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: 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.
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.
I started this vlog series as a practice in vulnerability. It’s time to put myself out there and at the same time offer a demonstration of what I do as an equanimity coach. I expected this process would take a week.
Sunday: Draw some cards and determine the poses that express those cards for me
Monday – Tuesday: practice for a couple of days,
Wednesday: video record my practice
Thursday: write my reflection
Friday: revise, edit, and polish
Saturday: post the blog and video.
And it will probably look like this for the next one in this series. However, there is always a learning curve on the first endeavor in any project.
The major thing I learned is that I don’t write the sequence, I allow it to pass through me. I had been afraid that I would try to avoid vulnerability if I wrote my own affirmations based on the cards. So, I recorded myself reading the cards as they were. In a way, I was letting the author of the cards coach me directly. However, the intention of the card is to connect with that part of us that needs the wisdom of the card and then take us through to the other side. In the pose, I only wanted to affirm the truth. The aspects of the card that were of doubt and suffering kept pulling me out of the meditation. So then I didn’t want to practice. I procrastinated and found reasons to drag Monday and Tuesday’s practice out for several days.
In the meantime, I coached my first non-classmate coaching session. I was nervous and had avoided this experience as well. There’s an excitement that could be anxiety around an intuitive coaching session, because there’s nothing to prepare for. I can’t write anything ahead of time because I don’t know what will happen. What if the client receives nothing of value from the session? That’s kind of scary. And in this session, I was reminded that I don’t need to prepare or pre-write anything because I’m not the one doing the work. It is happening through me.
And so I return to this self-coaching project, reminded that if I allow my ego-self to take a backseat, I can create some embodied affirmations for myself inspired by the cards, that will keep me in the yogic meditation during my practice.
I’m now four mornings into this practice and there is so much more to reflect on that I’ll end this blog with the affirmations and poses I chose for the practice.
ps. Most of these images are screenshots from the video. However, I have yet to capture the nadi shodhana practice at the end, so that one is a staged selfie.
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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.