Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Here comes the Sun!

Strasbourg's rose window, oriented to catch light from the  sunrise
Whatever your mid-winter holiday tradition, it's time for celebration. Wednesday, December 21st, at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, the Winter Solstice arrives. Longer daylight hours, shorter nights, and the returning warmth of sunlight . . . Maybe that doesn't mean too much to us who live in sunny southern California, but I've had enough personal experience to appreciate just how much the sun means to me.

When I was younger, I spent one long, cold winter in Ithaca, New York with a newborn and a preschooler. The children's father would leave for the local bus at 8:30 in the morning--and some winter days, the sky was still dark. He would arrive home from work about 4 in the afternoon--and the sky was dark once again. As a rule, Ithaca ties Seattle for the number of sunless days every year, but that year Ithaca won the title. The weather was cold. The snow was deep. One January afternoon, there was a blizzard that blew out the pilot light on the furnace and we had to spend the night at a local motel to keep warm. The winter's dark and cold seemed (to me, anyway) endless. Taking the babies outside was an involved process of dressing and then undressing, punctuated by starting the car and its heater before the kids were loaded in the vehicle.

One of those winters was enough for me. I admired the fortitude, patience, and forbearance of my friends in Ithaca (many of whom grew up in harsh climates), but I was a sunshine girl. As soon as we had the opportunity to return to sunnier, more temperate climes, we left Ithaca.

Busking angel mime at Cologne's Dom
This past month, Bob and I spent almost three weeks in northern Europe. Although there was no snow (global warming is a reality), it was cold: not a mere uncomfortable cold, but a bone-chilling and numbing damp cold. For almost three weeks, the weather varied between types of rain and extreme winds. The buskers outside of Cologne's cathedral huddled against the howling winds. Umbrellas turned inside out. Mud puddles and rain made cobblestones slippery. In Brussels, the morning sky didn't lighten until about 8:15; the sky was dark again by 4 in the afternoon. Compared to Los Angeles county, we really were in upper latitudes. And life went on. I realized that this weather, which I thought was so miserable, was part of daily winter life in this part of the world. Locals rode bicycles in the rain and fashionable women wearing impossible high-heeled boots deftly sidestepped puddles.

The cold and dark winter climate caused me to appreciate just how important light can be. Every city, every little town, even tiny villages had beautiful evening light displays. Brussels' cathedral square featured a stunning sound and light show, beginning at 4 every evening. Colored lights in the shape of snowflakes drifted over the cathedral's facade, illuminating the statutes of saints. Families came to enjoy the show. Teenagers met up with friends. There was a respite from the cold and wind, as we all came together to enjoy warmth and light. The experience was that of a party, a mutual acknowledgement that this time of year was cause for celebration. We visited about twenty local Weinachtsmarkt, or Christmas markets, each one magical with lights, woolen goods, hot food stalls, sparkling ornaments, and, what else? candles of all sizes, glowing with flame against the dark night.

The Christmas Market draws crowds every evening
Savoring warmth and sunlight is part of enjoying life. As living beings, we delight in basking in the warmth of sunlight. During our practice the surya nasmaskar, or sun salutations, are an homage to the sun's warmth and healing power. When in savasana, or final relaxation, we are often cued to think of lying under the sunshine on top of a sandy beach. In a temperate climate, we can lose sight of the importance of sunshine, but it is essential to life itself.

At a service in Strasbourg's cathedral, young Boy and Girl Guides assembled with candle lanterns that were unlit. They and their families gathered at the main altar and had a short service that was, particularly meaningful whatever your faith tradition. A flame had been brought from Bethlehem, traveling to northeastern France. Each child's lantern was lit with that flame. At the conclusion of the service, the children were told to take their own flame into the dark and cold world, to bring light and warm to others. At nine in the morning, as the families left the cold, dark, stone cathedral on a damp and windy Sunday morning, the bright lanterns shone brilliantly.

