefrontal cortex skills as the next stage in our soul’s development and surpass the honed and mastered limbic brain system. Yoga teaches us to be our own truth, to accept our challenges and our capabilities, and to simply be.
I have yet to finish reading American Veda, but without knowing what Goldberg’s interpretation of American Yoga is, I can tell you that American Yoga is the path of one’s own truth and the liberation of the soul. It seems there are as many yoga styles today as there are dogmas and karmic paths. American Yoga embraces each one, for each is truth. Even though America is far more youthful than the ancient and profound sutras of Indian texts like the Rig Veda, our yoga revolution is the historical evolution of our collective soul. America IS many paths, one truth.
“In Man the perpetual progress is from the Individual to the Universal, from that which is human, to that which is divine.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
The winter solstice, marked on December 21st, 2010 (most noted by the full lunar eclipse, a phenomenal and rare gift), is our annual earthly experience of moving from darkness into light once again. In Ayurveda, it is the season of Kapha, the earthy napper who loves to cuddle up with a warm fire, a novel book, and a hot cup of tea. While the days may be getting longer, for those of you living in the colder regions, we still have quite a ways to go before we feel the heat of a sunny summer day!
I urge us all to take this opportunity to deepen our connection with the core of the body and the breath. Just as the winter days slowly shift into the beauty of spring, I've provided an appropriate pranayama/breathing exercise on my podcast, as well as some gentle flowing asanas to get your cold winter bones groovin' like a spring chicken again. Enjoy!Winter Warm-Up (audio stream)