Traversing the Plateaus: How to Maintain Enthusiasm for Practice

Times when we feel stuck, or that we’ve used up the benefits of practice are important and even necessary. Rather than seeing plateaus in our practice as the endpoint of what yoga has to offer us, we can also understand them as precious moments of transition. They’re times when we are ready to go to the next level of depth or understanding in our practice, or to shift the way we practice.

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Where Does Your Practice Thrive? 

My practice was honed in local studios, meditation groups, and retreat sites. These were places where other seekers welcomed me. They gave me the space to nurture my burgeoning pull toward spiritual life. The yoga spaces I frequented quietly celebrated what was inherently sacred within me, even when I had not yet fully acknowledged that place in myself.

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Yogi Mind: Ekagrata

Watching the pouring of the ghee, my mind would often become transfixed on the steady stream of golden liquid. It brought a sense of one-pointed concentration. And, as my focus would eventually waiver, I would contemplate the many layers of the scene that all pointed to the same experience of undistracted focus - the complete focus of the priest as he gracefully handled the ladle, the continuous stream of the ghee flowing down, and the totality of my senses focused on the action. I recognized this as a kind of absorption, an experience of the state of yoga.

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Approaching the Steady Center

When yoga and movement instructors refer to working  "your core" they're usually referring to the stabilizing muscles of the torso and pelvis.  While I understand and appreciate this use of the term, it doesn't felt quite right to me. The core of something means its most fundamental, central and foundational part, that which holds the greatest significance and importance. I guess I simply disagree with the idea that my "core" is a set of muscles, no matter how significant and important they are.  I consider this sense of an unchanging center to be the deepest and truest core. It’s an experience that is perhaps more subtle than the physical core, yet in my experience, even more powerful.

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Whose Responsibility is Your Yoga Practice? And Why Your Studio May Not Actually Want You to Become a Student

By providing an experience that can't be replicated on one’s own, whether it’s a lot of hands-on adjustments, spa-like amenities, an awesome playlist or an essential oil massage during savasana, studios might create dedicated customers but they also contribute to a culture of reliance. This, of course, is good for business. It can also be enjoyable, fun and stimulating. But it’s not necessarily good for yoga.

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Becoming More of Who you Truly Are: Thoughts on Transformation in Yoga

Over the years I’ve had students from all walks of life - artists, doctors, lawyers, musicians, politicians and more. They all come into class with their yoga clothes on, put their mats down. As the class starts to move and breathe together, the outer differences dissolve. No matter how significant we might be in our outer lives, yoga is a great equalizer - our hamstrings all need stretching, our shoulders all need opening, and we all need a break from the business of the day. There can be great freedom in just realizing this opportunity to pause from the roles we play in the world for a time to simply move and breathe with awareness. For a little while, the ego softens, and we are free to be exactly, only and all of who we are in that moment.

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Nurturing the Inner Relationship

My hatha yoga practice played an essential role in this shifting the nature of my inner dialogue from critical to compassionate. Asana became a way of cultivating self-acceptance. I used practice to cultivate a loving relationship with myself, consciously honouring my body as an instrument of service to the highest. Over time, I started to experience my body as strong, beautiful and even sacred, like a temple for the divine. Taking care of my body and keeping it strong and fit through asana felt like an offering. Asana became an act of self-love.

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Yoga and Body Image: Thoughts from a Big-Boned Yogi

It’s fascinating and disturbingly ironic to me how images of yoga in the mainstream industry can reinforce such a narrow notion of beauty and in doing so, run so completely counter to the self-acceptance and self-love that is at the heart of yoga practice itself. As if we didn’t have enough to work with, what we’re trying to do in yoga often means rejecting the way our discipline is portrayed in the media.

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Finding the Balance of Right Effort

How do you know if you’re trying too hard in yoga? Or not hard enough? How do you know when it’s right to persevere? When it's time to let go? In navigating the path of creating, and re-creating balance, these are questions to ask ourselves repeatedly in order to fruitfully direct our efforts in practice.

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Sthira-Sukha: The Fundamental Paradox of Practice

It took me a long time and a lot of contemplation into the nature of "right effort" to get fully behind what a balanced yoga practice looked like. In my case, it meant not not going to where I could go in every pose, and doing less of what felt easy and satisfying. I had to practice more of what was uncomfortable, harder and less immediately gratifying in order to build the stability needed to create balance.  Less sukha, more sthira.

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Getting Comfortable with Paradox

The idea of using the body to explore the spirit, of fully inhabiting our physicality for the sake of going beyond it is fascinating, isn't it? It's one of the reasons why posture practice is especially potent. Through it, we have the opportunity to actually embody spirit, to cultivate the transcendent within our very flesh and bones.

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The Unlayered Self

Transformation in yoga can be viewed as a process of un-layering. It is a journey we embark on again and again, each time returning back to what we are beneath the cloaks that we wear to navigate our way in the world. This is certainly how the journey of yoga has felt to me.

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It’s More Than Physical: Working with Yoga-Related Injuries, Part 2

Here’s last week's part 1 on the topic of yoga-related injuries that addresses common causes of yoga-related injuries and tips to avoid them.

Thanks to research and investigation, not to mention the woefully infamous 2012 New York Times headline, Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?, the conversation around yoga-related injuries has greatly expanded over the past several years. Notably, through Matthew Remski’s WAWADIA project, many long time practitioners are now sharing stories that document and explore the multi-layered and often nuanced psychosocial and cultural dynamics at play in both acute and chronic yoga-related injuries.

