Practice Makes Perfect?

On Sunday I’m going to do something that I haven’t done in a long time. And I’m nervous about it.

I’m playing in a piano recital. In front of about 100 people. Eeek!

I started taking piano lessons earlier this spring. It was the first time I’ve played the piano in more than 20 years!

Despite my current uneasiness about playing in front of a bunch of people, I discovered something I had forgotten. I really, really enjoy playing the piano.

I don’t think I really appreciated it or found it as joyful when I was first learning as a kid. Practice always felt like a chore. I always felt like the piano was just one more thing I was trying to achieve. There were songs to pass, good marks to earn from the adjudicators, a new book or songs at a higher level. You get the idea.

But now that I’m just playing for fun, I get to choose the songs and I find myself really wanting to practice. No surprise that my piano playing has actually improved!

My piano playing saga can help us understand the spirit of abhyāsa.

Abhyāsa means practice, especially a consistent practice, one that is done without interruption or distraction.

I once heard the teacher Richard Rosen say “Abhyasa builds on itself, just as a ball rolling downhill picks up momentum; the more we practice, the more we want to practice, and the faster we reach our destination.”

But wait, you say, I didn’t think we were trying to achieve anything in yoga. Isn’t that what you always tell us?

You know as much as I do that yogis love a paradox.

On one hand, yoga invites us to set intentions for our yoga and setting intentions can admittedly feel like setting goals.

While it’s helpful to have the direction and the prioritizing an intention can provide, yoga ultimately instructs us practice from a place of curiosity and a desire to know ourselves.

And when we practice with a desire to experience the joy in connecting more intimately and completely with ourselves, we improve in more ways than just being able to “do” postures.

There’s a common saying that goes “yoga isn’t about touching your toes; it’s about what you learn on the way down.”

If you have an intention to achieve something or attain something concrete, like being able to balance in tree pose or in crow pose, what is underneath that intention? When you “do” crow pose, what qualities or sensations, what experience does crow pose elicit?

Try reframing your idea about what you are practicing when you do asana on your yoga mat.

Digging at our motivations and ultimately moving towards understanding why we are drawn to certain poses is at the heart of abhyāsa.

In the meantime, despite my impending nerve-wracking piano performance, I’m trying not to forget about the joy I feel when I play. My in-home guru who often appears in the form of my oldest son said to me the other day, “Don’t be nervous mom. It’s like Ghandi and Malcom X say, ‘man’s greatest enemy is fear.’ You are going to be great if you don’t worry so much and just have fun.”

And in case you were wondering, this is the song I’ll be playing though this isn’t me in the video. Wish me luck!

Step 1: Notice, Acknowledge, Allow (Or Is That 3 Steps?)

Just a few days ago I was cooking in the kitchen and I heard a kid fight brewing in the living room. It started off with a snippy remark. Then I heard stuff animals being throw, then some yelling, then pillows were thrown. By the time I arrived on the scene to intervene, at least one book had been thrown and an iPod with headphones attach was raised for a chucking.

“Hey, hey. Pause here a second! You guys are really angry right now!”

Both boys looked at me and said at exactly the same time, with exactly the same grimace and red face and bulgy forehead vein, in exactly the same growly voice and snarled, “I’m not angry!”

Denying an emotion or an experience we are having is something we have all done at one time or another.

For me it usually goes like this…

Husband: Are you okay? What’s wrong?
Me: Nothing. I’m fine.

Why? Why do we even do this?

I think it might be because we don’t want to feel angry/tired/sad/whatever we are denying. Some emotions have been deemed “bad”. Some of our experiences are painful and just downright unpleasant! And who wants to acknowledge that we are in pain – physically or emotionally?

Yoga invites us – encourages us! – to acknowledge, allow, and even accept the experiences we are having. It’s big part of connecting to ourselves.

If we are using our posture practice as the place for exploration on this point, it might look like acknowledging that our tree pose feels wobbly. Or maybe acknowledging that we are talking to ourselves in a harsh way when we can’t do a pose in the way we think we should be able to do it.

