Engage without striving; flow without force.
Engage your core.
For many of us this is a pretty loaded request. It sounds an awful lot like “suck in your gut,” which sounds a lot like your belly is not allowed to be here in this space. For me, the act of sucking in my gut is violent. It feels like my organs are being stifled, “Shhhh…. Stay quiet and take up as little space as possible until bed time, then you can be organs.”
When I stopped caring about the belly-should-brigade, I just let it all hang out… I had organs floating around 10 feet in front of me, leading the way as I walked.
Through the practice of yoga, though, I’ve discovered that engaging the core is more subtle, intentional, and loving. It’s not about the belly and the organs, it’s about the spine. When we engage the core, it’s an invitation to support the spine with love.
“Suck in your gut” is the Elmyra version of love.
Engage your core is the kind of love in the anonymous quote “When you like a flower, you pluck it. When you love a flower, you water it.”
Engage the core just enough to support the spine. There is still room in the abdomen to breathe and for the organs to do their thing. Imagine the spine is a baby just learning to sit up. You want the baby to learn to sit up, so you’re not going to hold on to her tightly. However, you hold your hands so close so that if she topples, you’ve got her. You might even provide a soft cushion for support.
Experiment with the differences between these experiences in the body. Pay attention to how each feels.
First suck in your gut in the way that you normally would. Do you have room to breathe? Do you feel relaxed or anxious? Does this feel sustainable? Perhaps you've been engaging all along.
Next relax your core completely. Does your spine feel supported? Do you feel like you can do what needs to be done safely or do you feel a bit disjointed or untethered? Do your organs feel like they have room to do their work?
Now move between these two extremes like a pendulum. Engaging the core a little at a time, checking in with your breath, feelings, and organs. The goal is to support the spine while remaining pliable in the abdomen for breath and digestion.
This is engagement without striving, flow without force.
Artist's Way: Criticism
Mudra: Kurma Mudra
Clarification Cards: The Curse, The Drum, The Crow, The Eagle
I find it very interesting that I'm not as intimidated or afraid of this month as I would've been at the end of 2017. Each monthly practice of 2018 has built on the last and I feel prepared and even a little excited to confront my addictions.
At the end of his viral TED talk, Johann Hari says, "The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it's human connection." Shame and disconnection often lead to more addictive behavior. Every time I've focussed on eliminating my behaviors, I've just spiraled further into the behavior. However, when I focus on the benefits of the replacement behavior, I have a bit more success.
Hari described an experiment where rats who had a stimulating environment, friends, and mates chose water over heroin-laced water. He transferred that understanding to humans, saying that the audience could be drinking vodka and yet they're choosing to drink water. He attributed this choice to having "bonds and connections [they] want to be present for."
As I confront my addictive behaviors this month, I'll ask myself what part of this situation do I want to be present for and connected with? Yes, a part of me is wanting to escape and check out from some aspect of the experience. That's why I mindlessly sugar up, shop, marathon television reruns, and pick at my skin. I have both tendencies within me: the desire to connect and the desire to withdraw. I'm choosing to seek and strengthen connections. I'm choosing to be fully present in my rat park.
The affirmation of the Phoenix in the Bird Cards is, "I ask the overlighting consciousness of the phoenix to help me transcend the destruction of my old support structures." On my April 2nd hike in the desert I kept seeing images of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The dead cacti were becoming one with the soil that fed the nearby living cacti. I experienced an overwhelming feeling of connection and simultaneous non-attachment. We are all connected and eternal and yet constantly changing form. This is the energy of the Phoenix.
I asked a new deck of cards for clarification. I drew three cards: The Curse, The Drum, and The Eagle. The Curse seems to connect my disconnection with karma from past lives and/or ancestral limiting beliefs. For me, that thought releases me from judgement. I need not be perfect and beyond reproach. I am but one expression of this struggle between disconnection and connection. I need not know the whys and the specifics. I just need to do the work along my journey in this present moment. The Drum can provide the rhythmic trance to keep me present in the moment. And The Eagle invites me to become my observer self during these moments of connection and disconnection.
