The Yoga Of In-Between Moments

This week’s #FocusFriday isn’t actually a pose.It’s all of the transitions between poses.Transitions between poses are the most difficult time to stay focused and mindful.They are the times when people often get hurt.We go on autopilot.We space out and simply stop being attentive at the moment when our presence matters most.Even when we’re coming out of shavasana, we tend to jerk the body up and don’t leave time for a considered reinstating of movement.That’s why we tell students to go deeper into a pose just before coming out; it’s in order to keep ourselves attentive to those critical in-between moments. For instance, I’ll say in class an alignment instruction learned from the Iyengars: “Continue to externally rotate the standing leg knee while coming into and out of half moon pose.” This isn’t just filler; these instructions are crucial for both the body and the mind. This is the micro for the macro. Transitions between yoga poses are metaphors for transitions in life (a small subject, I know, a little like birth and death). For instance, Rodney & I have one daughter, JoJo, transitioning into college and one daughter, Adesha, transitioning out of college. Watching them go through these transitions, readjusting and redefining themselves can be painful. It can also be revelatory. We are always transitioning: Making the change from living alone to living with someone can be as tricky as is the transition from being married to being divorced. Beginning to menstruate is a major transition, as is menopause. Becoming a sexually active adult can be initially traumatizing. Much of our yoga practice, as well as our lives are spent in transition. Yoga shows us that becoming mindful and comfortable during these transitions will open the way to more meaningful and full human experiences. The maha transitions are the big ones, birth and death; the small births & deaths we experience every day are dress rehearsals. How should we handle these moments of uncertainty—moving from one thing to another? My advice is with humor & compassion. (This photo is of a transition—it’s not very graceful, but it’s taken with both humor & compassion).

Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha

Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha is today’s #MantraMonday . This mantra evokes Ganesha, an elephant-headed little boy who is the son of Shiva, the great yogi God that sets about destroying ego. We chant this mantra when obstacles are holding us back from realizing our true selves and living purpose. Gansesha helps us overcome obstacles to make room for new beginnings. He is particularly identified with the Hindu mantra, Om. Om is all sounds in one, and Ganesha personifies this primal sound. Gam is Ganesha’s potent seed or bija, Ganapataye is a nickname for Ganesh and Namaha is the act of bowing down ?.
I’ve chosen the Mantra because my book #YogaforLife: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom will be officially published tomorrow. And though I don’t have an elephant-headed little boy living inside me, I do still have the little girl from Indiana who suffered traumas that are still stored in my body, and I’m sure continue to hold me back in many ways. The book is a major new beginning for me; I had to overcome a sh-tload of obstacles to write it, and continue to overcome obstacles in owning the reality that the book is now out there, that I am now a published author. I also chose the mantra because I love the way it feels in my mouth and body when I chant it ?. Apparently there’s a reason for that. Mantras are a collection of what is called bijas or seeds, which are vibrational sounds that have meaning deep inside the body. The planting of these seeds have the potential to expand our consciousness, something the analytical parts of our brains can’t distort. Just by chanting this mantra, we’re saying that we are ready and willing to let go of old, stored junk. This elephant-headed little boy that resonates so deeply with me, that I made him the logo for my yoga studio and had him inked permanently on my back?. Ganesh resides in our root chakra, the muladhara. When we awaken root energy, we activate a strong and loving sense of self. We’re able to communicate clearly and without personal agenda. Intuition is also awakened. Ganesh holds a tusk in one hand and a sweet in the other, which I take to mean that he is sweet and powerful at the same time. It’s a beautiful combination, one to which we can all aspire. Chanting to the Ganesh that dwells within is powerful, playful, magical and mysterious. It is chanted in pods of 9, and is especially potent when chanted 108 times, holding mala beads. I will be doing this today in anticipation of the book entering the world. I’m hoping that I will be able to tune into others chanting to Ganesh, as obstacles are removed and we all reveal our true natures, and live to our potential ?. Here’s a great verse from a song by the hiphop artist and yogi, MC Yogi:

“You’re the ancient tone, known as Om,
Vibrating and illuminating all my bones.
The enlightened One, who’s tons of fun,
Ganapati rocks the party when he plays the drum.
Master of Mridangam, and the tabla,
When you’re blessed by Ganesh then nothin’ can stop ya.
I trust that you can bust with just one tusk
through every obstacle, until they’re crushed.
From dawn to dusk and from dusk till dawn,
Removing all obstacles — ’till they’re gone!”

