Belly Love

The Practice: Belly Love

By Wendy Swanson
May 17, 2018

Belly Love

 

Our belly, my belly, your belly, women’s bellies, men’s bellies “should” be flat, flat, flat. I have met very few people that are not on a quest for a flatter abdomen. I, too, have striven for this perfection as the message I heard growing up from my misguided but well-intentioned mom was “you can never be too thin (or too blonde)”. I wonder, though, if in our quest for perfection we are sacrificing our wellbeing.

 

A strong core and firm abdominal muscles do indeed help stabilize our low back and lumbar spine. We do need strength in our body, and in particular in our abdomen, to hold ourselves upright and to move through our day with integrity.

 

The beauty of a Buddha belly

Belly LoveA strong belly does not necessarily equal a flat as a board, six pack belly. In the practice of Chinese Medicine, a healthy belly is one that actually has some softness that resembles a slightly rounded “Buddha belly”. The softness indicates that tension is not being stored in the abdomen and that the breath is freely moving through the belly, diaphragm and chest. I’ve noticed that when I feel most relaxed my breath moves and when I feel stressed my breath hangs out in my chest and is quite shallow. I could go on and on about body image and societal pressure to be thin, but today I want to offer a few tools to simply help us get to know our belly and possibly even love our belly AND let you know that a soft, slightly rounded belly is normal, healthy, and dare I say even beautiful.

 

Ways to love your belly

Abdominal massage is a great way to love your belly and has the added benefit to help with constipation. Rub your hands together to warm them before placing them at 12 o’clock above your belly button. Allow your fingers to sink into your belly but not too much that you feel pain. Move your hands around your belly button in a clockwise motion. You can use some coconut oil or sesame oil to help your hands move smoothly around your belly.

Sit or lie down and place your hands gently on top of your belly. See if you can bring your breath all the way to your belly enough so that you can visibly see the rise and fall of your hands.

Find movement that makes you feel great and beautiful. One of my favorite things is to put on music, turn up the volume and simply move and dance with no particular purpose and with no one watching. It helps me to feel free and connected to my body and my belly.

Practice speaking kindly to yourself. Write yourself a love note. Be kind to yourself.

 

Wendy Swanson, L.Ac, E-RYT 200, is a healer, transformational leader, yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. Wendy has been leading groups for over 15 years both domestically and internationally. She is an open hearted yoga instructor who is currently studying at Kripalu to obtain her 500 hour yoga certification. As a licensed acupuncturist for over ten years, Wendy’s strives to help people live a life filled with greater ease, joy, well-being and balance. Wendy owns Be Yoga & Wellness in Charlotte, NC.

 

Join Wendy at the Art of Living Retreat Center for The Art of Being You from June 15-17, the Joyful Yoga Conference from August 10-12, and Celebrate Being through Yoga from September 27-30.

     

Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: abdomen , belly , Body Image , Love , self-care , yoga
Niyamas on the Mat - Art of Living Retreat Center

The Practice: Niyamas on the Mat

By Dr. Bharti Verma, MD
May 10, 2018

Niyamas on the Mat - Art of Living Retreat Center

Last month, we delved into how to practice Yamas on the mat. Today, we’ll be looking into Niyamas. The Yamas are a social code of conduct, and the Niyamas are a standard of personal ethics an individual strives to follow on the spiritual sojourn of Yoga.

 

Shaucha (purity)

Cleanliness and tidiness in the outer environment and your own personal cleanliness keeps the mind from becoming cluttered and irritable. On the mat, if your mind becomes disturbed, then your body cannot focus on doing asana, and the whole practice becomes disturbed.

Deeper understanding of Shaucha is to understand that your body and mind influence each other both on the mat and off the mat. Taking care of each is important to achieve a steady and comfortable asana. Balance and symmetry can only be achieved if the mind is calm and the body flows with the breath.

Shaucha on the mat means personal and environmental cleanliness, together with calmness of the mind.

 

Santosha (contentment)

Santosha on the mat means your asana practice is happening with a relaxed attitude of the body and mind.

Accepting the body as it is in that moment without complaint, and having a mindful attitude toward the practice of asana. When the mind and body are both relaxed, then every movement is joyful and becomes an expression of happiness.

 

Santosha on the mat is a tension-free body and a joyful mind, both flowing in harmony with the breath. 

 

Tapas (penance)

Tapas means willingly accepting adverse conditions without complaining, and this extends to your asana practice on the mat being met with a sincere attitude. Having patience and willingness to give the practice your sincere effort. This type of practice will develop endurance and stamina on the mat and build capacity for endurance off the mat.

 

Tapas on the mat is accepting the challenge of practice with a sincere attitude.

 

Swadhyaya (self-study)

Self-study on the mat means observing one’s attitude, balance, symmetry, and sincerity, and from these observations, learning to improve your own practice at your own pace.

Swadhyaya on the mat means learning from Self-reflection.

 

Ishwar pranidhana (surrendering to a higher power)

Ishwar pranidhana is invited to your practice by 100% just letting go of any anxiety on the mat. Once your sincere effort has been given to achieving symmetry and balance on the mat, let the mind and body totally relax.

This attitude drops any feverishness. It allows you to transcend the body into stillness and the mind into a deep silence. This allows the divinity within to prevail.

Or as Patanjali explains, “Prayatna Shaithalya vAnant Samapatti bhyam!”

Ishwar Pranidhana on the mat is letting the divinity within be your guide into the practice and allowing the divinity to prevail: It is the journey and the destination!

 

In fact, one needs to follow only one of the Yamas or Niyamas and all other Yamas and Niyamas will start to manifest. Not just on the mat, but also in life. Each Yama or Niyama holds a secret to leading one to the truth, and like all rivers merge in the ocean, each of the Yamas and Niyamas bring one to the depth of True Consciousness.

Asatoma sat gamay…

 

Dr. Bharti Verma, MA, MD, MCFP,  combines an established medical perspective with a seasoned background in yoga. As a senior teacher with the Foundation, Bharti teaches advanced level yoga and meditation programs internationally. She is an avid yoga practitioner and instructor with 500 h E-RYT Yoga Alliance certification. She brings yoga to her clinical practice and provides yoga and meditation instruction to many of her patients on a weekly basis.

 

Join Dr. Verma and some of the most influential and engaging yoga teachers in the south east for the Joyful Yoga Conference from August 10th-12th, 2018 at the Art of Living Retreat Center.


Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: alignment , niyamas , spirituality , the Practice , yoga
Reiki - Art of Living Retreat Center

In House: How Tobi Gold Discovered Reiki

By Tobi Gold
May 3, 2018

Reiki - Art of Living Retreat Center

I came to Reiki through teaching Yoga. For years, as I ended a class and people were resting in Savasana, I would place my pointer fingers in the center of my student’s foreheads and spread a little oil. Student’s would often remark, “I really liked the energy I felt from your hands!” I was not a Reiki practitioner then, but hearing those words led me to pursue it.

