When you go to yoga class, you practice yoga, right? Definitely. You follow instructions to arrange your body and coordinate your breath in various poses and pose combinations. The result is relaxation, strength, flexibility, calm and bliss.
Is that the same as having a yoga practice? No. Because to practice is different from having a practice. The practice you do in class is your teacher’s practice, shared with you as a vehicle for learning, relaxing, strengthening, calming, blissing and creating flexibility.
What do you gain by having your own practice? And is one better than the other?
You gain a meditative mindset, and one is not better than the other. In fact, each relies upon and enhances the other.
The difference between a yoga class and a yoga practice is more than freedom, or getting to hold poses for the length of time you like, or following your intuition from pose to pose - all of which have value when balanced with their opposites. The difference between class and practice is the container.
In class, your teacher is the container, which can be part of what is so delectable about classes. I often hear, when I ask if there are requests, “Just tell me what to do for the next hour!” I love this, too, when I’m in the hands of a good teacher. The ability to turn over the reins, trust, follow and be led somewhere beautiful is the practice of surrender and has tremendous value. Sometimes it’s just plain luxurious.
The complement to surrender is effort. “What?!” you say, “I exert plenty of effort in yoga class, let me tell you!” And, of course, you are right. There is effort in yoga class: there is physical effort as well as your teacher guiding you to attend to all sorts of things, guiding your mental energy and effort.
The luscious quality of turning over the reins and being guided, however comes from surrender of a capacity that also must be exercised once you’ve reached a level of ability: the ability to be the container for your own practice. The difference between class and practice is that in practice you are the container for your own experience. Whether you move through a pre-planned sequence given to you or allow a practice to flow from your body through the filter of knowledge, when you practice you are both in the movement and the awareness of the movement. You are both in the moment and the bridge from the last to this to the next moment. You needn’t be taken out of presence to simultaneously be in the moment and holding awareness of the sequence of moments: this is meditation.
In Sanskrit, the traditional language of yoga philosophy, the poles of experience are referred to as vairagya and abhyasa: surrender and effort. There is a passive and an active component to experience, to wisdom, to learning - to existence. Abhyasa and vairagya are to be found in every pose, every breath and every moment, and so you’ll find an expression of them while taking a yoga class, following instructions, breathing and dissolving into the moment. But you can take that experience of abhyasa and vairagya in yoga poses, of effort and surrender, and place it in a context wherein the practice itself (with its components of effort and surrender) becomes the surrender to a constant awareness that over arches and contains the poses, the transitions and the breaths and unites them and itself into a true practice.
The difference between a class and a practice is not how proficient you are, how much you know about poses, effects or sequencing or how “good” you are. The difference lies in how you relate to that experience: are you the container or do you turn that over to another awareness? Each is good in its element - very good. Each without the other is imbalanced.
A home yoga practice is the surest way to cultivate this awareness and to become the container for your own practice - to truly own your practice, so that whether you are at home or in class you are practicing your own practice and not mimicking the teacher’s. While mimicking the teacher’s practice is certainly where we all start, and a place it’s often comforting to return, the next level isn’t defined by a pose or a sequence or any outwardly demonstrable action. You can be able to “do” any pose, even the most “advanced” and “difficult” pose imaginable and not own your practice. Only when you cultivate the ability to meet yourself, mano a mano, on your mat and feel your way from pose to pose, breath to breath, breath to pose and pose to breath - whether from a template or following an inner knowing - only then do you own your practice. Then you can own your practice breathing in Mountain pose and nothing more or your favorite “goal” pose - then you’ll be practicing even when you’re class. Then, you won’t find yourself looking from right to left or sneaking a peak in down dog to see if you’re “doing it right” even when you haven’t seen the pose. You’ll trust your inner sensation - and your teacher to correct you if you need it - and see yourself differently because your vision has shifted from external to internal, your senses have turned inward and your practice is truly your own.
Having a yoga practice requires repetition and regularity, but not necessarily a whole lot of time. You can have a home yoga practice of 5-15 minutes a day most days and gain so much of the benefit of a practice that your experience of classes will transform. Showing up for yourself in a practice and being there for yourself - lavishing your most valuable asset, your attention, on yourself - yields dividends on and off the mat.
Um, just everything. Well maybe.... hmmm. Nope. Everything.
In the image to the left you're looking at the illio-psoas and above it the diaphragm. The places where your diaphragm attaches to the spine are simultaneous or integrated with the places where your psoas originates from the same places on the spine.
