The Yoga of Quitting (or Future Suffering is To Be Avoided – Sutra 2.16)

Two years ago I was holding it down as a mother to a 5 year old, a yoga studio manager and yoga teacher, a full time safety professional, a part time housekeeper, a sometimes Pintrest mom and I started losing my hair. It fell out in clumps. I was doing way too much and my body was clearly communicating the flashing red sign of STRESS. So I quit doing it all. I QUIT.

c6a2cad04bd5924188ad918b5a512219I didn’t quit all at once, because I still had the wrong headed modus operendi of achieving. I quit small things first – like I quit having fun or I quit socializing or I quit enjoying life. But as my hair kept falling out, and I looked at a big clump of it one day, I decided to quit trying to be all the things. Because WHY? I was bringing suffering into my own life, caused by my own wrong efforts, and exacerbated by a need to always be more.

It was more than hair loss – it was also manifesting as infertility.

After years of struggling to achieve conception and dealing with what I thought was infertility – it turns out I was dealing with stress. Stress was leading to hormone imbalances and medical issues and what I discovered was I wasn’t allowing the joy of living to filter into my body – I was actually blocking life. I was doing that to myself; I’m sure I’m not the only one.

If you read this because you Googled “fertility, yoga, stress, pregnancy” or something similar – what are you so busy doing that you could quit? What’s blocking your life force?

I’m 36 weeks pregnant, about to birth a baby in a month and the busy-life is here calling me again. I’m not answering it. I’m cocooning. My meditative focus is simply on my family. What does this have to do with yoga?

I still look to the Yoga Sutras for those answers:

  • Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind – 1.2
  • When that is accomplished, the yogi abides in their own true nature – 1.3
  • The changing states of our mind can be harmful to our focus – 1.5
  • Yoga practice is the effort to be fixed in concentrating the mind – 1.13

I could go on and on with the sutras supporting us to assume a role in life with full force and focus. I can rewrite these sutras to suit my circumstances and goals. Personally, today, I want to still the mental fluctuations and focus them onto birthing and raising this new baby. Right now, my true nature is mother and life vessel. If I take on too much, I might harm my primary focus, which should be a healthy baby. The effort to stay focused on this process is challenging.

Yoga is never the poses you are doing, it’s not a physical exercise, it’s a mental way of living. The Yoga Sutras can teach us about motherhood or painting or dancing or postures or meditation or anything we wish to do well. And yes, we can indeed do more than one thing well,  but we can’t do ALL the things well, ALL of the time, ALL at once. Something will always break down.

If you discover that you begin to do some of your tasks poorly or that your health begins to suffer, you cannot really be truthful to yourself that you are living your life well concentrated – you are then bringing harm to yourself and ignoring what is one of my favorite yoga sutras:

  • 11849790_1642484662630447_540587482_nFuture suffering is to be avoided – 2.16

Bottom line, don’t be afraid to quit something that isn’t serving your highest good. Listen to that nagging voice in your head that is asking you why you struggle – maybe that something doesn’t matter as much as you think. Maybe you can let it go and let yourself be ok without it.

Takeaway: Settle in and take stock of what’s not serving you in life. Make a commitment to quit ONE THING – it can be small, but declutter your life of unnecessary tasks, people, things, or feelings.

Rediscover Joy.

To My Readers and Students: Thank you so much for sticking with me in my absence. Thank you for finding ways to practice and keeping connected even while I’m on a break. I never forget you, I never quit you, and you always inspire me, even when we aren’t face-to-face. 
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Root to Rise

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I was taking a hike the other morning. It was one of the first hikes I’ve taken since winter released her chilly and isolated grip. The sun was shining, the dappled light streaming down through the branches like sunshine glitter and the robin’s egg blue sky aglow with a promise of warmth. Welcome spring!

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As I walked the trails at Peoria’s Forest Park Nature Center, I came upon a tree that had not made it through the icy grip of winter. I noticed that the root system was fairly shallow and thought back to the ice storm we had experienced in December. The tree had not been rooted strongly enough to weather the challenge of this particular winter. It toppled over.