Brussell's Cathedral's sound and light show is dramatic
In the Christian tradition, the Christ's incarnation is celebrated on December 25th. There is little historical reason for the date of Christmas, but there is a very human reason for the date: it makes sense to celebrate the coming of the Son at the time we celebrate the winter solstice. Many other faith traditions make light and warmth part of this time of year as well. The menorah of Hanukkah adds a flame every day for a full week and a day until the entire candelabrum is ablaze. Diwali, celebrates the Hindu new year, albeit a few weeks earlier (any later, it's monsoon season, and difficult to keep the fire lit). During Diwali, a  row of lamps are lit in every house, to signal the triumph of good over evil. As we do in the United States, Diwali is a time for celebration, new clothes, and special treats. For Persians, the winter solstice is the occasion for Yalda, "the turning point," that celebrates the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil. In the Chinese tradition, Dongzhi, or "extreme of winter," is celebrated with a festival on the 22nd of December. The longer daylight hours marked by that date introduce  positive solar energy. Families reunite and eat traditional foods such as glutinous rice balls or dumplings; ancestors are remembered. For many Chinese, Dongzhi rather than the lunar new year, is the beginning of the year.

Diwali light displays are spectacular
For cultures in the northern hemisphere, there is clear evidence that the winter solstice's significance is more than astronomical. The influence of light, the presence of warmth, the gathering of friends and family, the celebration of life--all of these accumulate meaning. In our yoga practice, we honor and acknowledge the light and warmth that is part of our life together. Like those lantern-carrying children in Strasbourg, let us share our life, our light, and our warmth through this season and in the year to come.


Bring the light of this season into your world

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Social protocols are part of group practice
Unless we live an entirely solitary existence, through trial and error, through direct instruction, or through observation, we learn what are termed “social protocols.” For example, most of the time we know to stand back while waiting in line to use an ATM; we enter an elevator, turn to face the doors, and observe a measure of silence (unless we recognize someone already in the elevator); we express a final remark such as “goodbye” or “see you later” when ending a conversation. Who teaches us those behaviors? It’s not entirely clear, but we do learn them eventually.
When I tried my first yoga class years ago, I was clueless about what was expected. Beside my anxiety regarding the poses, the terminology, and (overestimated) level of difficulty, I was equally nervous because nothing was said about “the rules” of yoga.
Because a group practice is a social situation, there are a number of unspoken social protocols that exist. If you were to search yoga etiquette on the web, you would encounter a number of lists about what is and isn’t good form in yoga.
Many yoga studios, as well as Yoga Journal, give guidelines for new practitioners. The New York Times published an article with the subhead “Bad Etiquette from Beginners Sparks Yoga Rage.” [Want to read more? Look past my sign-off for “Invasion of the Serenity Saboteurs”]
Although most of us have already internalized these yoga-specific social protocols, it doesn’t hurt to mention them again, as they are principles that honor our fellow yogis as well as ourselves:
Yoga is more than exercise
To help you focus, you might find it helpful to dedicate your practice to a certain intention. This might be to become more aware and understanding, more loving and compassionate, or healthier, stronger, and more centered in your yoga and life. Or it might be for the benefit of a friend, a cause—or even yourself. By adding this dimension to your physical practice, yoga will become more meaningful.
Become aware of the needs and feelings of others. Our fellow yogis and yoginis set aside time for their practice and time is a priceless commodity. Give yourself and everyone else the opportunity to make that time special. Unroll your mat or just sit breathe, and get centered. (Besides, early arrival ensures that you can find your favorite spot for your mat.)
If you have to use the restroom while class is in session, wait until there is a period of rest, such as child’s pose, or a transition from one section of the class to the next.
If you should enter late, please do so peacefully and quietly, without breaking the stillness of others' meditation.

Give the priceless gift of time to your practice
Whatever the reason, if you must enter or leave while class is in session, make yourself as inobtrusive as possible.
Savasana or the final relaxation is an important part of your yoga practice. Incorporate the time for savasana into your schedule. Please don't plan to leave class early; you only shortchange yourself from the benefits of your practice.