The psoas is the one muscle of the body that integrates torso and lower extremities, that attaches the top to the bottom. It's the only muscle that traverses front to back, top to bottom. It's the hinge of the body. Hinges can get stuck closed, be weak or even too flexible. One side of a hinge can be stronger than the other, and they can even get stuck open.
You can see from the image that the psoas comes from the vertebrae forward to the inside of the pelvis and then over the hip sockets, where the femoral heads insert into the pelvis. This is only one way the core directly effects the hips. When the core is weak, the hip socket takes too much load. Think of setting a heavy box down on a spring: your torso is the box and your hip joint - in which there is meant to be space and give - is the spring. Part of what confers this spaciousness is our ability to effortlessly stack and carry the rib cage over the spine because of core tone and balance.
The muscles of the pelvic floor run laterally in the space between and behind the right and left psoas, going back to the sacrum, that bone in the bottom middle that looks like a trilobite. Their attachments integrate with the other deep core muscles: the transverse abdominus (running from hip bone to hip bone laterally across the front and up to the ribs), as well as the multifidus (leap frogging along either side of the vertebrae, under the erectors).
The strength and flexibility of this system of muscles determines not only our ability to move, but to move gracefully, to carry ourselves in a way that allows all the parts of the system to function. Want to prove it to yourself? From wherever you are right now, simply lift your rib cage evenly up and away from your pelvis. Notice your sensations.
I was reminded of this so practically and so poignantly recently. A friend who has profound knee pain and injury and is putting off knee replacement was telling me about some of the consequences of her pain. She doesn't move as well any longer, so she moves less, so the ability to move well recedes a little more, so she moves a little less and so on. The thing is, it's not just the knee joints that aren't exercised, it's the core itself that looses tone.
I remember this cycle from the days before my own hip replacement. It took so much fortitude to continue to move despite the bone on bone pain that some days I just plain didn't have it. I empathized deeply with her.
Then one day she was on the commode and when she went to wipe - her back spasmed. She couldn't reach behind, and now she couldn't get up. She was mortified and spent the next hour breathing and relaxing until she could crawl from her unlikely perch.
I remember having difficulty twisting and lifting my hip for the wiping action, too, in the days after my hip replacement surgery - the strength was simply not there. I had lost some strength and lost connection to the strength that was left. I was fortunate that was able to muster what I needed and rapidly made gains in the days after surgery, but I could easily imagine being in her position.
This is all about core. Try it. Right now. You don't have to go to the bathroom to do it. From where ever you're sitting, turn your torso to one side and lift that side's hip. That's all those deep core muscles, along with the superficial core (obliques, rectus). Here's what's cool: you can't strengthen and stretch these deep muscles without doing the same for the superficial ones. But you can train the superficial ones without the deep ones. That's why I call the superficial core the "vanity" abs. It's not that they're not important - they are, but they must work in synergy with the deep core.
That ability to lift up works in our relationship to gravity as well as when we literally need to lift a hip. When this ability is decreased, our ability to carry ourselves in harmony is also decreased and the hips, the largest joint in the body, take a lot of the brunt. The stronger your core, the less pain you'll have. Will it take away all the pain from any type of injury - absolutely not. But it will decrease the pain and increase your ability to deal with it. Win-win.
Want to do something to strengthen your core right now, and do it in a way that will help you move with more harmony and less pain? Do that same move.
If you're just starting out, you can do it from any solid chair - turn and lift the same side hip. Begin to emphasize different areas of your pelvic bowl and notice how it affects your strength and sensation.
If you're fit, you can do "Charlie's Angels:" sit on the floor in modified boat pose (sitting bones pressing into the floor, heart lifted, knees bent, toes on foor; arms reaching out, hands interlaced with index fingers pointed like "Bang!"). On an exhale, turn to the left, draw thumbs to chest and lift the left hip off the floor (or try to, engaging those muscles - don't worry, it will come). Inhale back to center and exhale to the right. Start with 5 on each side and work up to 25.
Want even more challenge? Make the starting and center pose full boat, with the legs outstretched and the body in a "V" with the sitting bones pressing into the floor and the heart lifted. You'll want to stretch your arms out on either side of your legs. If you decide to challenge yourself with this version, pay close attention to the sitting bones down, low back in and not rounded. Often people advance to this version too quickly, compromising their low backs because the deep core isn't yet ready to bring the low back and low belly together.
How do you notice core strength effecting your everyday life? Leave a comment and let me know when you try the Charlie's Angels - whether it's on a chair or on the floor, you'll be glad you did!
