Blessings of Viveka and Tapas (Plus, a post-election sequence!)

 

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On the evening of November 8, 2016, I started out hopeful. I had done my yoga practice that day, I had voted weeks ago, and I was determined to keep my yogic calm despite a growing fear that had been bubbling in me for a few days, a fear that the polls could be misleading and that a climate science denier who had objectively made racist, misogynist, xenophobic comments during his campaign could be elected president. This man represents, for me, the opposite of what the ancient practice of yoga strives for: balance, equanimity, peacefulness, and connection with the divine spark within us, which is inherently joyous and loving. Most of all, yoga strives for unity and one-ness (the word “yoga” itself means union), whereas Trump ran a campaign of divisiveness, scapegoating and generalizing populations like immigrants and Muslims, and disparaging women and disabled persons. I could go on about all the reasons that I am clearly not a Trump supporter or the reasons that I lost my yogic calm that night, but as we all know, that growing fear became a reality and many of us felt not only deeply saddened, but also suddenly unsafe. As a non-Christian and (only recently “out”) openly bisexual woman, I personally feel afraid, but I also recognize that I’m not on the front lines and I resolve to stand in solidarity with, and take action to support, more visible vulnerable populations such as immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and non gender-conforming people.

As I put my daughter to bed that night, shielding her from what was happening because I didn’t know what else to do, a certain calm settled over me despite the feeling of panic and dread. Suddenly I knew what I had to do, suddenly there was a feeling of clarity. It became clear to me that now we must all be the best versions of ourselves, we must all do, with deep commitment and vigor, what we came here to do. Now that the sickness and shadow of America is more visible, there is a gift of focus and motivation. If we open to it, we can receive the gift of an extra dose of tapas, the fire of motivation that gives us consistency and discipline. We are all being called to find the toxic masculinity within ourselves – that part of ourselves that grasps for control, that uses force, that blames others or becomes overly defensive. We must find that part of ourselves and carve it out with scalpel-like precision. Yoga teaches us to use viveka, or keen discernment, to discover what is real and what is unreal, what is ours and what is someone else’s, what is helpful and what is hurtful. We must be in-alignment with our values as much as possible – our thoughts, words, and deeds must line up. When they don’t, use your scalpel unflinchingly and without judgment. We must do this work with ourselves continuously, and in our communities and in the world. How can we step up and do our part in fighting hate and ignorance? We must turn our practice into action. I know it is a cliche, but we must take it “off the mat.” This is what we’ve been practicing for.

So yes, it is time for kriya, the yoga of action. But we must not forget about our personal practice, self-care, and the inner work. We need that more than ever. If there is an inner blind spot or pocket of resentment, a place where our pain or dukha is in danger of growing into hatred or dvesha, I can guarantee it will manifest in your life and in your work. So, carve it out. We must take it off the mat but we must spend plenty of time on the mat, as well. Or on your meditation cushion, or out in nature, or in a practice room. We must tend to our riverbeds within, so that the clear flowing water of Source (or inspiration, loving-kindness, insert your own term here) can flow through, unobstructed.

May your unique riverbed be wide and clear. May you fully receive these gifts of viveka and tapas. May you do the work that you are uniquely called to do. May you feel supported by your community and by your practices. Namaste.

And now, a post-election sequence for you! No pics yet, but I will edit and add as soon as I’m able. Not going to give times for each pose because it varies from person to person. I’d say, stay in each pose anywhere between 5 long, deep breaths, and 5 minutes. For asymmetrical poses, roughly 2 minutes each side.

Addo Mukha Svanasana – dowward facing dog. Because it is a good pose with which to begin your practice, and it’s a good pose to prepare for the next pose.

Addo Mukha Vrksasana – Handstand, or full arm balance. Because our world has been turned upside-down, and we could always use a different perspective. If this pose is not in your practice, try Viparita Karani – legs up the wall pose, with your hips on 2 or 3 firm, folded blankets. If you’re menstruating, inversions are not recommended, so practice Viparita Karani with your hips on the mat, no blankets.

Vrksasana – tree pose. Because we really need to stay balanced these days.

Virabhadrasana II, then Virabhadrasana I. – Warrior 2 and 1. Because we must practice standing our ground, and being warriors against hate and ignorance wherever we encounter it – in ourselves and in the world.

Anjaneyasana – low lunge. Because we need to be like Hanuman (Anjani was Hanuman’s mother) and leap over seemingly un-surmountable hurdles. Because we must practice opening our hearts and training our nervous system to stay calm in challenging situations. Be sure to keep the breath slow and steady.

Addho Mukha Virasana – downward-facing hero’s pose, sometimes called prayer pose. If you pray, now is the time to do so. This pose will decompress the spine after a backbend.

Ananda Balasana – happy baby pose. Because we must find the seed of innocent joy within. Or, we might just need to cry unabashedly. Either way, opening our hips can help us connect with our deeper emotions, fully experience them without the spinning stories and intellectualizing that sometimes go along with them.