Padmasana (Lotus Pose)

The great B.K.S. Iyengar considered Lotus Pose (padmasana) the easiest asana in Light on Yoga. So why is it so difficult for Westerners to sit in padmasana? Because we don’t squat when we go to the bathroom. (That’s sort of a joke, but not really. The main action of Lotus Pose is the folding of the legs, and we just don’t do that very much in our society.)

Why are Buddha and Shiva depicted sitting in Lotus Pose? Maybe because it’s a balanced pose which illuminates the central channel, sending one into a deep meditation. What is a “balanced” pose? Is it one that balances apana (downward wind) with prana (upward wind) and creates inner and outer spirals? (The groin is released in the inner spiral and the hips externally rotate in the outward spiral.) Lotus is a pose that creates equanimity. It sends you to the center of the center. How should one approach Lotus? Every day, try to practice these things: First, lie down on your back and hug your knees into your chest. Then strap your legs in Cobblers Pose (baddha konasana). Hang out in Child’s Pose. After that, practice the release of your groin while doing standing poses and end with the great groin releaser: Hero Pose (virasana). Then explore external rotation with ankle to knee (lying on back first, then seated), Tree Pose, Simple Cross Legged Pose with a forward bend, and Pigeon with a forward fold. Can you feel the draw into your central channel even if you can’t do a perfect Lotus? Yes, but you may need to let your ego take a back seat and use props to find that kind of balance and ease in the meditative seat.

Sit on folded blankets with your back at the wall. Sit in a simple crossed legged position so that the groin releases and you are not straining your lower back and then support your knees with blankets or blocks until the pose becomes easy. The main energetic action is to feel the connection from your feet to the pelvis, to the roof of your mouth, and to the crown of your head. These connections are important to your meditative seat. If you don’t know how to begin to find this integration and conversation, come to @theyogashanti and we’ll help to illuminate it for you!

Vasisthasana (Side Plank)

Today’s #FocusFriday pose is side plank, pose! After the last earthquake in Nepal, it was noted that Mt. Everest had moved. How crazy is that? And what an example of impermanence. Mountain pose is the same—strong, steady, and yet moveable. If we reach our arms out so that they’re parallel to the floor, flex one hand, and turn the head towards the other, we begin to understand the basic architecture of side-plank pose: the arms make a perpendicular line to the center line of the torso.

We can’t just topple sideways from mountain, because our wrist would be destroyed, so instead we come to side plank from plank pose or downward-facing dog. The most common mistake in getting into side plank is to place the supporting hand right under the shoulders; the supporting hand should be placed so that the bottom arm can stay at a right angle with the center line of the torso. At the same time, strong legs reach through the inside of the feet, and hips lift a little higher than a straight line between the feet and the crown of the head. The top arm extends straight up from the bottom arm, as the pelvis and the chest turn slightly upward toward the sky. Even in this orientation, the mountain looks up toward the sky. If balance is too challenging, place the bottom leg knee on the ground.

Remember, this is an arm-balance pose, but the more you find the center, the more it feels like who you think you are doesn’t exist, and you get closer to your authentic self and the unknown mystery and beauty that waits for us in the center of the center of the center.

Xoxo
Colleen

Know You're Enough

The mantra I want to offer today isn’t a traditional Sanskrit mantra, but it’s one I’ve been living with for the past two years: Know You’re Enough.

I first heard the phrase in a Jason Isbell song, “Cover Me Up.” Like all mantras, these three simple words created a powerful feeling of visceral relief in me every time I listened to them, or spoke them. Know You’re Enough. I made these three words the title of the introduction of my new book, Yoga for Life. It was the mantra I needed to keep coming back to while writing, when feelings of fear, or imperfection or inadequacy would sneak up on me.

We all spend a lot of time and energy covering up our vulnerabilities and our strengths, afraid that we won’t be accepted if we expose them. In covering up real parts of ourselves, we hide our truth from world. We think we’re the only ones who feel these things; our armor gets thicker and thicker, ensuring that no one will ever see the real us.

It’s a crying shame. Only you can share what the real you has to offer. But if you keep covering it up, or running away from it, then it’s a waste of time and a loss, not only for you, but for the rest of the world that needs your contribution. This is what really makes the world go ‘round.