In this first week of April, The Spirit of Yoga issued a pose of the week challenge to practice Crow. Crow is a pose that takes equanimity of plank to the next level. How does one stay balanced when deliberately off-balance? Crow, Eagle, Phoenix... a lot of birds. A lot of opportunities to "be taught how to fly." The Crow card says it is the keeper of universal law of truth. It is about walking my talk and maintaining integrity between my word and my deed. Later this year I'll be teaching a mindfulness class. And to be in integrity with that work, I must release the last of these addictive, evasive, disconnecting behaviors. I choose to be present and connect with this existence and my fellow beings.
In connecting, there is collaboration and co-creation. In order to collaborate, I must be able to receive criticism. Receiving criticism is also a practice of non-attachment and simultaneous engagement.
The intention of the Kurma Mudra is to reduce sensory overload. Hari also discussed one of the crises of our culture - our replacement of human connection with stuff collection. When the sensory overload of our modern world overwhelms me, I create the gesture of the tortoise and breathe, resting inward, finding clarity and vitality.
I started this month realizing that it's time to face my sugar addiction. I had just polished off a big bag of M&Ms. And today, May 2nd, I ate only one of a 3 pack of a healthy chocolate macaroon that I bought two days ago. I used to have this feeling of urgency, like I had to eat treats before they went bad. I couldn't let them go to waste. This has to be the past-life or ancestral limiting belief, probably related to the Great Depression or other times of lack. I can limit my contribution to food waste by not purchasing food in great quantities. I feel like I can enjoy healthy treats now without being attached to them.
Over the course of the month, my screen time became less mindless and more intentional. There was less random sharing and more connecting with specific people.
My focus on connecting also had some unintended consequences. I was able to release some limiting beliefs around money, specifically some resentment I had around paying my student loans (ageist fine print on teacher loan forgiveness conditions). That resentment had been addictive in its own way.
Most of my yoga this month has been off the mat. I've been connecting and collaborating with friends, loved ones, and coworkers. And yet, when I needed to be in my body, my asana practice was there.
Artist's Way: Spontaneity
Mudra: Shunya Mudra
This is an interesting group of cards. The affirmation for the shunya mudra, or gesture of emptiness, is "With greater openness to new ways of seeing, I create space for the journey of awakening."
The bird card is about finding or creating my true home. The healer archetype transforms pain into healing. And the Spontaneity card says that by releasing the fear of abandonment, our loved ones are able to love us back with more spontaneity.
The spontaneity card reminds me of work that I've been doing for myself and others around healthy boundaries. And finding my home with the help of the Weaver can be interpreted as my domicile and my body. My practice this month, will align with both interpretations. I will focus on my home and my body. For when I open space in both and they are uncluttered and functional, I am able to continue last month's work of putting compassion into action by transforming pain into healing.
I also learned from last month's over-complexity of yoga sequences. This month began with a full moon, so I'm practicing a moon salute. On days when I have a little more time, I'll add poses that support my intention for the month.
I was able to incorporate aspects of this month's practice in little ways here and there throughout the month. I used Shunya Mudra whenever I wanted to create a little extra space. I specifically remember using it during the Forgiveness Ceremony at SWIHA and during opening meditation at the Yoga Family Night at Laveen Elementary School. I practiced moon salutation while hiking, at my desk, before bed, upon waking. This sequence was so easy for me to memorize and move through with my breath. This must be what sun salutation feels like for other people.
I only listened to my recording of this sequence once. I trusted that my higher Self held onto the intention and I focussed on being in the moment with my body and my surroundings. I listened to the birds and the wind rather than my voice.
As I start looking at April's cards and considering what that practice looks like, I realize my work in March was preparing me for April. April's archetype is the addict. This March practice around embracing my power as a healer, strengthening boundaries, and weaving my home was the prep work for dealing with my addictions. This realization validates for me the beauty in just trusting the process. I didn't know where this March practiced was headed. My ego was distracted by February's Advocate practice, thinking that I was embodying the healer in order to support others. I'm reminded I don't always need to know the why or the destination, I just trust the process and enjoy the journey.