 

Finding the right Reiki teacher

In May of 2016, I took Reiki Level I at a lovely Holistic Center in Florida. I’d heard many stories about finding the right teacher, and didn’t understand why that was important. But that was before I had Neil Kagan as my teacher — I knew right away that he was the right teacher for me. In addition to making us feel comfortable with his relaxed approach and great stories, he was not “woo-woo” at all. In fact, he was very grounded, organized, and clear in his communication. I ended up taking all three Levels with him.

 

Healing from a distance

At Level I, I could practice Reiki on myself. At Level II, I could use Reiki for distance healing. I was telling my old friends from New England all about my newly acquired skill, and as they talked about their various illnesses, I offered to send Reiki to them long-distance. They would “recieve” this energy in a variety of ways, some with relief from pain, some with relaxation and better sleep.

I was so happy that I could help.

 

Now, as a Level III practitioner, I often use Reiki when I work with clients one-on-one. Reiki, the ability to use universal energy as it comes through my palms, is simple and effective.

 

Experiences with Reiki

I have one client who experiences chronic pain in his hips and lower back. All I have to do is bring in the Reiki energy and rest my hands in those areas, and he feels relief. Sometimes he falls alseep — a sign of complete relaxation and the absence of pain.

 

Another client experiences occasional pain from anxiety and tension. For her, I combine Reiki with restorative Yoga. I simply help her get into a comfortable, supported pose and apply the Reiki energy where she is feeling distress. She does experience the heat from my hands, and a deep relaxation with the treatment, which leads to reducing pain: a great gift.

 

Tobi Gold has been practicing Yoga and Meditation since 2001. She completed her first certification at Kripalu in 2007, and has been teaching Hatha and Vinyasa Flow ever since. In 2016, she took a Reiki Master Program in Florida, taught by Neil Kagan.

 

Learn how to support yourself and your loved ones with energetic healing with Tobi and Neil Kagan at the Art of Living Retreat Center from July 13th to July 15th, 2018 at their retreat, Become a Reiki Master. 

     

Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: energy , healing , in house , neil kagan , reiki , Tobi Gold , yoga
Art of Living Retreat Center - Walking through the Door

In House: Stacey Vann & Pamela Hunter on Walking Through the Door

By Pamela Hunter
April 30, 2018

Art of Living Retreat Center - Walking through the Door

 

“Walk through the door. It’s the step you’ve waited your whole life for. Go ahead and do your work, realize your vision, and find your wroth. We’re walking with you, every step of the way. We will always be with you. You will find your way… follow your heart.” – Wah!

 

Walking through the door

I remember walking through the door to my very first yoga class, and then my first workshop, and finally, not soon enough, my first retreat. The progression of being ready to walk through the door for the different intensities of my yoga journey was all-life giving.

 

What has yoga given you?

Yoga gave me a home to come to within myself and within community. What has yoga given you? How does yoga feel for you? Do you remember when you first walked through the door? Sometimes we need to free ourselves from our typical daily life in order to sit in the rhythms of our soul.

 

The magic of awareness

We invite you to sit for a moment here and now and observe your rhythm. Feel your feet and the earth you touch. Notice the motion of your breath. Follow your heartbeat. Sense what you taste in your mouth. Does the taste match what you are smelling? Allow the noises you hear around you to be included. Envision your essence pulsating from within. Our vibrational rhythms support us as we awaken our awareness to feel our essence where we can embrace our innate wisdom, truth, consciousness, and bliss.

 

An invitation to self-care

Is your heart calling you to interweave your yoga with essential oils, sound, nature, and community? Can you give yourself time and space to walk through the door? Join us for self-care, self-love, and self-reflection at our Awakening Your Essence retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center, from September 21 to 24, 2018.

 
“Come and you will find the inner one you want to. 
Find the inner mind you’ve waited so long to.” — Wah
 

Stacey Vann, E-RYT 500, and Pamela Hunter, E-RYT 500, are the Aloha Sistas. Stacey is a mother of five, Soul-Centered Life Coach, Doula, Reflexologist, and the Founder of the Mahabhuta Yoga Festival and Galactic Child Yoga. Pamela is a mother of two, an Integrated Health Coach, an Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Certified trainer, and the owner of Fun Lovin’ Wellness.


Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: in house , journey , mindfulness , pamela hunter , stacey vann , wellness , yoga

The Practice: Yamas on the Mat

By Dr. Bharti Verma, MD
April 28, 2018

Yamas and Niyamas on the Mat - Art of Living Retreat Center

 

As per Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga, Asana is the third limb, the first limb being Yamas and second limb being Niyamas. It makes sense, then, that the first two limbs must have some relevance to Asana practice. Superficially, there may not be an obvious connection, as the Yamas are a social code of conduct, and the Niyamas are a standard of personal ethics an individual strives to follow on the spiritual sojourn of Yoga.

Patanjali explains how an asana should be practiced: Sthir sukham asanam: An asana, or a pose, should be steady and comfortable. So how can Yamas and Niyamas help bring about an asana practice that is steady and comfortable?

Today, we’ll be looking into Yamas.

 

Ahimsa (non-violence)

In an ordinary sense, we see violence only when it is directed toward others. Rarely does one look at himself or herself through an understanding of non-violence.

On the mat, Ahimsa means that you choose to honour and respect your own body and its ability to practice asanas, so that you will not hurt myself physically or mentally. It means that you make an effort to do what you can on the mat with sincerity, respecting the limits of you body.

This means that you will not over-stretch or strain your body, and at the same time, will do what you are able to with what capability you have. If an asana is done with this attitude, it can be the first step towards being still and steady in body, mind, and spirit, to reaching a place where there is no judgement as to your ability and no comparison with others. Because the body is not strained, and the effort is sincere, the mind is relaxed and the spirit free.

 

Ahimsa on the mat is a sincere effort that honors the body and calms the mind.

 

Satya (truth)

How can an understanding of truth help on the mat? What does truth on the mat look like?

 

Truth remains the same on the mat or off the mat. There is truth in the fact that everything is changing at every moment. There is truth in the fact that one’s body and mind change daily, even from moment to moment! If you allow yourself to be swayed by the changes in the body or changes in your thoughts, feelings, and opinions, then your asana practice cannot possibly remain steady and comfortable.

 

Truth is also found in the thought that though everything changes, there is a part of you that is not changing. Your ability to stretch, lift, flex, and twist may improve as your practice becomes more intense and regular. These abilities of the body may also deteriorate as a result of illness, injury or aging. However, the understanding of a steady and comfortable asana can only continue to improve as you practice, so that you can transcend the body-mind attachment and discover the part of yourself that is unchanging.

 

Satya on the mat is: Body, breath and mind belong to me and change with time and circumstances. Honouring these changes I aspire to rise beyond these changes to that part of me that is unaffected by the change.