The root system had been shallow. The foundation had not been strong. The journey of this tree was more broad than deep. And now here is yoga.

y8The breadth of yoga is vast. The methods many. This debate over the right and wrong is pointless – the truth is that there are many paths for many people. Your yoga doesn’t need to be the same as someone else’s. As we begin a yoga journey, exploration is required. How do you know where you want to root if you aren’t sure of into which landscape you wish to plant?

However, at some point the endless wandering does need to pause and plant. The exploring gives you a wide number of roots but the staying is where the depth is found. That’s not to say you can’t replant your tree of yoga, but consider that if you are seeking something specific, it may be hard to discover it if you keep skimming just the surface.

Tree-of-YogaThis analogy can be married to whole host
of yoga topics – what lineage is right for you? What pose do you want to achieve? Anatomy? Meditation? Breath work? Supernatural yoga powers?

The point is that if you don’t plant some firm roots for your goal to grow, at the first sign of a storm, the tree of your practice can be easily uprooted. This is where the practice of setting intention can be helpful. Be clear about what brought you to the mat and then revisit your intention every so often and fine tune it.

Choose your own adventure – study it well – do the practice and all is coming. You can weather any storm. You can root down to rise up. You can.

 

Steadiness and Ease: Sthira and Sukha: The Infinity of Practice

I’m in downward dog for what may be the 10,000th time of my practice, but today it still feels like the first. My breath is smooth and even, I feel solid in this pose, but then a draining feeling from my sinuses into my forehead emerges and I know I must leave this position and surrender to child’s pose. I’ve not been well for the past week, I’m tired and infected with a cold. The time for ambition in practice is not now – restoration is needed and my body told me that clearly. Rest, surrender, do less – it’s OK.

In today’s modern yoga practice and through our Western ideals of bigger, better, faster, stronger – we are easily connected with the Sthira or steadiness and strength of our practice but easily swayed from the sukha or ease and happiness of the forms we take. The idea of doing less at any time is somewhat foreign and seems unnatural in a world of bootstrapping up and making our mark.

I’m no stranger to this pull – I have a strong desire to master the handstand and an idea of touching my foot to my head in King Pigeon. However, a pose in which the breath is ragged or labored is not serving the deeper purpose of yoga – a withdrawal of senses (pratyahara) and an all encompassing awareness of every single cell in every single pose. B.K.S. Iyengar, whose teachings greatly influence my personal practice, said that the achievement of asana (postural yoga) is in that moment when you can literally feel every part of your body all at once with no stress or strain.403023_312843125497457_767800096_n

Goodness! That means I have yet to master Tadasana and I can clearly see his quote of “we all want to stand on our heads, but very few of us know how to stand on our feet!.” After 10,000 downward facing dogs, I’m nowhere near the goal of complete steadiness and ease in my practice – I may need 100,000 more.

That’s the point – do not feel the need to rush the practice, allow the practice to come to you. Try the next pose, but if you struggle, be kind to yourself, both mentally and physically and allow yourself to stay in the stage before (vinyasa krama). There was this one day, while in side plank (Vasisthasana) that I felt called to simply lift my leg and reach for my toes – there was no struggle and I had zero intention of doing that, it just arose from within me, as an evolution of my practice. When I stopped forcing myself into a shape, the shape naturally presented itself in my practice. Does that make sense?

In the practice of Astanga, the vinyasa flow does not progress until the prior stages are presented in the body. For example, one must complete, with steadiness and ease, the standing sequence before being permitted to move forward to more difficult floor work. In social media, this aspect is often left out as impressive forms are captured by cameras and as the audience cannot see all the hard work that went into that achievement.

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Pattabi Jois stated, “Do your practice and all is coming.” This quote indicates that you do not force the practice, it comes to you – through steady effort (consistency) and easeful approach (joy in the process).