Salamba Sarvangasana – Shoulderstand. And Halasana – Plough pose. Again, we are turning ourselves upside-down. These two poses can also help you reset your jagged nervous system. If you’re menstruating, instead practice supported Setu Banda.

Savasana – final resting pose. If you only practice one pose from this sequence, let it be this one. Die to hatred, die to ignorance, die to escapism and avoidance. Die to any habits that no longer serve. Connect with your breath and surrender to the deeper truth within you. Rest, and be re-born.

 

Make friends with your ego

What gets in the way in your yoga or singing practice? For myself and many of my students, it often boils down to the ego. The ego gets a bad rap – it is that part of ourselves that tells us we are separate from others and from the world, and that we are either more important/worthwhile, or less important/worthwhile than others. The ego works in extremes, and wants what it wants when it wants it – not a lot of patience there. So it’s understandable that many folks in the yoga or eastern philosophy community want to do away with the ego and all its trappings – and yes, in a sense, that is the “goal” of the yogic path: to shed the ego, still the chattering mind, and allow the magnificence that is our true nature to shine out, unfettered. The thing is, the smarter or more informed we get, the smarter our ego gets, too. The ego knows all our tricks! So, how do we outsmart it? Well, we don’t. We need to stop playing its games, have compassion for it, make friends with it.

First of all, we need to learn to recognize when our ego, or asmita in Sanskrit, is getting in the way in our practice. There are many ways that it may manifest; here are three of the most common ways that I’ve notices ego showing up in myself and my students:

  1. Impatience. Let’s say we’re practicing a yoga pose or a song, and a thought pops into our heads, something like: “I know my teacher had me warm-up quite a bit in class before performing this pose/phrase/song/exercise, but I don’t really have time for that now. I’m just going to go for it.” Or, even worse: “I don’t need, or I shouldn’t need, to warm-up like that again, or do what my teacher was asking me to do. I know better and I should just be able to do it.” Sound familiar? In this case, the just do it attitude can be quite damaging.
  2. Goal, not process, orientation. Similar to the above manifestation of ego, in this case asmita says: “Why isn’t my pose looking like it should?” or “Why am I not sounding like him/her, or like I want to sound?” Often, those questions are not asked with curiosity, but with a hint (or a bit more than a hint) of judgment. The over-zealous ego keeps trying to make it work with blunt force, without adequate breath support, awareness, subtlety or nuance.
  3. Judgment. I mentioned this in the last paragraph, but that was when the ego was still desperately trying to achieve the result it desired, right away. After quite a bit of figurative (or sometimes literal) banging of the head against a wall, the ego gives up and swings to the other extreme of self-deprecation. “I’m not good enough, who do I think I am trying to do this,…blah blah blah.” I don’t need to repeat all the toxic negative self-talk that could occur in this phase – you’re probably pretty familiar with it. It really gets boring after a while.

Like I said, there are plenty of other manifestations of ego, but those three are the most common I’ve noticed in yoga or voice practice. Did those sound familiar? Do you think you can catch your ego in the act? Okay, so good job! You’ve succeeded in recognizing the ego taking charge in your practice – that is step number one! But, now what?

Now, it’s time to do the real work. Have compassion for the ego, like it is a small child having a tantrum. Thank it for sharing, thank it for trying to protect you. Have compassion for how it has, how you have suffered. And then surrender to breath, to spirit. I don’t care if you are an atheist or devout Catholic – surrender to something bigger than yourself: the Universe, Nature, support from community or teachers, whatever. Yes, it’s scary. But it’s absolutely necessary. And no, it doesn’t happen overnight! We must continue surrendering, every day! Trust your teacher and your own true inner guidance. Listen to that voice inside you, no matter how small or soft, that tells you why you are doing this. And KEEP GOING, that’s the most important. Don’t give in to the self-deprecation. Return to your practice, and when you do, catch yourself when your ego plays the goal-oriented blunt force game, and gently lead your awareness back to what counts: Alignment. Your Breath. Non-judgmental body awareness. Expression. Joy! The core of your body. The core of your being.

http://www.northwestvocalyoga.com

Dangers of Hyperflexibility

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The most important distinction anyone can ever make in their life is between who they are as an individual and their connection with others.”

― Anné Linden, Boundaries in Human Relationships: How to Be Separate and Connected

Each one of us is on a unique path and has our own challenges. One person’s strengths (in an area like yoga, singing, or otherwise) may be another’s weakness, and the other way around. In terms of our natural physical tendencies, which we get more in touch with through yoga practice, we tend to fall into one of two categories: those who lack flexibility but can easily build muscles, and those who struggle to build strength but are naturally flexible. I have, personally, always fallen in the second category, both physically and vocally (I’ll explain that later.) Even if you identify as being more in the first category physically, you might still be emotionally hyper-flexible (I’ll explain that later, too!) And even if you are strong physically and have good boundaries in your relationships, you still might learn something from the challenges and lessons I share in this article. Whatever category you currently find yourself in, yoga practice can help you listen to your body, bring in more awareness, and transform your habits.