"Find the comfort within the discomfort that's necessary for facing the reality of our current state of inequality so we can use the power of privilege to shift into equality."
Us & Them
Many years ago my father and I were driving cross-country and we passed a historical marker for The Trail of Tears. My father said, "It's a shame what we did to them." I thought for a moment about something his mother had recently told me. Her great great... grandmother was Native American. She had confided this information to me as one confides a shameful secret. I replied to my father, "It's a shame what we did to us."
Othering is the process of choosing sides. When we line up on opposite sides of the playground it's easier to throw balls at each other. When we go one stop further and dehumanize the other side, it's easier to launch missiles, enslave, and deliver small pox infested blankets to our fellow humans.
The Just World Fallacy
When as individuals we feel helpless, we can self-soothe with a false sense of control based on a belief in a just world. In a just world, everyone gets what they deserve. We victim blame because it feels safer than admitting that we, too, are vulnerable to injustice, violence, and betrayal.
When we combine the just world fallacy with othering, it's easy to blame entire groups of people for systemic injustice. We might even be willing to believe that only the immigrants that deserve to be deported will be deported. And we may desperately want to believe that Eric Garner's pre-existing health conditions were the reason he couldn't breathe.
When we combine the just world fallacy with the sacred myth of the American Dream, we are tempted to believe that billionaire CEOs worked hard for everything they have while their employees living below the poverty line just aren't trying hard enough.
The False Hierarchy of Human Value
The false hierarchy of human value places more value on white males. A white woman, might find it easier to accept this than fight the system. She might put more energy into raising her son than her daughter, expecting that he will someday take care of her in her old age. In this false hierarchy of human value, she has a pretty cushy spot. If she can only make the white males in her life happy, she'll be okay. She might take a few beatings or swallow her pride so often she loses her voice. And 53% of her ilk will throw the other 47%, plus people of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, those worshiping the faith of Islam, legal immigrants, migrant workers, refugees fleeing war-torn regions... basically everyone except white cis-males under the bus.
And 53% of white women are not alone. Being one rung down on this ladder is a temptation for many people and they choose to ally themselves with their oppressors rather than the rest of humanity.
However, the reason we call this hierarchy false is because true power is not finite. It just feels finite to those hoarding money and power because they believe power is power over others. They want to hold onto that oppressive, coercive power. True power, though, is power with, built through connection, cooperation, and compassion.
The just world fallacy makes it palatable to believe certain stereotypes about ourselves. In my opinion, this is the hardest part of the work of examining these power structures and our contribution to them. Often the smallest internalized oppressions can be the most mind-blowing. This work is slow because it is depressing. For example, realizing that the heroes in romantic comedies are often actually abusive, creepy, stalkers, left a gaping hole in my life. I needed to replace that with other entertainments and find my new center before facing another internalized oppression.
Re-learning history and re-evaluating your role in society and ultimately history can be very scary. Many people would rather keep their blinders on and not know the truth. However, if you are ready to examine your privilege, you may need support. It can feel somewhat lonely. As you peel back these layers, it can be rather shocking. Those who already know these truths are not often patient with your feelings because they've been living with the truth for years. Those who are not yet ready to see might be defensive in their denial. Please, seek support from a professional or a group of people in the same stage of discovery.
How: Nightjar - master fear
What: Creative Recovery
Mudra: Anushasana Mudra, gesture of direction
Toes: Earth, Air, Fire
I wasn't sure if my practices would follow the calendar months and I didn't want to force them to. However, the transition between my January and February practices was so seamless I'm not even going to worry about the transitions for the rest of the year.
On January 31st, two of my classmates in Advanced Sequencing tackled the theme of Joy with the peak pose Wild Thing. On February 1st I reviewed the preliminary notes I had made for the February cards and postures and realized there was a lot of overlap between my notes and their practice. And as I considered that synergy, my mind was blown.