 

Asteya (non-stealing)

What can you possibly steal on the mat?

Asteya on the mat comes in the form of losing patience, or attempting advanced asanas on the mat, when you have not sincerely learned the basics of a beginner practice. If you want to practice and look the same as an advanced yoga practitioner without applying sincere effort, that, too, is stealing. You might also practice for shorter periods of time on far fewer days of the week, and still expect to gain the physical and mental benefits of yoga practice.

This insincere attitude is stealing, wanting more than what you have earned. In this type of practice, you cannot possibly reap all the benefits of yoga practice, and may even end up with a physical injury that will prevent you from continuing your practice. If you continue to envy the advanced practitioner, you may be left with a feeling of failure or disappointment.

A strained body and a disturbed mind cannot possibly bring you to a state of a steady and comfortable asana.

Asteya on the mat is being non-judgemental, non-competitive, and measuring your growth only by self-comparison. You are your only competition!

 

Brahmacharya (celibacy or moving in infinity)

How can one practice Brahmacharya on the mat?

Brahmacharya has a more superficial meaning of celibacy, but a deeper meaning of becoming free from desire and abiding in the Brahman. Abiding in the Self.

If by practicing asanas, your intention is to develop a slim, trim, and sexy body, then asana practice will become nothing more than an exercise routine. However, a properly instructed asana practice will bring you to a deeper understanding of the Self.

With full awareness of the body that is properly balanced with a mind that flows effortlessly with the breath, the asana practice itself becomes a meditation.

Brahmacharya on the mat is a body that is balanced, and a mind that flows effortlessly with the breath, so that the spirit is free to soar the vast expanse of the sky.

 

Aparigraha (non-accumulation)

How does one practice non-accumulation on the mat?

 

You are practicing aparigraha when you simply have the confidence that with sincere effort and proper execution of instruction, you will be able to do the asana mindfully. That as your understanding of the asanas increases, even simple asanas will unfold their complexities and value for your wellbeing. Having the confidence and being content with your abilities at any given stage in your practice will open up the path towards higher learning.

 

Aparigraha on the mat is confidence and trust that you shall be given what you need as you continue to do your practice sincerely.

 

Tune in next month for Niyamas on the Mat!

 

Dr. Bharti Verma, MA, MD, MCFP,  combines an established medical perspective with a seasoned background in yoga. As a senior teacher with the Foundation, Bharti teaches advanced level yoga and meditation programs internationally. She is an avid yoga practitioner and instructor with 500 h E-RYT Yoga Alliance certification. She brings yoga to her clinical practice and provides yoga and meditation instruction to many of her patients on a weekly basis.

 

Join Dr. Verma and some of the most influential and engaging yoga teachers in the south east for the Joyful Yoga Conference from August 10th-12th, 2018 at the Art of Living Retreat Center.


Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: alignment , niyamas , nonviolence , the Practice , yamas , yoga
Art of Living Retreat Center - Enlightenment

Exploring Wisdom: Can Enlightenment be Obtained through Spiritual Practices?

By Krishan Verma
April 27, 2018

Art of Living Retreat Center - Enlightenment

 

“Can spiritual practices really lead to enlightenment? I have been doing my practices for over 25 years regularly and sincerely. I undoubtedly see many benefits, but I don’t see myself anywhere near enlightenment. I also do seva regularly and have sincere devotion in my heart. I don’t know what’s missing. Could you please share your thoughts on it.”

 

Spiritual enlightenment is a flashy and vague term. It can mean many different things to different people. I don’t know what it means to you, and what exactly are you trying to achieve?

 

The Yoga Scriptures don’t use the term ‘enlightenment’. Instead, they inspire the seekers to become mukta (free or liberated). Becoming mukta is a meaningful, clear, and achievable goal of spiritual journey. It means freeing yourself from all that you have created in your mind. In the Bhagvad Geeta, Lord Krishna repeatedly says that a yogi is free, and inspires Arjuna to become free. He doesn’t tell Arjuna to become enlightened.

 

Spiritual practices have their limitations

Spiritual practices are very essential for the wellness of your body, mind, and Spirit, but they also have their limitations. The practices are something similar to sunbathing. When you sunbathe, you experience the presence of Sun, but you are nowhere close to the Sun. You can sunbathe a million times, your tan will certainly become darker, but the distance will still remain.

 

Similarly, in meditation you experience something beautiful that is being emitted from the Spirit, but you are nowhere near the Spirit. You can meditate for many years, your experience will certainly become deeper, but you may still be nowhere closer to the Spirit. Though the Spirit is omnipresent, it is not accessible to all. Its presence is.

 

Cultivate freedom of the mind, not enlightenment

So, drop the desire to be enlightened. It is only a concept. Instead, cultivate the desire to be free in your mind. You have bound yourself, and now, through knowledge and self-effort, unbound yourself. When the mind is free, it will open the doors to the Spirit, and the drop will merge into the Ocean.

 

A free mind doesn’t have the desire to have its own identity, and therefore it merges into Infinity. When you are desiring for enlightenment, you have the desire to exist. You want to exist as an enlightened being, which is not possible.

 

Join Krishan for the Yoga Teacher Training Program this fall. Considering becoming a yoga teacher? Speak with a yoga ambassador to learn more: Schedule a call

 

yoga teacher training programKrishan Verma is a seeker, student, teacher, and teacher trainer on the path of yoga for over 35 years. In his programs, he firmly yet gently guides each student to experience the effortless union of body, mind and spirit. The student emerges rejuvenated and serenely dynamic. Under his tutelage thousands of teachers now share the knowledge of yoga all around the world.

 

This article first appeared on Shudam.org.

 

Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

 
TAGS: enlightenment , exploring wisdom , krishan verma , sri sri yoga , wisdom , yoga
Kripalu Yoga - Art of Living Retreat Center

The Practice: Me and Kripalu Yoga, An Unexpected Love Story

By Heather Bilotta
April 26, 2018

Kripalu Yoga - Art of Living Retreat Center

I walked into my first yoga class at 19. It was strip mall yoga. I remember being told to relax and breathe while in poses where breath, and relaxation were the last things I imagined possible. “WTF” was muttered under my breath repeatedly as I contorted myself into painful poses I’d never done before. I worked hard and tried to keep up with a flow that felt like it was created by a sadist. When the class was over, I remember feeling really angry and hateful. No bliss. No peace of mind. I walked away from my first experience of asana wondering what the hell my straight-edge, vegan friends getting into yoga and joining the Hari Krishnas were thinking. Nuts. They were nuts.

 

Why I ran from yoga

But like many ultimately great relationships mine with yoga started with distaste and confusion. What the hell was this practice that pushed my buttons so deeply? Why would I want to chaturanga 20 times and then hold down dog while watching my brain spin? Not willing to quit right away I tried out some DVDs by yoga-lebrity teachers and disliked those too. Some were too fitness class like, some too New Agey. And just like the woman who runs from that guy at the party who sips seltzer and challenges her mind with interesting thoughts rather than telling her how hot she is, I ran from yoga.