As Yoga Sutra 2.46 instructs: Sthira sukham asanam – the posture should be steady and easeful. Apply this not only to your practice on the mat – but off as well, where in your life can you find more steadiness and ease, what can you shed to allow more strength and joy in your life?

Further Reading:

Yoga International (Himalayan Yoga Institute): https://yogainternational.com/article/view/sthira-and-sukha-steadiness-and-ease

SwamiJ, Yoga Sutras On-line: http://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras-24648.htm

To Peel or Not to Peel? (Hint: You Need to Peel)

Quick Experiment: Point to yourself.

DO NOT SCROLL DOWN YET

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Where did you point?

I’m going to guess that you pointed at your chest, more specifically, the heart center. Why didn’t you point to your brain?

You pointed to your heart because you are a being created in love, driven by heart, and haunted by a mind of incessant thinking. You are not your thoughts; you are not your brain. Who is the one watching you think? Who is the thinker and who is the witness?

Study of the Koshas in Yoga philosophy can give us a description of what we are doing through practice and where we are headed if we stick with it. Without actually practicing, it means squat. 99% practice.

I drew this in teacher training. My meditation man is winking at you.

I drew this in teacher training. My meditation man is winking at you.

 

This photo is a little misleading (I’m not the best artist) – we aren’t really sitting under a rainbow of layers, all the koshas (energetic layers) weave into one another like a great tapestry. However, breaking them out in this way gives you an idea of how we practice through the layers.

Annamaya Kosha

  • Physical Layer – Earthy, Matter
  • Literally translates to “Food Body.”
  • Penetrate and purify this layer or aspect of ourselves with physical practice like yoga poses, exercises, clean eating, relaxation, and sleep.

Pranamaya Kosha

  •  Energetic Layer – Water, Fluidity
  • Prana means “life force,” so this layer is all about what moves in your body: blood, air, luymph, elimination systems.
  • Work with this layer through pranayama (breath control)

Manomaya Kosha

  • Mental Layer – Thinking Mind
  • Mind is manipulated by our thoughts which turn to words and then actions. We become an accumulation of everything that has come previously through our system and then react according to memory and habit.
  • Purify this layer with meditation especially on aspects such as compassion, selfless service, and forgiveness.
  • This layer causes us deep stress, anxiety. It is difficult to penetrate this layer without the foundations of asana and pranayama.

Vijnanamaya Kosha

  • Intellect and Discernment, Insight and Wisdom
  • This is deeper than just the conscious mind, this is latent, intuitive knowledge
  • This is not what you read in books or others ideas, it is what you experience and know through direct perception.
  • The difference between thinking and knowing is wisdom, vijnana.
  • Deep self-study and reflection on ancient scriptures and philosophy help tap into this layer.

Anandamaya Kosha

  • Bliss – Joy
  • There is a difference between pleasure and joy, pleasure arises from passing experiences and material objects, joy is a state of being, in which you can be joyful when something is difficult and not necessarily experience pleasure.
  • This is the heart center – the very place you pointed when I asked you to point to yourself.
  • All the yoga practices bring us to this place over time and consistent practice. It’s where we discover our personal truth and where we can hear our purpose most clearly.
Maybe this is a more accurate Kosha diagram - peeling back the layers until you get to your heart center - like an onion, you'll probably cry as you peel.

Maybe this is a more accurate Kosha diagram – peeling back the layers until you get to your heart center – like an onion, you’ll probably cry as you peel.

 

Yoga is a never ending journey. Just when you think you’ve mastered something physically, you can come back and add on another layer of work in order to peel back another layer of illusion. Eventually you have revealed your true self. When you wonder just who you are, point to yourself to remember.

 

Pick and Choose – Daily Sadhana (Healthy Rituals) in the New Year

Here it is, the last day of 2014.  I started my last morning of this year by doing what I hope to do eveyday in the year to come.  I practiced living a better life in order to contribute to making a better world.  The key word there is practice.

Start your morning off right - everyday in 2015, wake up, pay attention to your practice, and have a fabulous day.

In yoga, a word we use to define a daily practice or ritual is SADHANA.