The space you need? On your mat & between your ears
Be considerate of other students and refrain from strong perfumes. Because some people may have sensitivity to perfumes and strong scents; don't squirt before class. Just as well, your yoga towel should be washed in unscented laundry detergent and fabric softener. You may enjoy the smell of your fabric-softened towel; however, your fellow yogis around you may not.
When the weather is warm, or if you expect to have a vigorous practice, bring a small towel and water. Stay hydrated and keep the sweat cleaned up, especially if you are borrowing a community-use sticky mat for the class.
Let your teacher know about injuries or conditions that might affect your practice. If you are injured or tired, skip poses you can't or shouldn't do, or try a modified version. Always keep your teacher informed of any changes and if you become pregnant. If you feel it is necessary, get your physician's approval before engaging in physical activity such as yoga. Let your teacher know if you feel painful discomfort in a posethis is your responsibility. Refrain from any pose that causes discomfort; listen to your body as it communicates with you. You know what feels best for yourself.
Again, listen to your body. It is better to allow the body to open slowly than to push yourself too far, too quickly. Practice with safety in mind and careful listening to instruction in class. Although a teacher will lead you through poses with verbal guidance and occasional hands-on adjustments, listening closely to your own body is REQUIRED for a safe yoga experience. Come out of a pose at anytime to rest. Instead of trying to go as deeply or completely into a pose as others might be able to do, do what you can without straining or injuring yourself. You'll go farther faster if you take a loving attitude toward yourself and work from where you are, not from where you think you should be.
Strive to get to class before it begins, so that you can check in with the teacher (particularly if you are new, have questions, or need modifications). The beginning of class, pranayama, and ending, savasana, are times when each student deserves quiet, stillness, and time for mindful awareness.
Please don’t bring pagers or cell phones to class. A ringing cell phone during asana really grates. Leave socializing and business outside, so the peace of the practice is not disturbed. Honor the stillness of your practice and explore your personal mind/body connection without distractions. If you are expecting an important telephone call, please set your cell phone to vibrate, and place the unit close by your mat. If the call comes through, leave quietly and continue the conversation outside of the practice space.
Blissful Play
Explore, learn and enjoy your time. Leave your ego at the door since your mat has no space for ego (competition, judgment, or pride). Live in the moment on your mat and carry that intention when you walk off your mat.

Don't confuse or intimidate others
Follow the teacher's instructions. If you’re an advanced student taking a beginners or intermediate class, stick to the basic versions of the postures so you don’t confuse other students. The instructor will give you the opportunity to take a more advanced variation when it’s appropriate. On the flip side, if you’re in an advanced class and you’re finding some of the poses difficult, then it’s okay to do a more basic variation–the teacher will provide you with modifications.

Take time afterwards to think about what you did in class, so you can retain what you learned. Review the poses you practiced, and note any instructions that particularly made sense. Even if you remember just one thing from each class, you'll soon have a lot of information that can deepen your own personal practice.

Seal your practice at the end of the class. The word  “namaste” traditionally ends practice. The word’s meaning is loosely translated to “I recognize the divine within you.” At the end of practice, the teacher will say namaste, and the class will respond with the same.

'Til the next blog, Auf Wiederseden und namaste,

Nancy's personal observation re: NYT article. Only a flippant, sarcastic New Yorker could get away with this article. Not for nothing does YogaDork want to be anonymous!