 

What on earth is Kripalu Yoga? 

Flash forward by 9 years. My back hurt. It hurt bad. I had herniated discs during labor and the road to recovery was filled with intense lightning bolts of pain. Every doctor I had encouraged me to try yoga. “It’s good for a bad back,” they said. “It’ll be relaxing,” they said. With my initial experience of yoga with the sadist and boring DVDs it was hard to believe what I was hearing so I ignored the advice. After a year of limping through physical therapy, cortisone injections, and ever more pain I saw a flyer in my town for free yoga classes… this yoga had a weird name… Kripalu Yoga. Incredulous. Exasperated. I decided that I would try this yoga with the strange name.

 

I walked into the tiny rec center with a stinky carpet and cardio machines jammed against the wall and my tiny chunk of hope shrank even smaller. There were 10 or so people jammed into a room that only 6 people on yoga mats would fit comfortably…I was about to leave when my teacher Laura immediately sprang to help me find a spot. Everyone shifted a little left, a little right, and suddenly there was a place for me…it felt nice. My hope grew a smidge.

 

Coming home

There was gentle chanting playing from a tiny radio. She had a sweet little altar with sacred objects I didn’t recognize and this little chime that she struck right before she began to speak. After the chime sounded everyone stopped stretching and the room fell silent. We were old, young, fit, and fat people all gathered together. Looking around the room I felt a sense of ease. I felt that we each belonged there on that mat, in that place, with each other. I felt myself settle.

 

This is yoga!

When Laura spoke her voice resounded through the small space, sounding like warm honey tastes…nourishing and sweet. She encouraged us to turn our gaze inward and sense our breath and body as it was in the moment. Then for about 10 minutes we breathed and noticed that practice. We began simply, just filling our bellies with breath, then breath moved up a bit higher, all the way to the collarbone. We exhaled generously, squeezing the belly. I felt my self sink deep into my body, felt my busy mind slow way down. I felt the muscles in my body soften a little, felt peace beginning to bubble up from inside. Suddenly my heart and brain screamed from inside of me, THIS IS YOGA!

 

Finding the true potential of yoga 

Though the rest of the practice was challenging and again I found myself in poses I didn’t know that I could do and breathe simultaneously, again I felt angry about my body’s limitations, however there was a big difference between that night and my other experiences. This time I had space for it all. With my teacher’s gentle cues, encouragements, and lots of reminders to notice and accept the thoughts and sensations I was having I made it through the 90 minutes of yoga without letting my frustration sweep me away, off the mat and out of the class.

 

At the end of class I felt a sense of accomplishment, and my body felt better. Tensions were softened. Tissues lengthened. Though the flow was intense I felt like I was learning something beyond exercise for a sore back, I was learning something really important about noticing my experience and not letting it carry me away.

 

The beginning of a mad affair

That was 11 years ago and I haven’t looked back. I’ve been practicing Kripalu Yoga ever since. Not to say that this mad affair has been all wine and roses, true yoga practice isn’t. I’ve cried, sweated, blown apart, come back together, blown apart again and got back on that mat many times. I’ve learned that what I experience on my mat I can take into my life…noticing the hard feelings and not becoming overtaken by them. Bringing acceptance to my limitations, celebrating my growing ability to become conscious of feelings and thoughts.

 

The impact of a good teacher

Over the past decade I’ve had the opportunity to study with a number of yoga teachers, some true masters of Kripalu Yoga but none will ever capture my gratitude and heart like my first teacher, Laura Lin. Thank you Laura, wherever you are now. Your spirit lit the candle in my soul and I will be ever blessed for that. Jai Bhagwan!

 

Heather Bilotta is a passionate believer in the healing power of self-expression and the importance of connection to community. Her Shake Your Soul®, Kripalu YogaDance, Kripalu R&R classes, one-one SomaSoul® and Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra® healing sessions are infused with heart and creativity and are an opportunity to bring light and acceptance to your whole, unfiltered self. She truly provides a supportive no-judgment zone. Heather teaches at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Cranwell Golf Resort, and beyond. She is continuing her studies in Body-Centered, Subtle Energy Healing in the Professional Training Program at Hartford Family Institute.

Join Heather and Sage Brody at the Art of Living Retreat Center from May 18th to May 20th for Gotta Dance!, a joyful and healing exploration of body and movement.

This article first appeared on heatherbe.com. 


Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: dance , Heather Bilotta , kripalu , spirituality , the Practice , yoga

In House: Wendy Swanson on the Nature of Pain

By Wendy Swanson
April 19, 2018

The Nature of Pain

 

Some of you may know that I was in a small plane crash in December 2007. As we were crashing I braced myself, trying desperately to “put on the brakes”. Obviously, I lived to tell the tale and I was left with some pretty profound right side low back and hip pain as a result. Now, almost ten years after the crash, my pain is substantially less. In fact, most days I’m unaware of the pain unless something brings it back to the surface.

Before I go into what brings my pain to the surface and my opinion on pain, I want to clarify a few things. I have worked with thousands of people as an acupuncturist and yoga teacher and I KNOW that pain is very, very real. Sometimes pain stems from emotional trauma and manifests in the physical body, and it hurts all the same.

 

I find that it is absolutely necessary to have a baseline of self-care when trying to heal the body naturally. It is vital to eat healthy foods low in sugar, pesticides and other chemicals, have an exercise routine, and get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night. If we are NOT doing these things our pain will be worse. This is where we need to clean up our act first, in order to successfully allow our bodies to heal.

 

A deep dive into my own pain

February 2017 my mom, at the young age of 73, passed from Alzheimer’s. In many ways I was prepared and even praying for her passing since she no longer knew herself or anyone else close to her. We had lost her long before her physical body left this earth. Even so, I went into a period of deep mourning and grief.

 

My emotional anguish showed up a few ways in my body. The first week after my Mom died I got a terrible, hundred tissue a day type of cold. After the cold subsided I was then left with that old, familiar right side back and hip pain. The pain rested mostly at my sacrum and was so severe that I contemplated finally going for a MRI to see what the heck was wrong with me. To know once and for all what had happened to my back after the crash. You see, I never got an x-ray or MRI, because at the time of the crash I was 5 weeks pregnant and did not want to do anything that would harm my growing baby.

 

The only way out is through

My pain kept intensifying as the weeks passed after my Mom died. I saw my gifted network chiropractor. I saw my therapist. I went to yoga classes. I meditated. I gave myself acupuncture. I rested. In short, I did everything right and yet my low back would not release. What I have come to believe is that my back was literally FEELING the intensity of my emotional loss and pain. There was no getting around it. There was only going through it.