At another point in the development of this practice, I was overwhelmed by the amount of work I had set for myself. I needed to write my personal practice, a short partner teaching practice, a long group teaching practice, and an individual passion-project practice- all for the above-mentioned course. I had ideas for all four and yet couldn't decide where to put my energy first. Then I remembered to "keep it simple," and something my instructor had said. He suggested that we use parts of our individual practice toward the group projects. That seemed like good advice and yet also impractical because they would have different themes. Then I realized... The individual assignment is due last. Why not use the group projects to create the individual assignment and have that be the same as my personal practice? Same advice, just comprehended in reverse and it worked for me.
The first time I was asked to do Wild Thing in a studio yoga class, my reaction was, "You have got to be $h#!#@* me!?!?" There was no way I was going to do that. I was so scared. During this January 31st experience, I didn't feel like I could do Wild Thing... yet. I wasn't anxious though. The other pose that scares me is lowering into the chaturanga, the bottom half of a push-up. So, yes, it's time to push the edge of my upper body strength and work on my plank and wild thing. The pose that I'll be cueing for our group project is dancer and one of the suggested poses for preparing for dancer is wheel. I have yet to attempt wheel. I could do it in my limber youth. So, I will also start working toward my wheel. There are a lot of fears here to master and I may not master them all this month. However, I will have recognized them and begun the work of reframing them into an expression of trust.
I had already chosen the Breath of Joy for my February practice as it can be used for cultivating compassion. And while Joy wasn't originally one of my themes, the synergy once again had my thinking. Someone told me once that they were looking forward to attending my yoga class because they assumed it would be joyful as I'm a generally joyful person. I had been working on giving myself permission to not smile if I'm not feeling it, so the assumption did not align with my personal work at the time. Perhaps this February practice, though, can be an experiment in teaching with authentic joy while maintaining a moving meditation experience.
My idea for the passion project assignment was to incorporate the elements and toe reading into the asana practice. I'll write more about toe reading, I'm sure, soon. The important thing to mention here is that yoga is the practical, physical, method for effecting change in the toes. So integrating a yoga practice with the intention of affecting the toes is meta-powerful. There is no particular compassion toe. However, compassion is the purview of the heart chakra. And the heart chakra can be read in the air and fire toes. These toes are associated with communication, expression, and action.
I am really in awe at the power of this practice. The end of the month was fast approaching and I had completed and taught the assigned yoga sequences for my course, yet I hadn't recorded or practiced my February sequence. And then I realized that my February practice was off-the-mat yoga. I faced and released several fears this month. I spoke my intuition in several ways that developed into opportunities for me to put my compassion into action. Even the group yoga teaching projects helped me release some fears. I could record our group sequence or my individual sequence, however, this month I am allowing myself the grace of not recording my practice. I am standing up to the social media pressure of "pics or it didn't happen." Yes, it did happen. And no, there is no video.
Higher Self: Warrior
How: Turkey (Gratitude)
Action: Tune in
Mudra: Shakata Mudra
Writing the Sequence
Warrior seemed pretty self-evident, there would need to be a warrior flow in the sequence.
Gratitude was a little more tricky. There was nothing listed as having the core quality of gratitude in the appendix of the Yoga Toolbox. So, I googled "gratitude yoga sequence" and found this lovely yin sequence from Yoga Journal. That seemed synchronous since yin provides opportunities for tuning in. I used their first three poses and then the fourth pose struck me because I have been sleeping or at least beginning the night of sleep in this position, supported chest and heart opener, for a couple of days. I had one of those yoga-is-life moments and stared into the distance for a while.
I realized that all of the Yoga Journal poses were on the floor and that I needed to transition up to warrior at some point.
In the meantime I had pulled a few cards from the Yoga Toolbox based on the core quality listed in the appendix. They seemed to be related to the idea of Tuning In: Discernment, Intuition, Receptivity, and New Possibilities.
Warrior is so appropriate for my January 2018. At the beginning of the month I participated in a firewalk hosted by Southwest Institute of Healing Arts and facilitated by HeatherAsh Amara, author of Warrior Goddess Training.
During the first practice of this sequence, I found it difficult to hold the mudra while in savasana. I ended up separating my hands and imagining a line of energy still connecting them. I might try to support my elbows with bolsters tomorrow.