Invasion of the Serenity Saboteurs

Published: June 5, 2010
Yoga is about casting off petty annoyances and toxic judgments — a seemingly Sisyphean task for those hopped up on New York City living. But what if irritation trails you right onto your mat, in the guise of ring tones, exhibitionists or bliss-busting interruptions?
“Is there no compact of dos and don’ts inside a yoga studio? Not really. Common sense and fellowship usually dictate. Still, teachers and students, no matter how tolerant, harbor pet peeves.
“Here are a few, in no particular order, culled from interviews and online rants.
“BARGING OUT Hearing a fellow student leave class noisily, as you soak in those final minutes of well-earned relaxation, is akin to being awakened midsleep by an air horn (well, almost). It is too sudden, too soon.
“‘You are Zenned out,’ said the blogger YogaDork, who asked to remain incognito, describing the splendor of Savasana, resting pose. ‘And people are fumbling for bags and rolling up the mats.’
“BARGING IN The same goes for people who march into a class, whip open their mats and plunk down their belongings, sometimes while others are meditating.
‘The thwapping of the mat—that is very jarring,’ said Anya Porter, a teacher and teacher manager at Yoga Works in Midtown. ‘The class is quiet. Sometimes there is music playing. People can be really loud.’
“OVEREXPOSURE Some men take a minimalist approach to yoga wear, and not everyone is pleased about having a sweaty, stripped-down man within arm’s reach. ‘There are guys in European bathing suits,’ said an outraged Kendra Cunningham, a yoga lover and comedian who lives in Brooklyn. ‘We’re not in Capri here; it’s Cobble Hill.’
“Ralph De La Rosa, a manager at Go Yoga in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who describes himself as mostly tolerant, also draws the line at the half-naked male practitioner. ‘I like it when guys keep their shirts on,’ he said.
“Worse still are the men who wear loose-fitting shorts for comfort, with nothing underneath, prompting discomfort in the ladies around them. ‘It’s wrong,’ said an anonymous woman who posted on the Web site, which recently riffed on what not to do in yoga class. During lunges, she said, ‘it was all hanging out.’
“GOING SOLO Ms. Cunningham strongly objects to people who defy the chanting of ‘Om,’ and instead belt out ‘Ah.’ Again, the culprit is usually a guy.
“‘It’s a syllable,’ Ms. Cunningham said, incredulously.
“Yogis and yoginis who conduct their own session within the class, choosing poses that diverge from the instructor’s calls, can be a challenge for teachers. ‘It is certainly distracting,’ Ms. Porter said. ‘It brings the attention and focus onto that person.’
“SOUND EFFECTS Jennifer Ginsberg, a blogger who posts on, wrote recently about the day her teacher uncharacteristically played a pop song in class and the ‘unimaginable happened.’
‘‘The woman doing yoga next to me began to sing along to the song,’ she wrote.
‘’Loudly and off key.’
“Ms. Ginsberg refrained from yelling an obscenity-laden command for her neighbor to shut up. She thought about leaving the class. But her teacher came to the rescue and asked the woman to stop singing.
“Broadway-caliber grunts are more common than singalongs and only slightly less exasperating. Grunts are, of course, acceptable since they are a natural reaction to exertion. But, as the YogaDork pointed out, it gets awkward if they sound ‘orgasmic.’
“CELLPHONES It goes without saying: Cellphone chatter, unending ring tones and texting are roundly booed. One teacher whose list of grievances was posted on remembered a woman who answered her cellphone and shouted, ‘I’m in (expletive) yoga. Why are you calling me?’
“HYGIENE No one smells like a rose in yoga class. And you shouldn’t, because some people are allergic to or just dislike inhaling perfume. But body odor shouldn’t make you gag, either. Foot odor can be even worse. ‘I can handle B.O.,’ the Dork said, ‘but there is nothing worse than stinky feet when you are mat-to-mat and you are upside down and close to people’s feet.’
“In theory, none of this should bother us—or at least some of us. ‘Not to sound pessimistic,’ Ms. Cunningham said, ‘I feel like the only people who have achieved that degree of serenity are the teachers who have been practicing in India in mud huts.’
So, for those who live in walk-ups, arise to the melody of garbage trucks and slumber to the lullaby of barking dogs: Keep your clothes tight, your cellphone off, your oms in line. And, for Shiva’s sake, wash your feet.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Making Connections

Today was an unusual day for me. After ten days of houseguests and multiple events, plenty of relatives, miles and miles traveling through Southern California, I was looking forward to (introvert that I am) the comfort of a familiar routine. I was relishing with anticipation some time for myself and with my own thoughts. As I left the driveway, I sighed with a sense of relief. Ahh! Time alone! Bliss! Quiet! Relaxation. As it turned out, my drive time was my "alone time."

Because when I got to the gym this morning for my usual workout, I saw an dear friend in the parking lot, one I hadn't seen in months. All my grumpiness vanished with the joy of meeting her by chance. We chatted. Another friend joined us. Leaving that conversation and heading toward the entrance, I saw another friend that I hadn’t spoken to in over a year. We caught up on our news. Taking the stairs up to the weight room, I saw another old friend: one I hadn’t seen in over three years. As we spoke on the stairs, another friend came by. I floated up the rest of the stairs. It was wonderful to have seen those friends! I had completely forgotten my crabbiness and fatigue.
It’s not that I have SO many friends, that’s not the point (or necessarily true). The point is that, during that fifteen minutes, I re-connected with people who are important to me and we maintained our connections. After class was finished, another friend came upstairs and we brought ourselves up to date with her family’s news. Later in the day, leaving the dentist’s office, I saw an old friend from years back who, unbeknownst to me, also uses the same dentist. I was beginning to feel as if I were in a time warp or a movie from the multiplex: Connection Day 2011. The feeling persisted when I came back home and looked through the mail, filled with newsletters from not one, but three organizations, and read about doings and concerns from near and far--locally, in northern California, and in Pennsylvania.