Of course, my emotional pain landed where there had been physical trauma. The instability of my low back and hip are completely real. The pain, though, for ME (and for many, many people that I have worked with) is directly correlated with the stress of my life. My mom’s death = BIG STRESS, BIG SADNESS, BIG GRIEF.

About 5 weeks later I attended a spiritual day long retreat with Dr. Matt Lyon. It was there that I had a profound vision of my Mom. In this vision I saw my Mom happy, dancing and free in a way that she had never been in her earthly life. She clearly communicated with me that she was still with me and always would be. It was almost exactly at that moment that my pain completely disappeared. I had gone from excruciating pain to zero pain in a moment of emotional release.

 

The emotional and physical body

In the months since that profound emotional healing I’ve had twinges of pain in my back but nothing like it was immediately following her death. I also know that there is a good chance that I will again feel that terrible pain at my sacrum, low back and hip. It will be at a time of great stress. I’m open to NOT feeling that pain, but I will not be surprised if my body once again manifests my emotional state in my body.

I could tell you countless similar stories. I could tell the tale of how I ended up at the urgent care thinking that I had a severe neck issue only to realize that it was my body’s way of dealing with the fact that I was about to let someone go from their job. Or share stories I have heard from my patients. I’m guessing you have your own story or two of pain in the emotional and physical body.

 

Get into feeling

My solution to our collective pain is one that is probably not all that popular. It is important, though, for us all to hear it.

Get off the pain meds and get into feeling. Get off being a victim to our traumas and get into owning our own stuff. Pain is a reality of life. There is no medication that erases all the pain. There is no self-help book, no guru, no doctor that can make it all better. It might sound overly simplistic and trust me I know it is not always easy.

 

The answer is about every single day choosing a path of love, forgiveness and healing. If you are living in the United States, reading this blog, then most likely YOU DO have the ability to choose. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s pain because I see real pain every single day with the people I serve. We still can actively choose our path, to choose love, healing and to seek out help as needed. You are your own answer. You are the solution. And most importantly you CAN choose a path of LOVE & AUTHENTICITY.

 

Wendy Swanson, L.Ac, E-RYT 200, is a healer, transformational leader, yoga teacher and licensed acupuncturist. Wendy has been leading groups for over 15 years both domestically and internationally. She is an open hearted yoga instructor who is currently studying at Kripalu to obtain her 500 hour yoga certification. As a licensed acupuncturist for over ten years, Wendy’s strives to help people live a life filled with greater ease, joy, well-being and balance. Wendy owns Be Yoga & Wellness in Charlotte, NC.

 

Join Wendy at the Art of Living Retreat Center for The Art of Being You from June 15-17, the Joyful Yoga Conference from August 10-12, and Celebrate Being through Yoga from September 27-30.

     

Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: acupuncture , in house , pain , trauma , wellness , wendy swanson , yoga
Meditation & Yoga

In House: Cyndi Lee on The Complete Package of Meditation and Yoga

By Cyndi Lee
April 10, 2018

Meditation & Yoga

 

It came without warning right at the beginning of the day trip down the river. I really don’t like water and I am a weak, underconfident swimmer at best. But people I trusted said it was fun and not scary at all. If you did fall out, you would land on a little rock and immediately be picked up in the next boat.

 

So I went and on the very first bend in the river, I slid out. There was no warning and no big inhale before plunging into icy cold, wildly churning water. And then there I was, trapped under a rubber boat in the whitewater rapids of the Pacuare River in Costa Rica.

 

No breath in my lungs and nobody can see where I am. I thought, “Wow, this is how it happens,” and I visualized a small obit in The New York Times: “Yoga Teacher Drowns Leading Retreat in Costa Rica.” My mind raced and my lungs tightened, but somehow I didn’t panic.

 

I never fully realized it before, but the yoga, breathing and meditation practices I had been doing for years had prepared me for this very moment. Practicing awareness, manipulation and retention of the breath allowed me to know intuitively that I could go without breathing for way longer than was comfortable. My daily twisting and inverting enabled me know what was up and down and to maintain a highly fluid sense of balance. Meditation had trained me to stay focused on the task at hand even while thoughts of my own death ran rampant through my head. I groped my way along the bottom of the boat and popped up into the rapids.

 

A very long minute later, a body-builder/yoga student of mine grabbed me by the collar and plopped me into his boat. My Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rinpoche, had taught me that to meet the dharma in your lifetime is as fortunate and rare as a tortoise’s head popping up into an inner tube in the middle of the ocean. In that moment I felt just like that tortoise. Sitting in the haven of boat #2, my heart hammering, my adrenaline rushing, my lungs gasping, I was as scared as I’ve ever been. But when I was under the boat I had not been scared. I was wide awake, balanced and steady. Mindfulness meditation, yoga asanas and pranayama are each powerful practices that can affect our lives deeply. But there is no doubt in my mind that in this life-threatening moment, it was the combination of the three that saved my life.

 

What do I do with this body and this mind? 

As a yoga teacher, I am passionate about yoga and have been fortunate to share this passion with many students over the past 20 years. I have been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than 10 years and it has been a natural evolution for the two lineages to merge in my teaching. Yoga and Buddhism offer insights and experiences that complement each other and together complete a basic homework assignment for human beings: What do I do with this body and this mind?

Back in 1972 I started taking yoga classes for an easy P.E. credit in college. The feeling of being cleansed-like taking a shower from the inside out-was unmatched any other kind of exercise I had experienced. My teachers were inspiring and I was highly motivated. It didn’t take long for me to be able to hold my breath for over a minute or to stand on my head for five minutes. I was hooked.

I got left behind, though, when it came to the “spiritual” part. I just didn’t get it when my teachers quoted Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, who wrote, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” They closed their eyes and somehow seemed plugged into a big bliss cloud of happiness. I tried to feel blissful, but then the class was over. Walking down the street, my body was strong, clean, juicy and open, but I felt inadequate and cranky.

 

Yoga is a mirror

It turns out that my experience wasn’t that unusual. While most people do walk out of yoga class in better physical shape than when they walked in, personal awakening may still elude them. Yoga is an unparalleled method of strengthening muscles, enhancing breathing, cleansing toxins and soothing the nervous system, but the sense of harmonious rejuvenation that arises by the end of the class may dissipate once our feet hit the pavement in front of the yoga studio door. A person’s body may change but their mind will still be jumping, their heart still buried under layers of tension and fear.

 

As a teacher I have seen again and again that if you are a Type A personality, you will do your yoga practice with the same aggression and competitiveness that shapes the rest of your life. If you are sloppy, your posture will reflect that. If you are easily frustrated, the challenges of yoga may magnify that tendency. It has been my experience that the physical practice of hatha yoga alone is not strong enough medicine to alter those patterns-particularly in the maelstrom of today’s world.