Give this a try in your everyday life. When you stand on the metro platform or in line at the grocery store, is your weight on both feet? I’ll bet it’s not. And what about your knees? Are you locking them? I’ll bet you are.

I’m not trying to say that there is some ideal posture for everyone (read or listen to this fascinating piece!) I’m not trying to say that every time you stand up, you need to be in mountain pose.

And I’m definitely not saying we have to be complacent.

Practicing yoga is not about accepting and then throwing up our hands and saying “oh well this is how it’s going to be.” It’s just the opposite, actually.

The only way we can move forward toward whatever it is we want is to know our starting point.

Back in the day before GPS and smart phones that could pinpoint your location for you, if you wanted directions you had to know where you were before you could plot your course toward your destination.

Let’s go back to the knee locking. Noticing that your knees are locking, or in other words, hyperextending and moving beyond a functionally straight position, can give you good information.

Knee locking is one of those unconscious things many of us do, often in an unconscious effort to brace ourselves and feel a sense of stability. Shoes with heels exacerbate this tendency. The problem is that as the knees curve back, the tops of thighs and hips have to move forward to compensate. This puts a bunch of pressure on low back. To compensate for the low back, the pelvis tucks into a posterior position in an effort to reduce pressure on the low back. Now the lumbar (low back) spine is flattened and the cervical (neck) spine flattens reciprocally so the head juts forward.

Long story short, hyperextended knees can contribute to low back and neck pain.

So if we want to move toward a pain-free low back and knees we have to be able to notice, acknowledge, and accept that our knees locking and that might part of the problem.

Then we can move forward to what we want and intend for our body’s experience. Our asana practice is the place where we can notice and adjust the physical habits like the way we use (or don’t use!) our bodies.

Meditation is our way in to our to do this same thing with our emotional self. It’s our tool and strategy for noticing, acknowledging, allowing, and then choosing to respond in a way that is more helpful for what we want in our lives.

Here’s a great video of why meditation is a worthwhile practice. If you are reading this, I probably don’t need to convince you but honestly, I just can’t get enough of this amazing animated mouse and hedgehog. And who doesn’t want a unicorn thrown in for good measure? Watch and see.

 

 

Of Yoga and Chocolate

little boy feeding chocolate to little girlA friend of mine recently took a trip to stay at an Ayurvedic center in hopes of addressing some chronic health problems. She was on a pretty extreme exclusion diet when she arrived and her unaware but good-intentioned roommate offered her some chocolate. My friend was really distressed about not being able to eat it, almost to the point of tears. When one of the doctor’s heard about this, he told her she should just eat the chocolate. His point was that if not eating the chocolate was causing so much distress for her, the exclusion diet wasn’t really being fully effective.

This is an important idea to help us guide our choices in our yoga practice.

When the postures or the sequence or the meditation feels like a punishment, the whole practice has diminishing returns.

Now this doesn’t always mean that our practice is always supposed to be just rosebuds, butterflies, and savasana. Sometimes gnarly stuff gets churned up. And that’s part of yoga, too. You have to sift out and sort through the things you encounter – physically, emotionally, and thought-wise.

But the spirit in which we encounter and deal with whatever comes up really does matter and here’s where intention becomes the most valuable to us.

We can hold up our experience on the mat against the reasons that we come to yoga. If they aren’t meshing up, we get to decide if our practice needs to change or if our intention needs to change.

Sometimes what we encounter can tell us if  we have to back off (restoratives, anyone?) or if we need to push a little harder to get over whatever inertia has built up.

Rod Stryker once told a group of us that in an ideal world, he would advertise a class as advanced power vinyasa and then make everyone do restoratives the whole time.

Sometimes the things that attract us aren’t that helpful. It’s good to mix it up and see what happens.