I've been hearing from more and more people who have dealt with hip pain and undergone hip replacement surgeries, so I thought I'd start a series on how to cope with, ameliorate and even transcend hip pain. This is the first of a series of Wednesday posts on hip pain. I do not advocate yoga as a substitute for surgery when necessary and I do advocate rest in the acute phase of injury. Yoga has its place in healing and experiencing your wholeness, despite any stage of debilitation, injury or pain. Yoga can heal many things. Yoga does not fix everything. Yoga always helps you as a whole human being.
Hip pain has so many possible causes that if you experience it you absolutely must consult a doctor about determining its cause and get options for treatment. What I'll write about here are the things I did to endure and relieve pain, to deal with post operative re-starting of my engine and to recover from my anterior hip replacement.
If you'd like to read more about that experience you can read this post - I highly recommend it if you're considering or recovering from a hip replacement. Not because of my writing or story, but because of the courageous and generous people who have commented on that post, sharing their knowledge, experience and heart.
For today.... an exercise that helped and still helps me endlessly. Crow Walking. I have no idea why this is called Crow Walking, exactly, but it is genius for creating gentle hip mobility and maintaining range of motion and lubricating the joint even when it hurts. As I say over on YogaGuide, this was my secret weapon leading up to my hip replacement, when the pain and disability was at its worst.
Re-post from my old YogaGuide Blog on WordPress:
" One of my secret weapons before the hip replacement was a version of “windshield wipers” that I learned in Pre-Natal certification from Jacci Reynolds that she called "Crow Walking."
Read more here....
Restorative Yoga classes are a special treat that I recommend everyone indulge at least once a week - whether you provide this experience for yourself at home or you allow me to guide you. Restorative practice includes a gentle "warm up" - Moon Salutations, here - and then long rests (not holds) in completely supported asana, sometimes with guided meditation.
In the diagram above, the rectangular paddle looking things are blankets placed strategically to support the body for maximum release of muscular effort - you shouldn't even feel as if you have to hold your arms up. Covering the eyes is an added way to trigger the relaxation response and deeper sense withdrawal, or pratyahara.
While there isn't a wide variation in poses used for Restorative practice, you'll find you don't miss the variety once you sink into the experience. Your body will bring the novelty - where you feel tightness and release, how the body melts from week to week - and guided meditations will guide your monkey mind into releasing it's grippy little paws for the hour.
Leave a comment below about your Restorative Yoga practice this week and be entered into a drawing to receive a guided recording of this class.
You love a good yoga session, the stretch and sweat and the after yoga feeling. Now you’re eyeing the Restorative yoga class and wondering if you really could take all that restoration and quiet. The answer yes you can, and here is why: trust the yoga.
All yoga is designed to calm your sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” system. This is the part of our nervous system that we need when we’re trying to avoid a tiger, but also causes us “stress” in modern life. Stress happens when our fight or flight system gets triggered, say by a near miss in traffic. But since there’s no immediate release of all that energy that didn’t get used like it would have if you’d had to run from that tiger, it gets stuck in a feedback loop that keeps the adrenaline and cortisol flowing well past your need for them.
The parasympathetic nervous system, or the “feed and breed” nervous system, which generates the well known “relaxation response” is the counter to the “fight or flight” system. They’re meant to keep one another in balance, but there are so many more triggers for the stress system than the relaxation system in modern life that most of us are out of balance.
Paradoxically, even the best vigorous yoga class can feed this imbalance if we relate to our practice in a goal directed or striving way. This is why I recommend everyone give themselves at least one restorative practice every week. Better yet, take 20 minutes before bed in the evening and practice 2-4 of these fully supported postures meant to foster complete release of effort.
Many people report avoiding restorative yoga because they’re afraid they’ll be bored, or that they’re incapable of that much relaxation. But once they’ve arrived in the class and the yoga takes over, just like in their more active yoga classes, the yoga works its magic. Your mind isn’t boring and your ability to become the open observer and melt into the pose is actually enhanced with the support of props and extended time in poses. Trust the yoga.
A Restorative yoga class features fewer poses, because they’re each held from three to five minutes or longer. Because you’re meant to be in them longer and to relax instead of engage your muscles, you’re set up with props to completely support the weight of your limbs. Most of the poses, for this reason, are on the floor and you’re often encouraged to use an eye pillow or cloth to place gentle, almost imperceptible pressure on the eyes, which triggers the relaxation response.