“What is sadhana? It’s a committed prayer (of living life). Sadhana is self-enrichment. Sadhana is a personal process in which you bring out your best.” ~Yogi Bhajan~

This is the day we are meant to set resolutions and then joke about throwing them out by February.  Let’s not do that this year.  This year, let’s simply make an intention or a Sankalpa to be a little better than last year.  This mindset will feed everything else and permeate your year.  It certainly doesn’t mean throwing out goals, but it does mean using your practice to lift up everything else.  This is your year to grow, thrive, and achieve.  Practice your potential everyday and you will see results.  Start with a morning sadhana to make every day of your life a little better than last year.

Recommended Practices for Daily Sadhana

Choose 1-3 things to do daily in 2015. No need to overwhelm yourself, when we practice our potential, it can be nice to go slow so that the changes stick and we don’t overwhelm ourselves or stress about these incremental changes. You are welcome to do it all if you can, but pick out a couple practices that you will promise yourself not to skip – be realistic with your choices so that you will be able to complete your commitment. Write down your choices and stick it on your mirror in the bathroom.

  • Establish a sacred space in your home. Some call this an altar, but that word can conjure up false images in the mind. It is simply a dedicated space that is beautiful to you, with reminders of your faith and what inspires you like a piece of art, flowers, or photo of your teacher. If you like to be in the space, you are more likely to stick with the practice.
  • Rise a bit earlier than normal – start with 10-15 minutes. Ideally, in yoga, the most sacred time for practice is between 4 am and 6 am.
  • Tongue scrape. Get a tongue scrapper and clean your mouth.  The tongue gets loaded with various toxins through sleep, it is elimination in the body, if you swallow it, you have to purge it again. One of my teachers, Dr. Indu Arora – an ayurvedic expert, states that the toxins on the tongue post sleep were unable to be processed by the liver. Regardless, your mouth will be happier and you will have uncovered your taste buds, so food will be extra yummy. Then brush as usual.
  • Oil pulling. Many people have been writing about oil pulling, do a quick Google. You can use the oil appropriate for your dosha. I personally use Sunflower oil or coconut oil. This practice has been found to reduce plague and tartar as well as whiten your teeth.
  • Drink a full glass of water 8-16 oz.  Use glass or copper, no plastic please. For extra credit, add in a slice of lime or lemon and make sure your water is lukewarm, this jumpstarts your digestion and wakes up your metabolism.
  • Oil your body and self-massage. Anoint yourself with oils for both the physical benefits of moisturizing the skin along with the feel-good element of a morning massage. Wait about five minutes and then shower. If you are short on time, be sure to rub your ears, face, and chest – waking up your senses and touching your heart center for a more alive beginning of your day.
  • Pranayama. This is the breath practice of yoga, there are several options – have your teacher show you a few.  A simple practice is nadi shodhana, the alternate nostril breath. Try 9 rounds. Watch the video for guidance.

  • Yoga Asana. Move your As-ana. This doesn’t need to be fancy or a 90 minute commitment, although if you can – all the better. If you have time constraints or children, squeezing in 3-5 sun salutations is helpful and a committed practice – it counts. Simple and steady is better than doing nothing.

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    Basic Sun Salutation. Visit your local teacher for specific instructions or message me personally at my page – Kirsten Hedden Yoga on Facebook.

  • Meditate. No epic practice required. Your meditation can be breath focus or simply sitting for a few quiet moments in your favorite space. 3-5 minutes is ok, don’t feel like you need to be still and silent for 30 minutes – do what you can.  Personally, I chant mantra to help me focus and reduce anxious thinking.
  • Eat breakfast! Try a light serving of fruit with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a handful of nuts. Off you go with a sweet taste in your mouth and powered by protein. In Ayurveda, one should not mix dairy and fruit – so if you are a smoothie person, keep it dairy free.

I love thinking of waking in the morning to perform a committed prayer of living my life – for me, this mindset and all encompassing aspect of yoga is what makes it work in my life more than mere exercise or gymnastics. Yoga is the art of living connected.  Let your life be more artistic this year.