Today's chance connections filled my tired spirit with joy. Even though felt physical fatigue, the positive energy of seeing dear faces lifted my heart. I enjoyed a surge of gratitude for all those people in my life who have supported, befriended, and encouraged me. I reflected back through the past ten days with a renewed spirit. I savored every human connection that kept me in touch with others. With that surge of gratitude, I wanted to give back the same. Who can resist the genuine love of family and friends and not want to share?

We are, every one of us, connected. Whether we know each other or not, we make an impact on one another. In fact, the word yoga implies connected-ness, as it is a joining or yoking together of many aspects of our lives: breath, spirit, body, and humanity. Yoga teaches us to pay more attention to cause and effect. We practice on our mats by noticing how a posture changes if we simply straighten our elbows or relax the muscles of our thighs. Time spent on our mats can also illustrate our interconnectedness with others. As we practice in a group class, we may notice that one person toppling out of a balancing posture can bring down the whole class. We may notice how two or three strong breathers in a room can inspire the entire group to deep, rhythmic breath. Yoga reveals the powerful effects our actions can have--negative or positive.

Moving deeper into the philosophical aspects of interconnectedness, I discovered that “connected” is a mathematical concept as well. In the world of mathematics (a place that I visit very rarely), connected can be “not decomposable into two disjoint nonempty open sets” or “having a continuous path between any two points” (used of a curve, set, or surface). So, what does that mean? Some illustrations of connected-ness (math style) are helpful:



Looking at the illustrations above, it’s clear that connected-ness doesn’t have to be in a straight line. The shaded spaces, the shared boundaries can be interpreted not only as places where sets connect, but how we connect during our daily lives. Even the tiniest point creates a connection, as in the bottom right example.

Positive and affirming connections, filled with compassion and respect, initiate a chain reaction throughout the day, and even beyond. One aspect of our practice is to strengthen our connectedness--on the mat, in community, and in the greater world.

Until next week, namaste,

Friday, November 4, 2011

Which comes first? The Chicken or the Egg? An Action or Emotion? Choices and how they affect our lives.

While yoga won't resolve the chicken or egg dilemma, an exploration into the origin of emotions or feelings is helpful for not only our practice, but our larger perspective.

About six years ago, Dr. David Burns published Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, his insights into motivation and emotion. One of the most recommended books for helping those who suffer from depression, Dr. Burns findings prove useful for everyone, whether diagnosed with a mood disorder or not. Here’s how:
Dr. Burns asserts that our emotions and moods are influenced by doing, not by feeling. Waiting for the urge to act could take a long, long time. When we perform the action, the emotion or feeling arrives during the action. Here's a quick example to illustrate this transaction:

If you've ever stood in a grocery check-out line with an unknown baby in the cart in front of you, it's a sure bet that, if you smile at the baby, the baby will smile back. In that moment, your frustration with waiting in line is forgotten. The pleasurable interaction with another person, without words, with pure positive emotion has been triggered by your action of smiling.
In other words, first the doing, then the feeling.
We know this, to some extent, to be true. We always feel accomplishment crossing an item off the to-do list, our mood is much lighter when we leave the gym than when we walk in, our hearts are lifted after a vigorous practice on the mat. This could be the effect of exercise producing those mood-altering endorphins; it could be our actions and emotions are congruent (in other words, our physical actions match our emotions); it could be we are pleased with ourselves; or it could be any combination of these, perhaps more. Whatever the cause (or causes), we know we feel good.On the other hand, when confronted with the choice of blowing off a disagreeable chore or unpleasant task, we can justify our inaction by telling ourselves that we’re just not “in the mood” to do the job. We rationalize that we “don’t feel like it” and will wait until a better time. Let’s be honest with ourselves: another name for this psychological tug-of-war between doing what needs to be done now and opting for a later time is procrastination. The effects of procrastination are niggling guilt, a sense of dissatisfaction, and the sure knowledge that the job still needs to be done. Keep in mind that while I am typing this blog, I am aware that I have a long personal list of procrastination items: financial matters to be addressed, floors to be cleaned, a sink of dirty dishes, a dryer of wet laundry, unanswered e-mails, a half-finished sweater on knitting needles, and piles of uncut yardage waiting for projects. Life is complicated and filled with choices, we prioritize our tasks and work them out accordingly. More jobs than time--that is part of the condition of living
Finding motivation in action, setting priorities, and avoiding the spiral of procrastination--all of these are part of our yoga practice. Sometimes the toughest part of our practice is getting onto the mat. 