During the second practice, I did support my elbows with bolsters and I still ended up releasing the mudra half-way through and allowing my palms to open up to receive on the mat at my side. I also noticed that by releasing with knee-down twist and sleeping pigeon at the beginning of the practice, my hips were much more open during the warrior sequence. I find myself in knee-down twist as well as the supported heart opener in bed - both as I'm settling in for the night and as I'm waking. I've been doing the full practice two to three times a week and affirming or supporting the practice with movement and gratitude in between practices. That feels right. It feels like gratitude for life's grace.
I was feeling as though I hadn't reflected on the practice or processed the experience enough and then I realized that because I'm doing this work through movement, in my body, I don't need to process as much verbally. In fact, I've already naturally flowed into my February work.
With each repetition of this practice, I go deeper in. Several times now, I’ve needed to adjust the practice to meet my needs. First my quads were not warmed up enough for my attempts at camel to be comfortable. So I added some variations of sun salutations that included runner’s lunge.
Then I also found myself pausing the audio so I could stay in bound angle, supported bridge, and savasana longer. For other poses, I found that I couldn’t hold it for quite as long as I was telling myself to, so I would return to tadasana, child’s pose, or continue onto the second side.
It is nearly February and I have yet to complete this reflection. I feel like my focus on the details above speaks volumes. It was such a new process for me, such a new experience to be open and vulnerable and share myself in a less than perfect expression. And yet, as I look back on the other side of my January practice, I see how much this December practice set the stage for so much growth. No wonder the cards jumped out in three groups of three... there was so much intense work to do that it is difficult to put into words.
The aftereffect, though, is that I feel much more connected, authentic, and free to share myself and my journey in my humanness.
Please consider this blog entry my bibliography or credits page for my 2018 Personal Intuitive Yoga Practice series. My intention is to link to this page in future posts.
Earlier this month I was inspired by my good friend Michael who was doing a Year Ahead reading on Facebook live for a lucky viewer. It was quite amazing. I encourage you to check him out.
I was not the lucky viewer, so I pulled out a few decks of cards and my Carolyn Myss' Sacred Contracts: The Journey board that just so happens to have 12 spaces, which I reinterpreted to represent the 12 months. The board also has three concentric circles. I interpreted the outer circle to be how my higher self will be showing up each month. I drew one of Carolyn Myss's Archetype Cards for each month, plus a 13th card that represents the overarching theme for my year. It was The Guide - no pressure.
For the middle circle, I asked what I needed to know in order to bridge the gap between my little s self and my big S Self. This card answers the question, "How?" My mother comes to me in the form of birds and I felt like I needed her support for the first six months, so I pulled from the Bird Cards oracle by Joyce van Dobben and Jane Toerien. Then for four months I pulled from the Sacred Geometry Activations deck by Lon Art. And the last two from the Earth Magic Oracle deck by Steven D. Farmer.
The innermost circle is the practical question, "What do I need to do?" For this circle, I pulled from The Artist's Way deck by Julia Cameron, Messages from the Mat by Shine, and one card from the Past Life Oracle deck by Doreen Virtue.
When I decided to base my yoga practice on these readings, I also pulled 12 cards from the Mudra Card Deck by Joseph and Lilian Le Page. And of course, while creating the yoga sequences and affirmations, I always use their Yoga Toolbox for Teachers and Students.
Today I practiced my first Asana from this reading and it was amazing. 2018 has a lot in store for me and I'm excited to show up for it!
Note: For some reason not all of the photos I took of these resources are showing up as JPEG, so this may get updated as I figure that out.
I was just listening to Julia Cameron's Reflections on the Artist's Way. (I'm working on updating the week on creativity in a life coaching course for my day job.) She said, "Discipline is a word that we use to beat ourselves up.... It's fun to do something creative. Once you get used to doing it, it doesn't take discipline."
I beat myself up about my lack of discipline as recently as June 2017. I remember thinking that I should take some work with me to Jamaica to prove to myself that I have the discipline to be an entrepreneur. That sounds ridiculous to my ears now. I'm not exaggerating, though, those were my exact thoughts.