I wrote a whole blog post about aversion and attraction not too long ago.

daffodil shoots in the snow

In many ways spring is more of a “new year” than when we celebrate the change on the calendar year in January. It’s the rebirth of nature, marked by a strong upward movement, as evidenced by my daffodils shooting up, almost defiant, in our recent unseasonal snow.

It’s a really perfect time to check in with ourselves, our intention, our attention, our practice as a whole. What’s your plan today? Where are you holding yourself back? How can yoga help you figure out what will serve you best?

Keep asking and seeking, yogis. That’s the real practice of yoga. I’d be honored to help you in the journey. Check out my new spring class schedule and come meet me on the mat.

Everything is Connected. Even Boston and Nirvana.

Jack, my oldest son, has become a serious rocker. He’s been playing the guitar for about 18 months and the list of bands whose songs he’s been learning to play has gone like this…

Jack playing a Fender Mustang

The Beatles
Vance Joy
Jack Johnson
<enter his first electric guitar>
AC/DC
Foo Fighters
Weezer
Nirvana
Rage Against the Machine

Earlier today, as we were taking down our Christmas decorations and unpacking from our holiday traveling, Jack heard the song “More Than a Feeling” by the band Boston playing on the stereo.

“Who is this band? Is this a cover of a Nirvana song?” he asked us tentatively. “It sort of sounds like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’

At first my husband and I just laughed. But then we all stopped and listened more closely. My husband Googled it and Jack is definitely not the first person to hear the connection between these two songs, as you can see for yourself in this mash-up video.

Turns out the similarity between the songs was a total accident! You can read about it here.

Okay, I know you are probably thinking, this is pretty cool but just how is this related to yoga?

The very first premise of yoga’s philosophical basis is that everything is connected and our suffering comes from the experience of and identification with separateness.

The practice of yoga is about finding, making, abiding, in our connections. Simple. Sure. But easy? Nope. Not at all. It’s because so much of our lives are filled with the experiences of discord – me versus you, light versus dark, awake versus asleep…

Oneness is always concealed in the differentiations. The yoga is in seeing oneness despite that.

So seeing something familiar in someone else, tasting a familiar flavor, or hearing a familiar sound… these are perfect entries into interconnectedness. A moment of revelation. Yoga suggests to us that we are constantly playing a giant game of hide and seek. Our oneness is concealed and then revealed. But we can only see if it we are paying close attention.

My wish for 2018, or shall I say, my resolution (to borrow from the day’s classic buzzword) is to continue to play the cosmic game of hide and seek. That means I’ll keep seeking connections, celebrating similarities, and listening to hear something familiar in every song I hear.

Happy new year, yogis.

black and white drawing with quote by da Vinci

Who Has Time and Energy for This?

A few years ago I thought I wanted to go back to school to be an Occupational Therapist. I knew I was going to have to take a bunch of prerequisite courses (a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion doesn’t really cut it) so I went to Montgomery College to talk to an admissions counselor.

The counselor was great; he helped me figure out what I would need to take to be able to apply for the OT program and then he had me take a math placement test.

I tested into Remedial Algebra. That’s a nice way of saying I needed to go back to 4th grade. Seriously. Suddenly my two years of prerequisite courses became four years of just math. Eek! Could I have studied up a bit and taken the placement test again and probably done better? Sure! Could I have powered through those additional courses? Sure! Did I want to? Absolutely resoundingly: no.

Here saying no was actually a yes.

I’m telling this story as a contrast to all of those other stories you hear about incredible and far-reaching goals achieved with hard work and serious acts of willpower. We regularly hear those stories. Things like the story of Alex Honnold, my 10-year climber’s idol, who just happened to do the most dangerous free solo climb of El Capitan. No biggie. Ha!

But we don’t often hear the more common stories like mine. Those ones about regular folks who have an idea, realize how much work it will be to bring that idea to fruition, and then decide not to pursue the goal because it isn’t really worth it.