 

Awakening to Buddhist meditation as a companion for yoga

My dissatisfaction with yoga left me with a longing for something more, a sad empty feeling. Remembering that my dad’s prescription for loneliness or depression was always to do something helpful for someone else, I began to search for a way to take the focus off myself and still be myself. I read about maitri, the loving-kindness aspect of Buddhism, and was drawn to explore that. So when a friend of mine invited me to attend teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I signed on for two weeks worth of teachings.

 

The first week was slow going, what with translators explaining to us Westerners the teachings of these great lamas. Some of the teachers wore business suits, some wore elaborate robes and exotic hair-dos. I didn’t have a clue who they were or what they were saying, but I liked being there. The second week His Holiness explained what it meant to be a bodhisattva, and without hesitation I signed on with a bodhisattva vow.

 

Through a friend I met the Tibetan teacher Gelek Rinpoche. For at least the first year I studied with him I struggled to follow the teachings, and even to stay awake during his all-day talks. But although I didn’t exactly know what he was talking about, I always felt that he was talking right to me. It seemed like he always knew exactly what was problematic in my life and would frame his talks just to help me. I noticed that I was becoming more grounded, more patient and more conscious of others, and over time, inspired by the kindness of my teacher, I began to share what I learned from him with my yoga students. The teachings and techniques were a natural fit with yoga asana practice.

 

As my Buddhist practice developed I learned to watch my thoughts come and go like watching birds playing in the sky. This mindfulness training began to seep into my yoga practice. Rather than looking for bliss by dropping out, I dropped in, taking notice of my physical sensations and the thoughts that arose in connection to them. I realized I had the same thought every time the teacher said, “Let’s do backbending.” I thought I didn’t like backbends, but my relationship to backbends changed when I recognized that thinking pattern.

 

Applying Buddhist meditation instruction to how I did yoga postures slowed me down enough to feel my breath, my heart and my mind. My sense organs softened and opened, allowing me to experience each individual new backbend. I discovered that my backbends were different all the time and that was interesting to me. In fact, meditation gave me license to just let that happen, instead of trying to stifle my thoughts and become something different than who I am.

 

My Buddhist teachers said mindfulness meditation was “synchronizing body and mind” and I understood that conceptually. But after sitting on the cushion for a whole weekend I thought, “What body?” Didn’t the Buddha ever walk, stand or climb stairs? History tells us that he did engage in extreme yogic practices and ultimately found them unsatisfactory. Finally, after sitting still under the Bodhi tree he became enlightened, and then got up and began to move through the world again.

 

The Eight-Limbed Path

Patanjali is credited with writing the Yoga Sutra about 150 years later. Although yoga is often associated with Hinduism, it is most closely aligned with Sankhya, one of the six classical Indian darsanas, or “ways to see.” Sankhya is an attempt to explain the nature of all existence by dividing it into purusha, that which is unchanging, and prakrti, or matter. It tells us that the separation of these two states is the cause of our suffering and that the path to liberation is through repression of our thoughts, withdrawal of our senses, and denial of our body in order to reconnect with our true Self. This re-union is the state of yoga, from the verb yuj; to yoke or bind.

 

The practices of introverted concentration associated with this state are described in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali as an eight-limbed path: yamas (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). The limbs begin by refining our behavior in the outer world and then lead us more and more inward until we reach samadhi. Most people doing yoga today are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of immobility.

 

Buddhism begins with the premise that life is suffering but ultimately leads us outward, rather than only inward. We start the Buddhist path by sitting still and stabilizing our mind. From the spaciousness that arises during this practice of calm abiding, we naturally begin to feel our heart. Combining the practice of non-grasping wakefulness with exercises that generate compassion gives us a recipe for how to interact intelligently, soulfully and spontaneously with ourselves, each other, our family and the world.

 

These teachings invite us to open up to who we already are, rather than look elsewhere for connection, because the seed of awakened heart is within all of us already. It’s our heritage as human beings. It’s just that we can’t always feel our beautiful lotus heart blooming because we get stuck on ideas of fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, greed.

 

Remaining in the immediacy of everything

But Buddhist meditation techniques reveal that none of these emotions are solid and with practice we learn how to watch them arise and fade away and still stay steady on our seat or on our feet. We learn how to remain in the immediacy of everything, for example, backbending, rather than what we are thinking about backbending. Then loving-kindness invites us to approach our backbends with at least an inner smile and a little less crabbiness.

 

At OM Yoga Center in New York we practice a form of yoga called vinyasa, which is a series of flowing movement sequences coordinated with rhythmic breathing. We approach the vinyasa style with great attention to detail, especially regarding alignment, to ensure that students do not get injured and get the most benefit from their practice.

 

The other element of OM yoga is meditation in action, which invites the yogi to observe and become familiar with mental and physical habits, to relax the grip of thought activity, and kindly abide in the asana. All this is done while maintaining a sense of vipassana, or clear seeing, which opens the yogi to the world around them and creates a healthy balance to the refined inner vision of yoga practice. The flow, precision and mindfulness of our yoga practice are all supported by Buddhist principles.

 

The flowing form is the physical manifestation of path without a goal: each pose is connected by a transitional movement that has as much value as the pose itself. This approach relates to equanimity, not knowing when our actions will bear fruit, and helps us break through the goal-oriented mentality we know so well and which is so prevalent in our relationship to our bodies.

 

The lessons of a forward bend

This shows up a lot in forward bending. Many people have a desire to be able to bend forward and touch their toes. But guess what-I can do it and can definitely tell you that touching your toes does not make you happier. I do enjoy the lengthened feeling in the back of my legs and the openness in my spine-most of the time. But just like everything else that is transitory and conditional; sometimes it feels stressful or boring. So in our yoga practice we pay attention to how we get into the pose, what happens in our body, mind and breathing while there, and how it is to move out of the pose and on to the next thing.

 

You can try this without even bending over. The next time you decide to go from the couch to the refrigerator, feel yourself moving through space. You can go slow or at an ordinary pace, but feel the floor beneath your feet, look and really see everything along the way, feel the swinging of your arms and what your breathing is like today, right now. If you are going to the kitchen because you are hungry, feel that. If you are going because you’re thirsty, feel that. How many times have you opened the refrigerator door and realized you forgot what you went for? This time feel the coolness when you open the door, and feel the softness of the sofa cushion as you sit back down. We take lots of little journeys like this every day, driving in our car or rolling over in bed. Try to actively participate as you travel through your world, rather than making only about your end point.

 

Cultivating physical precision

Precision is a way to develop clarity of mind at the same time that we develop accuracy in our physical placement. Applying specificity to where you put your hands and feet creates a wakeful mental attitude. You simply can’t think clearly if your alignment is sloppy. For example, what is your posture right now as you are reading this? Try changing your position, or even walking around and see if you feel sleepy or clear.

