May 282011
 

I feel like I could be a poster child for yoga’s magical ability to reduce stress.  Since the age of 12, I’ve suffered from panic attacks.  I still remember where I was sitting in my 7th grade classroom when the first one hit.  I thought I was dying, literally.  My voice was shaking, I couldn’t get air into my lungs, it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, my palms were dripping, and then there was the tunnel vision.  This was the beginning of 25+ years of struggling and suffering with a force I didn’t understand.  I would spend the rest of my school years–and tailor my career choices–to avoid situations where a panic attack would occur.  Years went by where I would experiment with counseling, biofeedback, and medication (often abusing it) to try hope against hope to make these attacks go away.  But not only did they NOT go away, they got worse.  They came more often.  I saw my future as one of those people who would be a prisoner in their own house, growing old by myself, no one to love me.  How sad, even as I write this, to think that this how I saw my future.  Treatments and years both came and went, and nothing seemed to help.

Now if you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I started my yoga practice in the hopes that it would make me physically fit.  What I couldn’t realize at first–and wouldn’t discover for another year–was that my panic attacks would disappear.  I would be in a situation that would normally bring on an attack, but it didn’t come.  The anxiety had become so familiar to me that being able to draw a full breath into my body felt unfamiliar.  Each class would begin with a wide-legged Balasana (child’s pose), and the teacher would tell us to breath deeply into our side and back body as we extended our arms forward on the mat.  I couldn’t.  Nothing would go in.  My breath went as far as my top ribs (so it seemed) and stopped.  But over time and with much practice, it got better.  And went deeper.  After a year of doing this and practicing other techniques such as Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breath), the panic attacks were gone!  Oh, and let me also mention that I grew 1.25 inches in height–really!

I mention Nadi Shodhana because I feel it’s a particularly effective technique for stress and anxiety.  I’d use it every time I had to go to court during my contentious divorce a few years back.  I also teach it to my clients who have anxiety.  Nadi refers to the energy channels throughout the body, Shodhana refers to the cleansing process.  I’ll forego further explanation about the energy channels because I want to give you a sample of it.

Sit in a comfortable position–on the floor or in a chair–and be sure you can sit straight to allow the chest to open.  With your eyes closed, relax your left hand in your lap and hold the right hand up with your palm facing up (like you’re holding something in the palm of your hand).  Fold down the index and middle fingers toward the palm but keep the thumb, ring, and pinky fingers extended.  Take a deep breath in and then gently place the thumb against the side of your nose, closing off the right nostril.  Exhale, then inhale, through the left nostril.  Release the thumb and place your ring finger against the side of your nose, closing off the left nostril.  Exhale, then inhale, through the right nostril.  Repeat this, exhaling and inhaling deeply, for several breaths.  (I sometimes go for 10 minutes if I’m really stressed).  Here it is again:

 

(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side
(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side
(close off right nostril)  exhale-inhale left side
(close off left nostril)  exhale-inhale right side

It will feel awkward in the beginning, but give it a chance.  It’s powerful stuff and I swear by it!  As soon as I get video up and running, I’ll demonstrate it again.  In the meantime, breath deep and enjoy how your body feels!

 

 

May 122011
 

Have you ever been in a yoga class and just can’t disconnect your mind from the surrounding noise?  I don’t mean the instructor’s voice, I mean the cars passing outside, the vibration of a cell phone in someone’s purse, or even the sound of what’s going on in the room next door.  My first yoga studio I attended was upstairs from a furniture store.  In the evenings it was quiet.  But then the store closed and a martial arts school moved in.  Classes were mostly in the evening, and we were always bombarded with the shouts of the students.  I didn’t know about re-directing my awareness back then, and sometimes it really got to me.

One of the places I teach now is at a fitness center.  I wouldn’t normally want to teach yoga at a gym, but this particular fitness center is different.  And what sold me on it was the fact that it had a Mind/Body room dedicated to yoga, pilates, and tai chi.  Wow, these people are enlightened! It’s a great room—ceiling fans, adjustable lighting, stereo system, plenty of yoga blankets, straps, blocks, and bolsters (but I do wish they’d take all those mirrors out), and plenty of people who are eager to bend, stretch, breathe, sweat.   But the one thing it doesn’t have is sound-proof walls.  Just outside the room is where the personal trainers work with their clients.  They do bench-pressing, floor work, ab work, and even have a large ball.  Yes, that ubiquitous exercise ball that fitness fanatics find all sorts of uses for.  I know about this ball because I sometimes hear it being bounced against the Mind/Body room wall while I’m teaching.  And to make matters worse, the only time it gets used is when I have my students in Savasana.  Or so it seems anyway.  At first it bothered me.  I even considered poking my head out the door and asking whoever was throwing the ball to please cease and desist until my class was done.  But I knew that wouldn’t have been respectful of their time, so instead I thought about how this is a perfect time to practice pratyahara.  Prata-what?  Let me explain.