I have always had joints that “crackle and pop” and tend to hyper-extend. This does not, however, mean I have always been flexible – spending my adolescence with little to no physical activity, stymied by stress and chronic asthma, I was pretty tight by the time I found yoga as a 18 year-old college student. I couldn’t touch my toes in my first yoga class, and had very poor posture. But once I started feeling the benefits of yoga, I was hooked; at least to attending classes (my regular home practice didn’t develop until later.) After a year or so of regularly attending yoga classes and releasing some superficial tension, it became apparent that my physical tendency was to hyper-extend in my knees, shoulders, and hips, which put me at risk for dislocation and other potential injuries.

Before we continue, a quick definition: Hyperextension, defined by Elizabeth Quinn, sports medical expert, is an excessive joint movement in which the angle formed by the bones of that joint is opened, or straightened, beyond its normal, healthy range of motion. For some pictures of hyperextended shoulders, and an interesting but dense article on shoulder issues in gymnastics, check out this article.

Fast forward to to when I did start to have a strong home practice in both yoga and singing, somewhere between five and ten years ago. Thanks to the expert guidance of my teachers and my own inner guidance, I started to develop healthier habits. Not only did I feel strength developing in the muscles around my joints and through the core of my body, I also became curious about what this process of strengthening could teach me in my singing practice and in my relationships. Then, when I went through my transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano, I came face to face with the consequences of my vocal flexibility. Just as the joints in my body were hyper flexible, my voice is hyper flexible, as well, and for years I was unconsciously bringing up my mix voice, thus “hyperextending” the passage (transition between registers) in my middle voice. It was becoming clear that my body and voice had some important lessons to teach me, some that I need to keep learning over and over again – to stay true to myself, to the core of my being; to fully engage with each present moment and with my own fears/challenges; and to be more focused internally than externally. This last one is the most pertinent to this article and the most challenging lesson for me to learn.

In order to fully embody this lesson in my daily life, I need to practice pratyahara, or “withdrawal of the senses” daily, through meditation. When I practice pratyahara, the fifth “limb” of yoga, I turn my senses inward to access my intuition and inner guidance. This is a necessary step in order to stay “aligned” and sing, move, or act from my core. I still have a ways to go with this one, but when I practice withdrawing my senses, staying aligned, and respecting my own boundaries in my yoga and singing practices, I become much more adept at respecting my boundaries in my daily life. It took guidance from several teachers and passionate dedication to my practices in order to find true alignment in my body and voice. It is so worth all that time and energy – my practices are now a source of much joy, peace and wisdom!

When you sing, you can practice an internal focus by paying more attention to the vibrations in your body than how you think you sound to others. Enlist the help of an experienced teacher to guide you closer to your own awareness of the registers in your voice, making sure they are aligned and that you are not “over-stretching” one register. In your yoga practice, rather than focusing on achieving the full expression of a pose, start by observing the breath and asking yourself what the next right step is towards your goal. Keep your spine tall and neutral, knees unlocked, shoulders centered, and chest open. In your relationships with others, take time to check in with yourself before agreeing to something that someone is asking of you, and openly (and respectfully) communicate your own needs and desires. Stick with these practices and you will feel the benefits of building both strength and flexibility in your practices, and in your daily life!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com

Satya; A Practice in Truthfullness

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“As truthfulness (satya) is acheived, the fruits of actions naturally result according to the will of the yogi.” – Patanjali, yoga sutra 2.36

When I enter practice of a yoga pose that is difficult for me, I try to stay centered in satya, or truthfulness. Instead of judging or praising my progress, I practice honesty with myself about where I am in my journey and what the next right step is. This is not always easy! It requires being very present in the moment, accepting what is rather than how we wish reality to be.

Satya is the second of the five yamas, the moral guidelines, or restraints, that together compose the first of eight “limbs” of yoga – asana, the physical practice, being the third limb. Rather than simply being a code of conduct instructing us practitioners not to lie, (although that’s important, too!), Satya speaks to a deeper honesty with ourselves as well as others. If we need to use a prop to support where we are in our yoga practice, we can practice Satya by utilizing that prop without judgment or comparison of ourselves with other students. In our singing practice, if we are at a point in our relationship with a certain piece of music where we still need to sing only on vowels, or on one neutral vowel, we can practice Satya by restraining our impulse to just sing through the whole piece without that focused attention that is needed in that moment. In other words, when we try to leap ahead of where we truly are, we are choosing to ignore a deeper truth – one that is essential to our growth. We have probably all heard the phrase “start where you are” – by practicing Satya in this way, you are honoring and accepting yourself and your individual journey towards a deeper truth.

This month in your practicing, ask yourself: Am I being truthful with myself? Am I trying to leap ahead to where I wish to be? How can I more fully accept this moment, and where I am in my journey? What is the next right step for me, now?

And as the sutra above implies, there is a natural benefit to the practice of satya: as you become a more adept practitioner of satya and speak (or sing!) your truth to yourself and others, your deeper desires will start to manifest, and your truth with positively inspire those around you!

www.northwestvocalyoga.com