There’s absolutely something inspiring about seeing someone achieve their goals after lots of sacrifices and hard work. But I think it might be equally inspiring and perhaps more empowering to hear stories like mine.

We all have millions of goals, desires, interests, and behind every one of those is a certain amount of willpower to accomplish it.

If we acknowledge this and the choose with confidence to let go of certain goals, would it be possible to reclaim the willpower and energy that belongs to each of those goals?

There seems to be a kind of unspoken (sometimes very much spoken!) narrative that if you don’t go after your goals you are a slacker or a failure. But sometimes not going after your goal is about optimizing resources.

What could be possible if we could stop directing attention and effort at the things that aren’t really worth it?

In asana this can looks like making the appropriate amount of effort in each pose. This is not about working more or working harder but working differently. Perhaps it comes as a shift to some part of our skeleton, such as unlocking our knees and untucking our pelvis. Or sometimes it just means doing a pose in a different way so that there is a different load on a different part of the body.

Still other times it means doing something different with your yoga that might not even be asana at all. Maybe it’s time to revisit pranayama or to reconnect with your meditation practice. It is an 8-fold path and asana is just one piece of the puzzle.

As you move through the month of July, vacationing, working, summering how you do, consider what kinds of goals you have – the in-process ones, the yet to be started ones, the abandoned ones. How much willpower is there behind each of those? Could you be content with the ways that you have let go of goals that were too much work to achieve? I think you just might be able to redirect the latent willpower in those not-so-worth-it goals in order to move closer to what you really want.

Focus, Fire, and Letting Go

Not too long ago, Will came inside from playing in the back yard and asked me if I knew where he could find a magnifying glass. We ended up finding one buried in his closet and he tromped back outside. Assuming he was just looking at some interesting bugs, I went back to whatever I was doing. Moments later Sadie came running in, shouting,

“Will is starting a fire in the yard!”

My reaction was just as you might expect but it turns out I needn’t have worried. Will was *trying* to start a fire… With his small hand-held magnifying glass, wet leaves, and the 4 pm spring time sun.

But… if all other conditions were right and if Will had been holding the magnifying glass still, it would have been possible to harness the power of the sun. A magnifying glass is able to focus the rays of the sun into a concentrated beam, then multiply it through the lens to make a fire.

This is… wait for it… yoga. (I’m so predictable, I know!)

We are capable of amazing and powerful things, including the power to heat, transform, even to destroy, just like the sun.

However, we can only harness our power with concentrated effort.

This kind of concentrated effort only comes with dedication to practice. And this part of yoga is hard. Because habits. The Sanskrit is saṃskāra, or the impression of our past actions.

We need to practice – many times in a vigorous and dedicated way – in order recognize and then replace the old habits that are impeding our paths or causing us suffering. In Sanskrit this is abhyāsa.

That all makes sense. In order to learn something new, you have to practice. Even my 6-year old in the backyard trying to start a fire knows this to be true. You need a dedicated practice, focus to get the fire started.

But you also need to let go. This word in Sanskrit is vairāgyā.

As hard as it is to practice, I think it might be harder to let go.

It might help to understand the importance of releasing, and for that we have to come back to saṃskāra again. Any actions, even the positive forming habits are saṃskāra. Just like the old patterns, these new ones we are forming eventually will not serve us anymore either.

The whole cycle is one of many beautiful paradoxes of yoga. We are called to practice, to be fierce, to become master.

But then, just when we feel like we are getting “somewhere”, we are called to let go of that mastery.

One of my students recently wrote, “I find it remarkable that Tara, who practices and teaches highly athletic versions of yoga, is also an advocate and teacher of restorative yoga. Her classes have helped me realize that both activity and deep rest are necessary.”

You got it, Margaret. Dedicated practice and then letting go. That’s the most yogic combination there is.

Get the conditions just right, start the fire, but then know when and how to put it out.

Need more “athletic” yoga in your life? Dedicate to your active practice in my summer weekly classes. Better yet, get your partner in on it with you. Need more resting and letting go? Retreat is almost sold out so get registered!