This word, pronounced “prat-yah-hara”, is found in the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” and is the fifth element in the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga (not to be confused with the fast-paced, physically-challenging Ashtanga style of yoga developed by K. Pattabhi Jois).  It literally means sense withdrawal, or gaining mastery over the senses.  When you have a comfortable position (i.e., one that does not cause discomfort and distraction) and a steady inhale/exhale of the breath, you can “tune out” external stimuli and rest your awareness on your breath.  This exercise brings you into a deep, quiet place inside that is free of thought, free of chasing the senses (sound and sight in particular), and most of all, peaceful.  I thought of the few times in my life when preparing for a meditation, I would start with pratyahara.  Once I was in the meditation, I would no longer feel my body.  I didn’t feel my butt on the floor, nor my hands on my thighs.  The only sound I heard was the echoing of my breath inside my head.  It sounded like wind traveling deep in a tunnel.  I had gone so very deep within that all sense of my immediate surroundings disappeared.  This was pratyahara at its best.

So, could I teach my students to go there?  Or at least, to become aware enough of only their breath that they could experience an inner quietness that literally “drowns out” the nearby noise?  I can only hope, and teach, and teach some more.  And have faith that over time and with continued practice, each one of us in that room can hear nothing but the sound of our breath inside our heads, and allow it to deliver us to that realm of inner lightness that feels oh so good.

Have you ever tried—again and again—to tune out the noise?  Have you felt that it was just impossible?  I’d love to hear your story, your comments, your thoughts.  Until later, Om Shanti Shanti Shanti.

Apr 132011
 

I still remember my first yoga class.  Well, it wasn’t actually my very first class.  The very first one was at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey in 1977.  I had been a regular meditator for about 2 years and wanted to try out this new funky thing called yoga.  I signed up for a semester and went to a handful of classes before dropping out.  The only pose I remember doing in that class is Halasana (plow), because I remember looking around and seeing everybody’s butts up in the air.   Well, yoga wasn’t for me then.  I was a runner and very competitive, and I guess that particular class was very gentle.  I wanted more.  So I forgot about yoga and went back to running, doing nautilus, playing tennis, and taking high-impact aerobic classes (which I would ride my bicycle to over in the next town and yes, it was 5 miles uphill).

Fast forward 20 years.  It’s 1997 and I’m no longer running (I hated it every time I went out there) or doing aerobics (it faded into the past along with the 1980’s).  I had recently gotten married and immediately knew it was a mistake.  Actually, the red flags were waving high and bright before the wedding, but I later came to realize that when you want something badly enough, you can easily ignore the warning signs.  I was a very angry person then, and at times I acted out in fits of pure, primal rage.  Of course, this anger had been brewing over the years, it was nothing new and certainly not caused solely by a bad marriage.  One time years before, a boyfriend picked me up by my belt loops and threw me out the door into a rainy night after watching me throw a glass across the room, barely missing my baby.  But sadly, that was who I was.  An Angry Woman.

Back to 1997.  A yoga studio had opened up in my town and I decided to revisit the notion of trying it out.  I needed an outlet for my sadness and frustration and wondered if yoga would help.  Truth be told, I still had a competitive edge and knew that Madonna practiced yoga (she had great biceps!), and I thought maybe it could make me look buff.  (Aside–I later met the physician who shared a practice with her physician, and he told me her biceps were cosmetic implants.  Folklore?  Maybe).

My first class was a 90-minute intermediate Iyengar class.  I didn’t know how to breathe; in fact, I didn’t know that I didn’t know how to breathe.  I had no strength.  My hands didn’t come close to the floor in a forward fold.  Chaturanga?  Forget about it, my body felt glued to the floor.  Down Dog?  My arms quivered and my legs wouldn’t straighten.  Core work?  I thought I was going to vomit.  But the most amazing thing was that when I went home later, my anger wasn’t with me.  The stress I constantly felt when I walked into my house just wasn’t there that day.  So I went back for another class.  Then another.  I soon realized that the motivation that brought me to the mat was so different than what kept me returning to it.

Over time and as I became more familiar with the aspects of yoga that talk about “the witness”, “being mindful,” and “letting go,” these all became tools I could draw upon to stay calm at home.  And I didn’t have to try very hard, it was just there inside me.  I could look at my husband, watch his anger, his self-imposed misery, and his attempts to draw me into it with him, and remove myself from his craziness.  I didn’t have to engage.  I could actually feel compassion and love towards this person and keep myself whole in the process.   Several years and much soul-searching later, I divorced, de-toxified my home, got all new furniture, and met the real man of my dreams.  And I am ever grateful for my yoga practice–with its wisdom, compassion, and teachings–to guide me through those very difficult times and out the other side. I can truly say that yoga is the glue that holds me together.