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Sadhana is whatever you do consistently to clear your own consciousness so you can relate to the infinity within you. Before you face the world each day, do yourself a favor and tune up your nervous system and attune yourself to your highest inner self. To cover all your bases, it will include exercise, meditation, and prayer. ~3HO~

The Dark Night of the Soul and Your Yoga Practice

**Please Note** This post contains a swear word.  If this would offend you, please don’t read further.

There comes a point in your yoga practice when you have to stare at yourself and you might not like it.  This is a dark little secret in yoga that some don’t care to discuss, with all the love and light and joy memes.  Nowhere in the Yoga Sutras does it say that all of your life will be blissfully happy – that’s something the marketing gurus selling you a yoga butt invented.

It is OK if you feel rotten, depressed, angry, bored, indifferent, or some sense of negativity in your yoga at times.  Read that again – IT IS OK to be upset.  Yoga opens up things within us and what needs to be taught is that it is NORMAL to not be cloying sweet and happy all your yoga life – you have to process the negative to become more positive.

You have to get deep in that muck and then like the lotus, you will emerge happier, healthier, and open to life – but first comes the mud and sometimes it smells rotten.  No Mud No Lotus

 

This point in your life practice is lovingly referred to as, “The Dark Night of the Soul.”  Basically, you have to get real about your problems.  You have to face the reality of all the actions you’ve taken up to this point of practice, you get to take a very real look at your Karma and sometimes that is ugly, especially if you are a human that has made mistakes (all of us!).

 

You may go through a depression or an increase in anxiety – don’t worry about it (haha and roll eyes).  This is actually a sign that you are clearing up.  You can’t clean what you can’t see.  Yoga shines the light in our darkest places; that can be very uncomfortable.  Those memories you worked so hard to suppress, they bubble right up to the surface and you have to deal with that shit.  And that’s why people sometimes quit on their yoga.  This part can be more painful than falling on your head in crow pose.

In the Dark Night of the Sould, Brightly Flows the River of God

It is at this point in your practice when you need to find yourself a highly experienced yoga teacher that is living this path, that has pushed past this very issue in their own psyche and body. This is not the time to focus on a yoga butt, but the time to enter into the deeper practices of Sense-Withdrawl (Pratyahara), One-pointed focus (Dharana), and Meditation (Dhyana). 

A good teacher can lead you through this valley of dark and shadows in a safe way and illuminate the more important teachings of yoga for you.  Seek out a teacher with years of experience and who still has a teacher of their own.  Be picky, don’t get distracted by shiny pants and tiny tops with great abs – remember that The Buddha had a belly and was never depicted with his foot behind his head – but rather in meditation and mudra.  Sometimes your best teacher may not be a yoga-lebrity, especially when you enter the dark stages of your practice.  10843791_345959338923369_1679910113_n

When people complain that they aren’t flexible enough or strong enough for yoga asana, consider that this is just a mental blockage – you do the asana to build the body strength and flexibility so that the mind becomes more pliable as well. Once you clear up the self-judgement, you start becoming a more compassionate, less judgemental person – that’s how you share your practice to make the world better.

It is true that the world has dark places – you cannot ignore the reality of death and destruction that permeate our planet, nor should you.  But you can remember that out of darkness comes the light and they both exist together.  G.O.D. – Generator, Organizer, Destroyer – rinse and repeat. 

Ask yourself:

Have you been the person that says, “I can’t meditate, I can’t be still, I can’t get quiet.” – yeah, me too.  That shit is hard.  You have to literally stare yourself in the soul and get open to what comes up.  But stay a while longer, Practice and All Is Coming.

The Dark Night of The Soul by St. John of the Cross

Upon a darkened night
The flame of love was burning in my breast
And by a lantern bright
I fled my house while all in quiet rest

Shrouded by the night
And by the secret stair I quickly fled
The veil concealed my eyes
While all within lay quiet as the dead.