Snakes in the Grass

Not long ago a whole group of kids were playing after school in the neighborhood park. All of sudden, two kids came tearing out of the wooded area at top speed, screaming their heads off.

“A snake! A snake! A SNAKE!”

Predictably, my two boys – Jack and Will – immediately dashed up the hill in the direction of the snake with an eager look in their eyes.

Standing on the playground area it was hard to see exactly what was happening. Both of them bent down. Jack pick up a stick. There was a collective gasp among the kids and parents as he gingerly poked with the stick. Then he tossed the stick aside, reach down, and picked up…

…a rope.

What happened is an example of a avidya. (And in fact, a classic Indian example often told to explain the concept!)

Avidya is sometimes translated as the English word ignorance.

My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ignorance as “lack of knowledge, education, or awareness”. But it wasn’t that a lack of education or unsophistication that caused the first two kids to think they had seen a snake. Of course they know what a snake is and looks like.

However, in order for them to have seen that ‘snake’ in the first place, their minds discarded the possibility that it was a rope. Then their minds filled in the blank so they saw a snake in the rope’s place.

It was a kind of confusion or mistaken identity that caused the problem.

Avidya as not ignorance as Merriam-Webster defines it but more like a false impression.

The correct information or understanding is still there, it just gets obscured by something else. When all of the kids finally saw the rope as a rope, the snake was gone and everyone had a good laugh.

This kind of mistaken identity happens all the time, and not just to elementary school kids. We see situations, experiences, and other people unclearly all the time.

I’d even argue that we rarely see ourselves clearly.

So yoga is giving us the opportunities to figure out if we are seeing clearly or identifying with our misconceptions. It’s only with dedicated practice and a healthy dose of non-attachment that we can cultivate correct “sight” and see the ropes and snakes as they really are.

Green Cup Moments: A Lesson in Attraction and Aversion

Not too long ago, Sadie, my 3-year old asked me for a drink. When I gave her the cup, she threw the most epic tantrum to ever be thrown. She stomped and shouted:

“I can NOT drink from a green cup!”

I rolled my eyes and nearly lost my temper but we worked it out and I brushed it off as typical three-year old drama.

Not too long after that, I was telling one of my teachers about a time when I attended a workshop with a very famous yoga teacher. I described how this very famous yoga teacher turned me off because she was sitting up on a throne (literally a throne!) to teach and she would make some very big shows of normal things like drinking water. I was also put off by the way she would make these big dramatic pauses when she was speaking, as if to make sure everyone was really paying attention to her.

I said to my teacher, “I prefer when teachers are a more down to earth, not so much pomp and circumstance.”

My teacher replied, “I prefer when teachers know what they are talking about whether there is pomp and circumstance or not.”

Touche. My own green cup moment.

Attractions (rāga) and aversions (dveṣa) can be impediments on the way toward manifesting intentions or fulfilling desires, or getting the experience or knowledge we seek.

Of course just like there are no categorically bad actions, attractions and aversions are situationally dependent.

We can experience this in asana practice. Everyone has attachments or aversions to practicing particular poses or practicing poses in particular ways. When presented with a different variation or way to practice, those attractions and aversions might prevent the practitioner from accessing the benefits of the pose.

The only way to tell whether or not attachments or aversions are impediments is to be really clear about exactly what it is that we want from our practice.

It also helps to continuously inquire about each time we encounter something in practice that we immediately like or don’t like.

Need help figuring out if you are caught in the trap of attractions and aversions? Spring is the perfect time to sort out your intentions, your attractions and aversions, and to renew your commitment to practicing. Come see me on the mat and we’ll sort it out together.

Namaste, yogis, and happy almost-spring!

The Call of Autumn

I’m so weary of this hot late summer heat. And while it is a big relief to have the kids back to school and the corresponding routines settling into place, this transition back into the fall has me feeling all out of sorts.