When you come to a Restorative yoga class, it’s more important than ever to wear non-constricting clothing and to dress in layers. Because you’re releasing muscular engagement, you won’t generate the same heat you do in an active yoga class. Feel free to bring socks if you tend towards chilly feet; you’ll not be grounding through your big toe mounds very much in this class and your yoga toes won’t need to sparkle. Your heart and mind will sparkle with the overflow of energy when stop even a few of your habitual holding patterns from everyday life.
You may do four to six poses for the whole class, and spend half as long setting up for them as you stay in them. The set up is just as much an exercise in mindfulness and tuning into your body’s patterns and patterned responses as the poses are, so maintain an observational and caring mindset throughout. Some poses you may encounter are Reclined Cobbler pose, Supported Straddle Forward Bend, Legs up the wall and Supported Savasana. Want to try a a half hour restorative practice tonight? Check out the Restorative Sequence I wrote for lovemyyoga.com and finish it off with the Relaxation Sequence, too. When you attend class in person, you'll receive instruction and assistance in Chandra Namaskar, or Moon Salutations, as well as setting up a supported bridge, an "Instant Maui" and receive guided meditations in many of the poses, finished off with a blissfully silent, dark Savasanahhhh!
Here's a recipe for your restorative practice:
Allow. Release all muscular effort. Apply focus and attention to scan your body for hidden pockets of tension or effort and notice them change simply as a result of being held in attention and supported by your position.
Support. In order to release effort more completely, the body must be supported at a productive edge. The edge for restorative practice is very different than the edge in an active asana class. The edge is the place where the shape begins to create muscular tension. Supporting the torso and limbs there, at that very place of opening, creates a supportive feeling throughout the entire being – body and psyche.
Breathe. Breath is especially important in the early moments while the mind is still running like a velo. Once the opening is found through which the chatter can escape its cycling, mind creates less tension. However, sometimes it takes an entire practice to find this. Until then, the breath is your ally. Return to watching the breath. We’re not creating or elongating or anything; only watching. Now, as it watches, mind will commence to commentary: “Isn’t that interesting? I was sure I was breathing from my diaphragm! Jeez, I wonder when I’ll ever rid myself of that pattern?….” Just return to watching the breath. Stay with the moment, not the facsimile of the moment created by the commentary.
Be. This last is more the meal, while the earlier 3 principles are the recipe. You start with support, mix in a heap of allow, and a generous dollop of breathe, and if the temperature and time are right, you’ll pull some being out of the oven.
One of the most influential books I've read this year, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga communicates principles of teaching for trauma recovery that are applicable to every class, every where.
Emerson, Hopper and their co-authors (legends in their own rights in trauma research and treatment) advocate for yoga practice in dealing with the aftermath of trauma and give guidelines and suggestions for both teaching trauma sensitive classes as well as advocating for home yoga practice. This alone was music to my ears, of course, but their guidelines were confirmatory of my own instincts.
My preference has always been hands off, as a yoga teacher as well as a student. I nearly always find physical adjustments jarring, even when the overall effect is revelatory. As nearly everyone who's been in yoga classes for more than a decade, I've also received detrimental adjustments, even from celebrity status teachers with supposedly great credentials.
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga elucidates the basic wisdom behind preferring auditory adjustments over physical ones and confirmed my intuitive preference. Not only do physical adjustments bring up all sorts of attentional and boundary challenges, but they invalidate the deeper premise of yoga practice: in a "class" you may be trying to do the post your instructor is teaching, but in a "practice" your intent is to sense your own experience in each pose. It's not that you go off and do different poses; but the core of the pose is how you feel it and learning to sense your body in space, so having someone put you there is actually counter-productive. It may take longer to feel the pose from the inside, but the path to getting there - much like transitions between poses - is as important as the getting there.
There are instructional parts to this book, fundamental for anyone starting out and interesting for the experienced practitioner. One of my favorite suggestions is the cue... "if you'd like to add something" as a substitute for "going deeper" or "more advanced" or what have you. This language takes the competitive spirit out of the equation and reveals the degree to which everything is optional.
The most surprising finding for me was that a measure of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is correlated to resilience in recovery from trauma. HRV is an interesting and relatively simple measurement of how long it takes the body to recover - or return to baseline - from an excited state. Yoga has a positive effect on HRV and this is one of the bases for recommending it as an adjunct to trauma therapy.
Whether you've got your own trauma journey - and let's face it, modern life is traumatizing - or you want to be prepared when you have someone in class who does, this book is the most important resource I've read all year. What is your top yoga book for 2013 and why? Leave a comment and share your thoughts...