Let us support each other in this scary, crucial unveiling. Let us put aside judgment and competition and embrace honesty and authenticity. Know You’re Enough.

Namaste

Starting next week, Mantra Mondays will be replaced with a series called Music Mondays. I’ll share a song, or a playlist that I chose to accompany each chapter of my book.

Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)

This is not my favorite pose. My proportions are such that I need arms that are 6 inches longer in order to get my torso parallel to the floor and feel any sense of freedom. Whereas Rodney looks like he’s floating. So I will always use a block, or, like in this case, Rodney’s ankle. If you have long legs, a narrow chest, and medium-length arms, you need a block underneath your bottom hand. If you have shorter legs and a buff chest (Rodney), then you won’t need a block. When the alignment of half-moon clicks in, it literally feels like you’re flying. Once you get the arm, chest, leg ratio worked out, focus on details. The lifted leg is parallel to the floor. I would say that the brain of ardha chandrasana is the intense reach of the lifted leg. The standing-leg butt and knee strongly externally rotate. The arms are an extension of each other as they spread the upper back and upper chest, while the neck, head, and chest work together to form a backbend and a mild twist. The gaze is at the top hand. Use trikonasana, triangle, to come in and out of the pose. Be especially careful not to load the inner knee coming out of the pose. Focus on the external rotation of the knee while descending back to triangle. This is a great pose when you are feeling collapsed, defeated, and out of kilter. When properly aligned, it gives you balance and suspension. When you use your legs this strongly, it makes you feel confident. Ardha chandrasana requires focus of the mind. So if you want to feel balanced, suspended, confident, and focused, this is your pose (even if you need a block).

Ardha Matsyandrasana II (Half-Seated Spinal Twist II)

Ardha Matsyandrasana II is one of the most balanced twists in yoga, because it respects and echoes the natural curves of the spine. As a result, it’s one of the few twists that can be held for up to five minutes. Because it’s a truly neutral pose, it’s OK to practice ardha matsyandrasana II after backbends.

There’s a big internal rotation of the straight leg in the pose, so you can revolve deeply into the twist. You’re sitting evenly on your two sitting bones, which gives the twist a solid foundation, as well as heaven-to-earth energy, or apana vayu.

Excellent preparations for ardha matsyandrasana II are lotus preps [see Focus Friday June 5], open twists, and poses that have internal-rotation of both arms (reverse prayer, interlacing fingers behind the back, shoulder stand arms, and other binding poses). Binding is easier if your torso is narrow and your arms long. If you can’t bind, just grab your shirt, your thigh, your shin, or use a strap. Ardha matsyandrasana II is a beautiful pose. I’m including photographs of my own version, as well as Mr. Iyengar’s, so that you can see both a master and an novice.

If there are any specific poses that you would like to see on Focus Friday, don’t be shy. Let me know.

Dad's Stamp of Approval

My 88-year-old father stalked me to send him an advanced copy of my book, Yoga for Life, which comes out in June. Dad may forget some things, but this one thing, he did not. Every few days, I would get a text (yes, my dad texts), saying, “I am old and I want to read your book. I don’t want to wait until it comes out. Please send it to me today.” I was nervous about him reading it, because even though I am an adult, his approval is still very important to me. So I sent it, and he read it.

My dad is one of those people who doesn’t mince words or speak niceties just for the sake of it. That was part of my hesitation in letting him read it: I knew he would tell me what he thought, and I wasn’t sure I could handle hearing it. My other hesitation was that my book would make him sad, as his heart is still bleeding for my mom, who is featured large.

Well, today I sit here like a child, welled-up with tears. My father approves of my book. He said in a message that he loves it. He said I brought mom back to life in my pages. Then he wrote me this note:

Honey,

Your book is very good. I wish your mother could read it. You were a wild child but have grown into one of the sweetest most caring adults I know. You have made me very proud. I love you, babe.

Dad

I would like to sell a million copies of my book because yoga is for life and I believe that the more people realize that, the better the world will be. But if I never sell a single copy, my father is proud of me, which makes me happy that I wrote the book.

The Elation and Worry of Motherhood

Mothering and being mothered are complicated experiences. They can take you beyond any love you’ve ever known, and they can bring you to your knees with worry and misery. When people ask Rodney and me who our main teachers have been, we respond, “Our kids.”