In an effort to ward off my fall transition funk, I took a wonderful Yin Yoga class with the predictably phenomenal Machelle Lee. During class, she reminded me of this old Krulwich Wonders piece I heard long ago on NPR about what happens to leaves in the fall.

Of course this season gets its name because the leaves from trees fall. But what is actually happening is much more fascinating. If leaves were to stay on the tree in winter, they would photosynthesize during the warm part of the day and then they would have water in their veins, which would freeze. That frozen water would cause the leaves to die. With the leaves dead, the tree would died shortly thereafter.

Perhaps even more fascinating, as a way to defend against this possibility, the leaves don’t actually fall from the tree. Instead, the tree develops these cells that cut off the leaves. Basically the tree pushes the leaves off. It’s as if the tree is saying, ‘Get out of here, leaves; it’s time for me to cut back and hunker down for what’s to come.’

This is the call of the season:fall leaves

Get grounded.

Pare down.

Take care of yourself.

 

So consider this your official autumnal invitation to get back to your mat. The fall semester at Willow Street begins Tuesday, September 6. Check out my full list of weekly classes.

And there is still space for you to join my annual fall retreat. There is one room for 4, 2 spots in a room for 3, and one spot in a room for 2.

Plus, if you are ready to take your yoga practice to the next level, the Willow Street Immersion begins September 9. It is such a huge honor to be a part of this program.

Hope I’ll see you soon!

The Yoga of Vacationing

I almost entitled this post “children, children, go away” because I’ve been on vacation from my kids this past week. (My oldest and youngest were in MA with their grandparents and my middle one was in PA with the other grandparents.) I’m looking forward to seeing my kids again on Saturday but like any good vacation, I have definitely enjoyed the time away. My experience this week has reminded of the practice of pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga’s eightfold path as described in Patanajli’s Yoga Sutras.

Pratyahara is often translated as withdrawal of the senses. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word prati means “towards” and ahara means “to bring near or fetch”. I understand this to mean that during the practice of pratyahara, we are separating from the input of our five senses – smell, taste, touch, hearing, sight – and as a result we are bringing near, fetching, the awareness and bringing it toward us. This part of yoga gives us a way to fix our awareness on the internal instead of being distracted by the information we receive from our senses. With pratyahara we move from the outer to the inner with yoga.

Imagine, or perhaps even remember, a time when you were still and quiet in savasana and you noticed some sound in the room but you thought to yourself, “I hear a sound. I don’t care about that sound and am not going to do anything about it.” Judith Hanson Lasater explains this experience as a part of pratyahara practice called ashinya. She refers to it as withdrawal of the senses plus lack of motivation.

This a brilliant place to visit. We teach our body and mind quite a bit by spending time in an pratyahara-induced ashinya space. It is a calm place where we have the opportunity to notice what is important before we react. It’s like being in a place where we can consciously and calmly choose the things that deserves our attention.

That sounds just like my vacation away from my kiddos, as I’m sure you can imagine. This past week, I had time to do what I wanted to do; I prioritized my own time and paid attention to the things that interested me. (Read: no playgrounds, Legos, Daniel Tiger or Minecraft!)

However, practicing pratyahara or getting access to this ashinya state is not an aim of yoga or life in the long term. We need to come back to the world. We receive important information about our surroundings and even about ourselves through our senses. We need to reopen to our senses in order to be in communication and relationship with people and things around us.

The skilled yogi can move in and out with her awareness, and pratyhara is the first step in practicing the movement inward. But just like a vacation from kids or a vacation from your regular work and routines, being a householder yogi in the modern world requires a return to the things we can experience through our five senses. And I think the most skilled yogi can apply what she discovers through pratyahara and ashinya to everyday life.

So if I would have called this post “children, children, go away,” I’d most definitely follow it up with the end of the rhyme and say “come back again another day.” For now, I’m going to enjoy my last few hours of kid-free pratyahara. Enjoy your vacation time this summer, friends!