 

 

Apr 072011
 

Today after class, a student pulled me aside and told me that she cried during class.  She was concerned that I might think she was nuts and asked if anyone had ever done this before.  Ahh!  Welcome home, sister!!  I told her that she’s NOT crazy, and that this can be a normal process of working emotional issues out of her body.

When we move through asanas in our yoga practice—whether it’s at home or in a class setting, we are unlocking much stuck energy that over time, has settled into our bodies and made a comfortable, yet unwanted home within us.  Most of the time, we’re not even aware of it for what it is.  But it manifests as emotional stress, tight, achy muscles, pain of unknown origin, fatigue, anger, depression, anxiety…the list can go on.  Breathing, stretching, twisting, all moves our bodies in such a manner as to unleash the toxic juju we carry around.  It can also be released through tears, which are brought to the surface while moving in a yoga class.  After all, yoga purifies the body.  In my early years of practicing yoga, I would be in a pose like down dog or revolved triangle, and feel the familiar stirring in my solar plexus.  For much of my life, crying had been as common and often as breathing, but I had no idea where this emotional stuff was coming from as I stood in yoga class and watched the tears fall to my mat.

Once I understood what was happening, it was OK.  I learned in my teacher training (and it made sense in my practice) that aside from having cognitive memories of past trauma (emotional, physical, whatever), our bodies also hold trauma memory, and can even hold the memory when our conscious minds cannot.  We can spend years in therapy, working out the mental stuff.  But the body memory still needs to be released.  This can happen through yoga.

Think of your body as an estuary, with rivers and streams of energy flowing through it. When trauma happens, it can create a blockage, a dam of sorts, that prevents the trauma from traveling its “course” and releasing out of the body.  Yoga—and this includes asana, pranayama (breathing) and meditation—helps to open the gates and allow the trauma to makes its way out of the body.  Have you had a similar experience in your yoga class?  Please share.

Mar 242011
 

Welcome to my blog.  The name of this blog was changed several times before I settled on the name “The Imperfect Pilgrim.”  Here’s why I chose it.  “Pilgrim” is used because that’s what I am.  It is defined as “a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place,” “a traveler or wanderer, especially in a foreign place.”  Taken metaphorically, it made sense to me to use this word because the sacred place to me was creating health and wholeness in my life.  And that was foreign to me.  “Imperfect” is used because, well, that’s obvious.  I’m half-way through my life and am still on this journey.  No one reaches that much-elusive level of perfection in this life, and I don’t pretend to be there either.  But I have discovered, through years of challenges and up-hill battles, that I can draw upon the tools I’ve discovered from my blessed teachers and friends to find a quiet place to rest along the way inbetween the storms that inevitably pass through my life.  It says in my About page that I hope to offer you, my wonderful readers, the same guideposts that I have discovered to keep me in balance.  Mind, body, spirit–the trinity of a life in balance.  Without all three working in harmony, we become fractured. When we can nurture each element, we can bring ourselves around to a place that feels whole.  Yes, I’m talking to you.

The Triquetra (pronounced tri-kwetra) was chosen because to me, it’s a perfect symbol of the mind-body-spirit connection.  Although it’s found in Celtic art and in various religions, that’s not why I chose it.  You are free to see it that way, but I see it as the three elements in harmony, each a separate, but related, part kept together in continuity by the circle that threads through it.

So, what are these guideposts I speak of? (FYI–modern linguists say it is ok to end a sentence with a preposition).  Let’s start with physical health.  This means taking care of our bodies through good nutrition (eating a largely vegetarian or flexitarian diet, understanding the difference between organic and non-organic food and being able to make informed choices, moderating our intake of those not-so-healthy guilty pleasures), and exercise (are you more of a Yoga person or a gym rat?  Guess what–they both work!), mental and spiritual health, which includes meditation, sangha (community), and other ways to help you feel grounded in this world.  This blog will offer videos, podcasts, products, and links to other resources you can explore.  If you seek health and wellness on all levels, if you’re curious about yoga and meditation but haven’t summoned the courage to go to a class–or think you can’t do it–or want to further your current practice, if you want to lose weight, if you battle with depression, stress, anxiety, if you have your own survival story to share and inspire others with, this site is for you.

My own story may unfold in this blog over time, but for now I want you to know that, through seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I have been able to work my way to a place where I can experience happiness, joy, compassion, and a genuine love and respect for Life.  This doesn’t mean I’m a Pollyanna, but it does mean that now I can live through the full spectrum of emotions–good and bad.  This has been possible by years of exploring healing modalities, listening to those wiser than me, trying out ways that may or may not work (drinking a bottle of wine every night doesn’t work).  I still stumble at times, and I know that’s ok.

We are all pilgrims.  Let’s take this journey together.