 

It is also difficult to feel openhearted or uplifted if your chest is sunk and your spine is sagging. Not only are your cardiovascular functions diminished, but your body is a cage. This curling in creates dukha, suffering, which is the opposite of sukha, joy, and can relate to the physical and emotional space created through good posture. Hatha yoga aligns skin, muscles and bones so that each can support each other with more ease than effort. Proper alignment opens energetic blockages which can be caused by diet, stress, illness and emotions, or even tight belts, wristwatches and fabrics wrapped around our bodies. Physical precision extends to your clothing, environment and personal hygiene.

 

We are also attentive to how we arrange our practice space. Each person at OM Yoga has a mat and organizes their yoga props-blankets, blocks, straps-in a neat and orderly fashion, because a jumbled heap of stuff in your line of sight creates an obstacle as well. Everybody who has a messy desk knows this to be true. The spacious discipline of precision gives the yogi a sense of open heart, open mind and open agenda.

 

Opening to Prana

We apply meditation instruction to our yoga practice by using the breath as a reference point for resting the mind. But in yoga we also manipulate the breath in various ways that soothe our nervous system, cleanse our sinuses and oxygenate our entire body. Prana, which means “to bring forth mystical vibration,” exists in sunlight, water, earth and all beings. For human beings, the most direct way to feel this universal life force is through the wave-like nature of our breathing, which reminds us that even though everything is changing all the time we can still feel peaceful as long as we keep in rhythm. Whenever you feel out of sync, take a moment to lengthen and equalize your inhale and exhale, and right away you will feel more balanced.

 

Try this. Stand with your feet firmly planted on the floor with your arms down by your sides. Close your eyes. Don’t do anything. Just stand there. You will soon begin to notice quite a lot of movement within the stillness of simply standing. You will feel the movement of your body, expanding and contracting as you breathe; you will feel the pulse of your own heartbeat; you will feel your entire body swaying slightly in order to stay balanced on this big round ball we live on. In fact, if you were truly static, the earth’s movement would eventually tip you over. Can you relax and let your body, breath and heart do this dance of balance?

 

Applying Ahimsa

All of these exercises sit on a bed called ahimsa , non-violence, in yoga, or compassion in Buddhism. What’s the good of being awake if you can’t let your heart be like your lungs, giving and receiving with every pulse? Mindfulness helps us recognize when we have habits that are harsh, and creates a gap between an impulse and the action that usually follows. It creates a space for us to dip into our hearts and come back up with a pearl of kindness.

 

Since for most of us a major part of our self-identity is tied to the appearance and health of our physicality, our body is an excellent reflective surface for getting to know our habits and applying ahimsa to what comes up. In the wordless conversation between our body and our mind, everything that happens in all our relationships-frustration, aggression, love, tenderness, boredom-will arise while doing downward facing dog. Yoga and meditation help us recognize our form of effort, whether it is too tight or too loose. Either way, effort is related to goals. So instead, with sensitivity, we apply exactly the right amount of action. Right action is a balance of body, breath and mind using the ingredients of rhythm, movement, direction, energy and intention, but never aggression.

 

Embodying meditation

When you apply this mind/heart training to the process of doing yoga asanas it becomes a way to understand the whole world in the form of you. It provides the means for working with all of those relationships right there on the yoga mat while you become fit at the same time. And for us busy people who are both meditators and yogis it is helpful to be able to combine practices.

 

Yoga helps Buddhists embody their meditation. As the meditator’s body becomes more mobile, strong and functional, it becomes a support for meditation practice rather than the more familiar and painful distraction of creaking knees and whining spines. Similarly, the specific focus of Buddhist mindfulness and compassion helps the yogi’s mind become unbiased, wakeful and connected in whatever physical shape they assume and demonsrates the transient nature of all things, including mastery over body.

 

Sitting cross-legged at the end of yoga class, I feel elemental. My breath is the wind and my mind is a raft floating on the oceanic tide of prana. The fire in my belly radiates out and makes the sweat on my skin feel like rain and earth mixed together. My heart rests in a big, big space.

 

Then I get up off the mat and go back to running the yoga center. Hopefully, today I won’t have a life-threatening experience but still I’m grateful for my practices. Life might not be a bliss cloud, but through the wisdom and compassion of yoga and Buddhism, it has become supremely workable.

 

Join Cyndi Lee on a journey to invite your body and mind back into balance at the Yoga Body, Buddha Mind retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center from May 18th to May 20th.

 

Cyndi Lee is the first female Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and teaching. Founder of NYC’s OM yoga Center (1998-2012) she now teaches yoga, meditation and resiliency workshops worldwide. Cyndi is a formally trained Buddhist Chaplain, and has been teaching yoga for 40 years.

 

This article first appeared on lionsroar.com and has been republished with permission from the author.

             

Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: ahimsa , balance , Buddhism , cyndi lee , in house , meditation , wisdom , yoga
Make Friends With Your Body

Exploring Wisdom: Make Friends with Your Body

By Cyndi Lee
April 2, 2018

Make Friends With Your Body

 

Pairs of yogis face each other, press their palms together, and shyly bow their heads. Wearing baggy sweat pants and sexy yoga tops, bike shorts and faded t-shirts advertising local breweries, they are somehow all transformed into elegant beings in this moment—their generosity shining out toward each other. Then they laugh, slap a high five or share a shoulder squeeze, and return to their yoga mats for the rest of the class. They’ve just finished a partnering exercise and are feeling pretty exhilarated.

 

Without exception, everyone who participates in partner yoga is a cheerleader. They say things like: Yes! Push your feet into the wall. Keep breathing—don’t worry, I’ve got you. That’s great! You almost got up today. Do you want to come down now? Okay, good. Let’s take a rest. When one partner drops down and folds into a resting pose, the other partner gives them a friendly back rub.

 

I’ve seen this scenario repeated many times during my fifteen years of full-time yoga teaching, and it always warms my heart. It seems natural and easy for yoga students to open to their partners, and it brings to mind what one of my favorite Buddhist teachers once said, “At the end of the day, the true measure of our practice is how much we can open to others.” Remembering this, I think to myself, why is it so difficult to open to ourselves?

 

Finding a middle path

It is fairly typical to feel resentful, or at least annoyed, when we’re faced with obstacles. A common response is to blame another person. For instance, “I’m tired because my husband snores,” or “I’m fat because my kids like to eat ice cream,” or “Everyone in my family has tight hamstrings and that’s why I can’t do yoga… or anything.” The list goes on.

 

As meditators, we cultivate awareness of these blaming thoughts. We notice them, label them as thinking, and practice letting them go and coming back to now. We have learned that we always have options regarding how to respond to rising irritation, and we like to think that we might make a positive choice, one that involves relaxing and resting in openness—no other response necessary.

 

Yet I’ve noticed that when it’s our own body that is the source of discomfort and irritation, we often get frustrated or critical and simply give up on finding a middle path that meets the needs of both parties, that is, our body and our mind.