Our reactions to our children tell us everything. When you see your sweet angel’s name come up on the phone and you answer it excitedly, and all you hear is silence—oh, no.

“Honey, are you there?” you ask.

You hear sobs, and your heart sinks lower than you could ever have imagined. Her pain must be your fault, and you need to fix it.

Or when the phone rings, and he, elated, is speaking so fast you have to say, “Slow down, Darling, and tell me what you just said.” When our children are so excited about good news that you can’t understand what they’re saying, your heart soars as if it were your own accomplishment.

 

Then there’s the sly smile you try to hide when your child proudly tells you something he or she has just learned that you’ve spent the last 18 years trying teach them. Someone else has explained it to them, this lifelong lesson, and they act it as if it were brand new information.

And then there’s the learning how to keep your mouth shut. Or that certain mood of your beloved child’s when there’s no point in saying anything because it will be met with sarcasm or an argument, just for the sake of it.

Yes, being a mother (or father) is all encompassing. You have empathy and compassion for your own mother because you know that you took her through the same fires.

Mother’s Day is a time to reflect on the mothering process—both the joys and sorrows. It’s a day to buy or receive flowers and chocolates, or take or be taken out for brunch. But here’s the truth: what the mothers I know want most, is time alone. The best Mother’s Day gift might be to insist that your mom go to her yoga class, or go for a walk by herself.

Mother’s Day is a day of celebration for the sacrifice and dedication mothers bring to the world. It’s also a difficult day for those of us whose mothers, or children, have passed. So let us use what yoga has taught us to sit with it all, to laugh and cry and eat chocolate, to appreciate the flowers and hug our loved ones.

Happy Mother’s Day.

All love,
Colleen

Let’s Connect Through Yoga!

The first time I heard about Instagram was when my teenage daughter, Rachel, and her friend were taking “selfies” two years ago. I didn’t get it. I had just started to get the hang of Facebook, and wasn’t so sure I liked it: what hurtful things could be said in the midst of so much anonymity? But the more time I spent with Facebook, the more I saw its benefits: I reconnected with friends that I’d lost touch with; I became inspired by poems and teachings friends had posted; I liked hearing what people were thinking about; I liked “liking” people, and being “liked.”

Social media is something like yoga. Yoga has given me a larger family, my yoga community, a congregation of people willing to work to find the connectivity that’s sometimes hidden. Yoga brings to the surface what we need to feel and know. The late B.K.S. Iyengar, perhaps the most influential yoga teacher of our age, said that you can only be as intimate with others as you are with yourself. Alone and in community we use yoga to get to our essence. Yoga peels away layer after layer to uncover what has been there all along. It’s like the Bob Dylan lyric: “How long, babe, will you search for what’s not there?”

I’ve just written a book, Yoga for Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom, which will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster on June 2. I wrote it because I felt that I had something to say that would help people: I found yoga halfway through my life, and it’s become a tool that has helped me with nearly every challenge I encounter. It’s helped me see where I made mistakes in my life, and why. My friends and students have always been interested in my life stories—growing up in the Midwest, becoming a heroin user, a fashion model, a mother, and then a yogi. It’s the story of my life, in all its glory and occasional shame, both on and off the mat. Each chapter’s theme (Addiction, Trauma, Forgiveness, Confidence, Fear, and Love, among others) is accompanied by a related yoga sequence I’ve created related to the theme. My book will show you how yoga’s benefits extend from health and fitness, to better relationships, self-acceptance, the ability to speak the truth, and ultimately, inner peace.

So now what? Now it’s time to get the word out about the book. How do we reach one another in this world today? In addition to Facebook, I’ve become an enthusiastic convert to Instagram and Twitter. I would be honored if you would connect with me on any or all of these platforms and help spread news about the book (you’ll be hearing more about it, and my story in the weeks to come). And here’s the fun part: If you sign on to follow me, you’ll be entered in our fantabulous contest to win a personally signed (to you) copy of Yoga for Life, and/or a top-of-the-line yoga mat from one of my great partners in yoga, Gaiam.

In advance, I want to thank you for joining me on this journey. Let’s keep connecting, through yoga—and beyond the mat!

Namaste and love,

Colleen