What to do if you get injured during practice

It seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway - stop and rest! Lying on your back with your knees bent is usually a good, all-around resting pose. Breathe gently if possible, exhaling through the mouth to soothe and relieve. Ask for assistance and do whatever is needed to take care of yourself right away.

Always communicate with your teacher if you experience pain in a pose or get injured during a class.  A safe practice atmosphere includes feeling welcomed to share whatever does not feel right in your body, especially physical pain and injury. This needs to be met by your teacher with respect and attention to your immediate concerns for support and safety.

Again, to state what might be evident: Get a clear medical diagnosis and the necessary therapeutic, and perhaps medical, attention your situation requires as soon as you can.

After you’ve attended to your immediate needs, take time to reflect on what happened as objectively as possible. If the injury happened while you were practicing on your own, can you pinpoint the movement or action when you first felt pain? Try to become aware of what you were doing that caused it. Be as specific as you can. Then, inquire as to what actions or alignments will be healing as you move forward. Ask a teacher you trust for guidance and do your own research and exploration in practice.

If the injury happened in a class setting, the ask yourself:

  • What caused it? Was it a particular instruction or even physical adjustment that led to the injury?
  • Was it how I listened to, interpreted or implemented a particular instruction?
  • Was I overdoing it?
  • What was my internal reaction to the injury?
  • What happened after? How did the teacher respond? Respectfully? Defensively? Not at all?

Consider your practice environment:

  • Do you feel safe?
  • Do you feel seen?
  • Do you feel respected?
  • Are your encouraged to attune to and respect your body’s limits, even while working deeply and intensely?
  • Do you feel a sense of competition in class? If so, examine it. Is it your own tendency? Is it somehow encouraged by the setup of the room, the use of mirrors, your teacher’s attitude, the style you practice or other aspects of the practice atmosphere?

In my case, my feelings of shame and embarrassment in my knee getting stuck during the advanced practice that I shared last week was a big warning sign that I didn’t feel safe and respected. I needed to do the inner work of looking at the reasons behind that. These included old feelings of not fitting in, unworthiness, and insecurity about my body. I also needed to take a good hard look at the outer environment of the particular yoga community I was part of and acknowledge that there were also external factors, including the attitude of the teacher, that subtly encouraged my inner response.

Cultivating Ahimsa

Ahimsa, Non-harming, is one of the basic tenets of yoga practice. We can use ahimsa as a framework for approaching our experience of yoga in general, and working with injuries more specifically. Consider how you apply and practice ahimsa. It might show up as being super vigilant to be aware of and attend to any physical vulnerability during practice, or using the quality of your breath in asana to soften a tendency to overwork or push yourself past healthy physical limits. Ahimsa can be practiced in more subtle ways too, like committing to an inner attitude of self-compassion during yoga and finding ways to remember and practice it.

‘The yogi is someone who uses everything to her advantage.” Unknown

My point in offering you all these questions is to encourage you to use your injury and the circumstances surrounding it – how it happened and why it happened - as an opportunity to learn about yourself, reflect on your practice, and examine the psychological or emotional undercurrents that may have contributed.

Sometimes this means rethinking the poses you usually do or even the style you usually practice. Since many injuries can come from overdoing it in some form you may need to re-evaluate how you are practicing and be open to the possibility that what once served is no longer optimal for you. Since the body is always changing, our needs are always changing as well. It may be time for a shift in how, where or with whom you practice.

You might also discover that you are really well supported in your practice with a generous, responsible and knowledgeable teacher who can help you work through your injury and an uplifting community of fellow students bolstering your growth.

Whatever the outcome of your reflection, using an injury as an opportunity for learning and growth will make you a more responsible, informed and self-reflective practitioner. Not only will your individual experience of yoga deepen and evolve from this work, but you’ll also be helping to create and uphold a yoga culture where qualities like respect, compassion and integrity can thrive.

Evolving Your Yoga Series

Thursdays, 7:45-8:45pm

April 14 - May 18, 2017

I'm so excited to be offering my first 6-week series on Evolving Your Yoga at Happy Tree this spring. Students and teachers of all styles of yoga: You'll get so much out of these weekly contemplative and practical talks on how to deepen, expand and integrate your yoga practice - I promise. I hope you'll join me! Juicy topics include:

April 13 - Evolving Your Yoga: Principles for deepening, expanding and integrating practice

April 20 - Mud to Lotus: Transformative Approaches to Practice

April 27 - Finding Balance: Embracing the pairs of opposites

May 4 - The 1 before the 0000s: Nurturing the Inner Relationship

May 11 - Remembering Wholeness

May 18 - Connecting to your Steady Centre

Interested in the series but out of town? I'll be opening a few spots for a web-based version of this series later in the spring. Contact me if you're interested in participating.

It's Physical, and it's More than Physical: Working with Yoga-Related Injuries Part 1

I share the stories of my knees to illustrate a couple of important things about yoga-related injuries – they are physical, and they are more than physical. How we work with them will teach us a tremendous amount about our bodies and our own unique bio-mechanical vulnerabilities. And just as importantly, working with injuries in yoga is a precious opportunity to examine our inner dialogue as well as the larger cultural and psycho-social dynamics at play in our practice environment.

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What's the Right Thing to do? Working with Physical Challenges, Injury and Illness in Yoga

Do you forge ahead and get to class even when you're sciatica is flaring up? Do you stop practicing completely when your physio tells you you have a torn meniscus? How do you adapt your practice after you injure your shoulder playing tennis? How do you know what’s right?It takes sensitivity and awareness to respond to changes in your physical condition and adapt practice appropriately. Therefore, working with an injury or illness can actually be a turning point in your yoga if you approach it as an opportunity for learning and self-discovery.

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