Once we complete our pranayam, we settle into the here and now. For that hour, we experience the focus and discipline that is yoga. And after savasana, the positive emotion and bliss carries us farther through our daily routine to that we can achieve more, do more, and enjoy the emotions that achievement and doing bring.Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Not sure about that. But I do know that doing almost always precedes feeling. Acting gracious often comes before feeling gratitude. A gentle touch or word can ignite kindness.

Within NPC’s Yoga Community, we see that positive actions ripen into positive emotions. The warmth, regard, and support that we share with newcomers and regulars alike is proof that in our practice, in our doing, we create a positive place. Applying this principle--doing preceding feeling--can enrich our lives and those who surround us. And now, better tackle those dishes, floors, and some laundry!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Why is a church offering yoga classes? A glimpse into Northminister Presbyterian Church’s community perspective.

At first glance (and for many traditional Christians), it might seem incongruous for a church to be offering classes in yoga. The discipline of yoga began many, many centuries ago in India, and many aspects of yoga are linked with cultural references that seem far removed from Christianity. The asanas, or poses, in yoga require practice: in breathing, in movement, and in meditation. Meditation might seem part of Christian practice, but breathing? moving? Aren’t cultural lines beginning to blur when a church offers yoga? How can a Christian (or Jew, or Muslim, or agnostic for that matter) practice yoga and still maintain fidelity to a specific faith?

Good questions, every one of them. Here are some insights as to why Northminster Presbyterian Church offers a yoga class, free to the community.

It’s no surprise to anyone living within a 21st Century southern Californian suburb--life is hectic, rushed, crowded with “to-do” lists, and multiple obligations. Cellphones, text messages, and e-mails compete for our attention. Even when we are alone, we have the freedom to devote undivided attention to the larger aspects of our lives; becoming enmeshed in minute details has become the norm. Yoga offers an opportunity to turn down the competing demands on our attention and to focus on the simple human act of “being” instead of “doing.” Yoga is one place where we “practice” and accept our bodies; we don’t “perfect” and judge. There are enough high standards and judgments in our lives. For the hour of yoga practice, we suspend all distractions, all competition, all energy-draining noises. We recharge ourselves and discover new resources within ourselves.

Whatever a person's spiritual perspective (or even if there is none), there are benefits in taking time to enjoy being alive, noticing the small details that enrich living, and treasuring those moments with gratitude. Yoga presents a non-judgmental approach to accepting life's gifts and appreciating what every moment presents. This appreciation of life is part of who we are at Northminister. We would like to share that perspective with everyone, without reservation. An active yoga community such as the one at Northminister meets twice a week to breathe together, to practice together, and to encourage one another.

Diamond Bar is one of Los Angeles County’s more diverse communities with multiple faith traditions. Yoga is a spiritually-inclusive discipline that urges its practictioners to examine their own intentions, relationship with self, and with others. Whether it be setting an intention prior to beginning practice (a prayer, a psalm, a mantra, a personal goal) to honoring those at the end of the session--each person can use the practice time on the mat to focus on spirituality. Respecting and honoring each person’s perspective makes our practice together not only joyful and nonjudgmental, but a way to see how much more we have in common.

And we have much to learn from one another. Whatever we might call the practice--meditation, prayer, contemplation, breathing, mindfulness--we share together the benefits of a spiritual focus.

Northminster Presbyterian Church is active with the larger life of our community. Our facilities and campus are used by the Boy Scouts, a karate class, a community preschool, and the Red Cross, to name a few.  We believe that a church is more than a collection of members who meet every Sunday; We believe that a church is more than its facilities. We believe that a church is intended to extend beyond its property line and parking lot--to make positive changes in the community.