In yoga, the concept of discipline, is called tapas. And in my study of yoga, I have really grappled with the meaning of tapas, probably because discipline is such a loaded word for me. The literal translation of tapas is "to burn". It is described as austerities, self-discipline, and purification. The hermetic yogis are put on a pedestal of fasting, celibate, self-denial. It seems completely unattainable, and to be honest, undesirable. I do not cling to enough guilt to be a self-flagellator.
Which brings me to another point raised by Julia Cameron: artists do not start off doing amazing work. She said that even George Lucas's student films were not brilliant. The creative journey is one of small steps; we do not jump from novice to academy award or hermetic yogi in one leap. In fact, the desire that we do so is one of the causes of suffering.
So, if the journey of self-discipline does not start at renunciation, starving, and self-flagellation, then where does it start? Tapas is that feeling of being uncomfortable and breathing through the discomfort. It's standing up in front of the class and speaking even though butterflies are setting up a mosh pit in your belly. Every time I follow through with something instead of talking myself out of it, I'm practicing tapas. So, ironically, being on vacation and enjoying my trip to Jamaica could be considered discipline. I breathed through the gamut of shoulds and let them go so I could relax and just be.
"Once you get used to it, it doesn't take discipline." That edge is always moving. As one behavior becomes a pleasurable habit, we try something new, continually growing and stretching ourselves. That is tapas; that is discipline.
When we add svadhyaya, or self-study, to the tapas, we get curious. Right now, in my yoga practice, I'm curious about my fear of chaturanga dandasana, the lowering part of a push-up. So far I've discovered that my imagination of plank is much too literal. That line is not really as straight as a board, which explains why I never know what yoga teachers are talking about when they say chin, chest, and then belly. Boards do not move that way. I don't even think bamboo moves that way. I had been assuming I was too weak or too out of shape or maybe I had fallen from a really low height as a child and landed on my chin.
After a while, though, that explanation ceased to satisfy me. I've been reading articles and watching youtube videos, showing the smaller steps leading to chaturanga. And I've been recording myself so I can see if my elbow is really at a 90 degree angle. What is happening in my body at that moment when I get scared and just flop to the ground?
In this practice of self-discipline and self-study there is an ebb and flow, a balance between effort and ease, as there is with any yoga asana. If we force the discipline, we become out of balance. If we force the practice, it does not turn to pleasure. Forced practice turns to resentment and shame. Don't expect to see a perfect chaturanga from me in the next blog. I will be cycling through from practice, to curiosity, to study, to reflection, and back to practice, with surrender and patience, for as long as it takes for me to enjoy chaturanga.
Beauty. This one was tough and that's why I paired it with Savasana... I wanted this work to be done while I was asleep. Well, the joke's on me, because this entire process of filming my personal practice has been the work of this card.
A few months ago I had an inspired thought. I have been resisting suggestions that I try Louise Hay's mirror work. When I look in the mirror, I see a distorted image of myself. When I look at a photograph, it's a distorted image of myself. Because both the mirror and the photograph are two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional person. And yet, when I look at a photograph of a loved one, I see all of them. The reason for this is that our brain fills in the gaps. I may be looking at a photograph, but I'm remembering their full self in the world. I see a certain tilt to their smile and I combine that with my memories to imagine the rest of their body language and laugh and spirit.
I have no such visual memories of myself because I'm not looking at myself while I'm engaging with the world. I don't see the love shining out of my eyes as I listen to a friend. I don't see, I feel myself being in the world.
So, in this process of filming my yoga practice, I'm experiencing my movement and meditation and then seeing myself moving and meditating. I'm consciously associating my non-visual experience with a visual. I'm intentionally filling in the gaps of the 2-dimensional visual with my 3-dimensional experience. It's not automatic. I'm probably having to create new neuronal connections between different parts of the brain. And yet, even after watching these videos with an eye for editing, asking myself if the visual representation matches up with my experience and the intention of my practice, I feel like my reaction to my 2-dimensional image is a little less disjointed and jarring.
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After burning out from a long career as a middle school/high school reading/math/science teacher, I returned to school to study massage, hypnotherapy, mindfulness, aromatherapy, and yoga.