 

Overcoming needless suffering

The sad truth is that many of us just don’t like our bodies the way they are. We keep wishing they were different. Well, guess what? They are different! You used to be two feet tall and crawled everywhere. You used to be able to put your foot in your mouth. Perhaps you used to be thinner. The color of your skin changes depending on how much you expose it to the sun. Has your hair changed color, too? So, you see, our bodies change all the time; it’s just our relationship to our bodies that has become locked up tight.

 

My favorite definition of dukkha, attributed to the great yogi Deskichar, is, “Sitting alone in a dark, cold room.” It’s about claustrophobia and needless suffering. And that is just what we are doing to ourselves when we sit in meditation posture with knee pain and backache, feeling trapped in our body, and mad about it, too.

 

Approaching your body with kindness and patience

Isn’t it interesting that yoga students never say to each other, “I don’t want to be your partner,” or “You are too fat, or too old, or too weak, or too uncoordinated to do this pose”? But these are all things we say to ourselves while meditating. This negative thinking habit then becomes a major element of what we are practicing, from the very beginning of our meditation practice when we first place our seat on the cushion.

 

Maybe you are thinking, “Well, I actually am too old or stiff to ever be comfortable sitting on a cushion.” But what if you took the approach that your body is fine as it is? This powerful mind shift then lays the ground for transforming dukkha into sukha, a sense of space and ease. After my yoga students thank each other and walk back to their own mats, I always ask them the same question: “Can you be as kind and patient with yourself as you were with your partner?”

 

A naked look

Step one is to accept your body the way it is today. In meditation this is called taking a naked look at things as they are, without having to change or fix them. If you can do this, it is an act of personal kindness, a very good thing to practice. It’s also simply being real, because let’s face it, you can’t practice with the body of the person next to you, anymore than you can practice with someone else’s mind. We are practicing with our own body—this one that we’re in today. Instead of thinking of all the things that are wrong with it, can you think of them as interesting elements to work with? Try it.

 

Let’s take stock: Tight hips? No problem. Stiff lower back? Okay. Creaky knees? Fine. Negative Attitude? We can probably get that unstuck, too. Let’s turn our dukkha drama into a sukha story.

 

Warming Up

Bodies are meant to move and, if we are planning to sit still for a while, it makes sense that we should move things around a bit first, to maintain a balance of activity and receptivity. Begin with this brief warm-up.

 

Stand up tall with your feet firmly planted on the floor, directly below your hips. Inhale as you circle your arms out to the side and all the way to the sky. Reach your fingers up! Exhale as you circle your arms back down by your sides. Repeat this four times. Inhale your arms up again. This time as you exhale, bend your knees. Next, inhale and straighten them. Exhale and bend. Repeat eight times.

 

Lower your arms by your sides. Turn your head to the right, then to the center, the left, and to the center again. Dip your right ear toward your right shoulder. Lift it up back up and dip your left ear to left shoulder.

 

Interlace your fingers behind your back. Lift your chest. Breathe in fully. Exhale and stick your tongue out. Repeat three times. Place your hands on your hips. Lift your right knee up toward your chest. Hold onto it with both hands. If that is not available to you today, place your left hand on a chair or the wall and hold your knee with your right hand. If that is not available today, lift your right foot off the floor two inches. Circle your right ankle three times in each direction. Do the other side.

 

Standing tall, bend your knees again. Place your left hand on your right knee and twist your chest and shoulders to the right. Extend your right arm toward the wall behind you. Stay here for three deep breaths. Untwist back to the center. Do the other side. Repeat two times.

 

Now you are ready to work on your sitting meditation posture.

 

Sitting Meditation Posture

First, organize your materials. You will need at least three to five meditation cushions or large, firm pillows and three to five blankets. A carpet or rug is also useful, but if you don’t have one, fold a blanket in half and place it on the floor. Place two of your cushions on the blanket near the far edge. Then sit down on the cushions with your sitting bones near the front edge of the cushion. Your thighs should not be supported, yet your seat should be firmly on the cushion.

 

Place one hand on your tailbone and one hand on your pubic bone. Rock forward and back a few times and try to find the middle point of balance, where your pelvis feels vertical. If you feel that your tailbone is tucking under, which is very common and no big deal, you just need to sit up on at least one more cushion. This alignment will allow your spine to be upright without overworking your back muscles. Give yourself the chance to have a comfortable, supported sitting environment by using as many cushions as you need.

 

Check out the placement of your knees. If your thighs and knees are far from the floor, roll up two blankets and place one under each thigh so that your legs are fully supported. This will allow you to relax your groins and lower abdominals. Over time your hips will become more open but without this support they will continue to grip and you could develop an injury. If this were your yoga partner, you would happily place a rolled up blanket under their thighs for them, so no need to resist doing it for yourself, right?

 

Place your palms on your thighs. Align your upper arm bones with the side of your body, so that your chest is open and your back is upright. If your hands slide past your knees it will tend to close your chest, inhibiting your breathing and creating upper back stress. If your arms are a tad short, then place a small cushion or folded up blanket on each thigh so your forearms can rest on a higher plane.

 

This should feel pretty good! In fact, it might not feel like anything and that is also good. This preparation might seem cumbersome, but if we can take the time to create the conditions for a supported meditation position, that will support a focused and restful mind. When one body part starts screaming, it pulls the mind there and discomfort becomes the object of meditation, rather than the breath.

 

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says meditation is simply placing the mind, and therefore we are actually meditating all the time. But formal meditation practice is making a choice about how and where we place our mind. This requires working with the body in a careful way so that physical discomfort does not overtake the mind.

 

Make a commitment to being honest about what you are really feeling. Not what you want to feel or not feel. The goal is not to have perfect meditation posture but to step onto the path toward a healthy sitting position. Even though you might have felt nicely balanced and comfortable two minutes ago, something may have shifted and now you don’t feel comfortable. That’s okay. Reorganize if you need to. If you don’t need to, don’t. Be clear about it. Move if you are getting hurt. Don’t move if you are getting bored.

 

You will find yourself slouching. No problem. Refresh your posture. This will happen again and again, just as your mind strays off into thoughts. When you notice it, wake up, sit up, and come back to your object of meditation, usually the breath. In this way you are strengthening your mind muscle and your body muscles at the same time.

 

If you can be kind to yourself and interested in what your experience is, and if you can commit to being friendly to your own body by creating the conditions for proper physical support, then meditation becomes a truly integrated mind–body–heart activity.

Cyndi Lee is the first female Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and teaching. Founder of NYC’s OM yoga Center (1998-2012) she now teaches yoga, meditation and resiliency workshops worldwide. Cyndi is a formally trained Buddhist Chaplain, and has been teaching yoga for 40 years.

 

This article first appeared on lionsroar.com and has been republished with permission from the author.

         

Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!

 

Yoga Retreat Catalog for NC

TAGS: cyndi lee , meditation , self love , self-care , yoga