Yoga is one way that NPC offers spiritual growth, uniting body and mind in a nonjudgmental setting. Whether the benefits of yoga practice are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or all of the above--Northminister Presbyterian Church is pleased to have you.

At the end of every practice, the instructor says the word namaste. A Sanskrit word, namaste can be translated as “I recognize the divine within you.” As we conclude our sessions, this recognition could sum up the reason for Northminister’s commitment to offer yoga classes. We acknowledge that every one of us has a divine spark within us, and through our practice, we hope to cultivate and nuture our spirituality.

Until next week, namaste

Friday, October 21, 2011


Here are some thoughts about how drishti can improve not only our practice but also our larger perspective.

The Sanskrit word, drishti, can be translated as gaze, or vision. By selecting appropriate destinations for our gaze while we move through asanas, we can focus our attention and concentration on our practice. The drishti concentrates the energy and action of each asana, and also helps to focus our minds.

The role of gaze, or drishti, in yoga is just as important as alignment. Newer students, who are often anxious as to where/how/when to move, might find their eyes traveling throughout the room. Not only do the students find the poses to be difficult, their lack of focus distracts them from getting into the essence of yoga: uniting body and mind with the breath.

Why should we keep drishti in mind throughout each session? The best answer to that question would be to discuss what happens, visibly and mentally, when we lose focus during our practice.
There is always a self-consciousness that comes as we evaluate our bodies in a mirror. Luckily, our usual practice room has no mirrors, so we aren't distracted (or discouraged) by how we "look" as we move into and out of our asanas!

Even when I am not demonstrating, sometimes new students look to me as "the"guide for alignment. That's not helpful, as my body's alignment has its own quirks and should never be a basis for comparison. It's far better to listen to verbal cues and place our bodies in the space around us. Remember, each practice is as unique as the individual.

Looking around the room to compare one asana to another leads to judgment and competition. Both of those outcomes are counterproductive. Accept your body as it is that day, in that moment. Maintain curiosity and wonder. Listen to your body. My job as instructor is to monitor your practice to keep you from overextending yourself, but you know your body better than anyone else. If our eyes are roving and comparing, we aren't centered on our own practice.

Watching the clock or checking cellphones for messages is a clear sign that focus has shifted from our practice and into the distractions and demands of our lives. For many of us, one of the primary reasons for yoga is to discipline ourselves to take a firm "time out" from competing demands. Staying in the here and now throughout the session will keep us from getting short-changed of all that yoga can offer.

As we practice, our gaze shifts according to the asana: from an outstreatched hand, to a foot, to our fingertips, even (in down dog) to our navels. Each asana has a drishti, a place to gain energy and focus while maintaining the pose. Here are some general guidelines:

In standing yoga poses in which the spine is neutral, the gaze follows the action of the arms. In chair pose (utkatasana) and warrior I (virabhadrasana I), the gaze moves up with the energy of the lifted arms. In warrior II (virabhadrasana II), look toward the front hand. During a vinyasa sequence, move the arms back to center (for example, to namasté position at the heart) on each exhale, letting the gaze follow, and reach the arms back into the pose on each inhale, letting the gaze follow. Keep the rest of the body steady.

In poses that include side bending and spine twisting, for example, in triangle pose (utthita trikonasana), revolving triangle (parivritta trikonasana), side angle lunge (utthita parsvakonasana) and revolving lunge (parivritta parsvakonasana), gaze toward the top hand, which reaches in the direction of the side bend or spinal twist.

In challenging balance yoga poses such as tree pose (vrkasana), use the gaze to assist stability. Generally, gazing slightly forward and toward the floor makes balancing yoga poses easier. Looking up to the ceiling tends to make the pose more challenging. 

Forward bends, such as seated forward fold (paschimottonasana) and bound angle (baddha konasana), have two common variations: with the spine straight and rounded. If the spine is straight, the gaze is at the feet or in front of the body; if the spine flexes into a full forward bend, the gaze moves to the legs. Try a vinyasa moving between the two expressions of a forward bend (inhale as spine straightens and gaze lifts; exhale as spine rounds and gaze move to legs). 

Savasana is a time to withdraw the senses, including vision. Turn the gaze within. Use this time to recharge your mental batteries. With closed eyes, imagine looking down into the lower eye sockets and become attentive to calm, even breathing.

Enjoy your practice! See you next week. Namaste,