(Chorus)

O, night thou was my guide!
O, night more loving than the rising sun!
O, night that joined the Lover to the beloved one!
Transforming each of them into the other.

Upon that misty night
In secrecy beyond such mortal sight
Without a guide or light
Than that which burned as deeply in my heart.

That fire ’twas led me on
And shone more bright than of the midday sun
To where He waited still
It was a place where no one else could come.

(Chorus)

Within my pounding heart
Which kept itself entirely for Him
He fell into His sleep
beneath the cedars all my love I gave.

From o’er the fortress walls
The wind would brush His hair against His brow
And with its smoother hand
caressed my every sense it would allow.

(Chorus)

I lost my self to Him
And laid my face upon my Lover’s breast
And care and grief grew dim
As in the morning’s mist became the light.
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair.

Yoga is in Religion. Religion is not in Yoga.

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Once upon a time we were told there are two things one never talks about for polite conversation: RELIGION and Politics.  This practice leads one to wonder, if we can’t discuss it, how can we understand it?  If we can’t understand it, how can we change it?  If we can’t change it, how can it evolve?  Enter Yoga.

Yoga is in Religion. Religion is not in Yoga. ~SwamiJ~

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As part of our 500-hour teacher training at Prairie Yoga, the group went on a field trip to the Sri Venkateswara Swami (Balaji) Temple in Aurora, Illinois.  Why did we do this?  The tour guide explained it this way:

“I’m not here to convert you to Hinduism, I am here to educate you on what we practice.  Comparative study of religion only helps one to better understand their own faith and own self.  Religion is a tool towards God-realization, different people need different tools and so thank GOD that we have so many paths of understanding.”  ~Sadasivan N~

This man offered up a message I wish we could all hear.  We don’t have to be RIGHT – what would happen if we all just existed together in a kind of harmonious agreement to respect individuality and mind our own business?  After all, the mentality of “I Am Right,” is so arrogant, if God exists, what must God think?  The guide also mentioned this:

“I’ve never been dead, I’ve never met God, so I cannot tell you what you should or should not believe.  The person who tries to tell you what you should believe is probably selling you something.”

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Some people feel deeply uncomfortable with the spiritual aspects of yoga and that’s OK – no yoga teacher should be asking or instructing people to change their faith – that is not the yoga teaching as laid out in the Yoga Sutras.  In fact, yoga isn’t even about your teacher – it’s about what they may inspire within you to explore within yourself.  YOU are your own best teacher.  No sales pitch needed for that.

I can recall a moment from a teacher training with Shiva Rea in which she said this:

“The Yoga Teacher is like a river guide; pointing out what is nice to see, but the one being guided has the ability to look in another direction.”

Some may disagree and that’s OK too.  Personal truth, personal experience, personal belief systems are PERSONAL – yoga offers contemplations to study your own self, your own beliefs so that you becomes more clear about your personal understanding of life.

As I continue to educate myself on Yoga, study my own life and my own beliefs, the resonance of my teachers is clearly influencing my teaching, but I add my own flavor because it is just my own perspective developed through practice and that is all we can share.   No dogma allowed.

As you seek to study yoga, the depth of which you practice may change over time – there is no doubt that once we access that connection through the physical practice of Asana, we open a door and light comes in.  That is what is scary to people, the fear that you may begin to doubt your own faith is real.  But through doubt comes more study – through more study comes more understanding, with more understanding comes more compassion, with compassion we have less judgement, etc… and what you may experience is that through practice, your faith is strengthened or changed, but then again, no journey ever leaves you exactly the same.  As Mahatma Ghandi reflects:

“There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything. It transcends the senses whilst everything around me is ever changing, there is a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates.”

 

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My Personal Practice

Alignment Authenticity Anatomy Junkie Spiritual Flow Mantras Mudras Continuous Education Practice What You Teach Progress Not Perfection Guiding Teachers: BKS Iyengar Pattabi Jois Shiva Rea Daren Friesen (Moksha Chicago) Marinda Stopforth (Prairie Yoga - Lisle, IL)

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