Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Olympic Effort

With the opening of the London Olympics this past weekend it seems fitting to insert a blog relating to the Olympics.

The way yoga practioners veiw the Olympics ranges from believing they should be abolished to those are people trying to get yoga in as an Olympic sport.

Clearly yoga means different things to different people.

For me yoga is an inner practice, not measured by outside standards or judgments.  Right from the first class I attended the message was "this is not a competition"- that message has stuck with me. In my instructor training at Kriaplu Centre, the message was again- allowing, accepting, trusting  and learning to "just be".  Life is full of  places where we feel we must be the best, or live up to expectations. It is refreshing, and powerful to have something that is done for its own sake that helps us connect to our true nature.

This does not mean  yoga is an opportunity to go to sleep. Following specific alignment instructions help a person stay injury free in a posture. Those instructions can also help get you into a pose you could not access on your own. Focusing our attention on specific instructions or attempting different and challenging poses are ways of waking up our awareness and  learning to be present to life's difficulties.

Of course there are people whose practice is awe inspiring and we want to emulate, but the journey is to recognise that and refocus our awareness back to what is true for us. Most of us who practice yoga struggle with wanting to be the best, do it right, or to please the teacher.... in my opinion turning yoga into a competition only feeds that side of our nature.

That being said the path to becoming an Olympic level athlete shares some essential elements of the yoga path. In particular I am referring to what Patanjali call the 3 supports: Tapas, Svadyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana. 

1) Tapas: is sometimes translated as burning zeal, and physical discipline.  Not only are both the Olympic athlete and the traditional yogi deeply committed to the practice of their sport but all the related physical practices – rest, diet, etc. This kind of discipline requires what the yogis sometimes call burning zeal -an almost obsessive passion- without it the Olympic dream would not be reached. For most yogi’s the tapas is usually for health or oneness with our true nature, with so many people practicing yoga  I believe it is but ultimately it is an individual question- what inspires and motivates us to get to a class  or to do our own practice!?

 2) Svadhyaya: It is usually translated as self study. It refers to the inner work, study of your own patterns and nature as well as the study of the masters/teachers who have gone before you. For the modern Yogini this may involve studying sutras (ancient writings on the path of yoga) or simply studying with a teacher. It also involves a willingness to look at our inner experience with curiosity and kindness.

3) Isvara-pranidhana Faith, Surrender, Grace. This can also be translated as presence. Despite the hard work,  practice and the inner preparation, when it comes down the competition, an Olympic athlete must be fully present to the task at hand- which ultimately involves a letting go. As an observer it appears that it is also a case of grace that allows one person to finish a fraction of a second ahead of another and become “the best”in the world.
For the yogi it is through attention to the breath, and body that we come into presence (even  if it is only for a moment). In this place we may connect to our true nature, and a feeling of oneness with all that is. The result is that we gradually learn to live our lives as if each moment was as precious as winning an Olympic gold medal!


Thursday, 19 July 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Yoga

Reading about the experiences of others in the Teacher Training program, I must admit that I am somewhat envious of the early exposure to yoga that some individuals received. My household was more of a Jane Fonda workout kind of environment and the only thing my mother ever told me about yoga was that she had tried it once and found it incredibly boring (ironically, she became a convert to the joys of yoga about a year ago).

As a result of my lack of early exposure to yoga, I did not encounter and experiment with it until my early twenties. And I am somewhat abashed to admit that it was mainly a matter of economy that originally brought me to the yoga mat instead of some other form of exercise. At the time, I was a cash-strapped young person and most of the studios offered a free first class. Well, the word “free” had a Pavlovian effect on my friends so the next thing I knew, I was buying an only slightly irregular pair of discount sweatpants (I’m pretty sure this was before the term “yoga pants” had been coined) and hitting a circuit of introductory classes.

As I visited a variety of studios and experienced a few different styles of yoga, I felt my interest building and there is one class in particular that stands out for me. The instructor had asked us to lay on our back with the bottoms of our feet pressed into the wall. She then had us do a series of stretches with one of the legs and then place our feet back against the wall. What I discovered upon doing this was that one of my legs now actually seemed longer than the other. I was amazed at this. It made me feel like I had some sort of control over my body – a sensation that I had little familiarity with at that point.

Throughout the years, yoga was always in my life but always on the back burner. I never had enough time to go to classes, enough money; it didn’t fit into my schedule etc. Then as my life became more hectic, more filled with work and kids and stress, I realized that yoga needed to be brought forward to the front burner. Only by making a practice such as yoga a priority would I be able to gain back a feeling of control over my life. By making my practice a priority, I was making my self a priority.

It is my hope that through teaching, I will be able to help others to find the love of yoga and the connection with their true selves that I myself have experienced. Don’t get me wrong: my personal practice still has a long ways to go. But helping others to strive for deeper and more complete poses without “pushing” themselves will also help me to be kinder and more forgiving of myself, I believe.

As of this fall, I will be starting a volunteer position teaching a Beginner’s class at a local Family Centre. It is an undertaking about which I feel excited, but also very nervous.  However, in the same way that I knew it was time to pursue my interest in yoga more seriously, I know that it is now time to step forward and give teaching a try. For if there is no progress forward, then there is only stagnation, inertia, and ultimately, discontent. If I hadn’t donned those irregular, discount yoga sweats so many years ago then I would never have learned how much I love yoga and, likewise, unless I give teaching a try, I’ll never know if it’s something that works for me.

Wish me luck.


Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Catch My Breath

One morning four months ago, I woke up to a terrible noise. Off in the distance, massive bulldozers were tearing down the forest in our backyard. Without a word of warning, the neighbor had decided to clear cut the property bordering our yard. When the snow melted, the newly revealed devastation was overwhelming; the land lay gouged and strewn with deadfall too small to be of use for pulp processing.  I could not begin to fathom the loss of life- the trees, animals and our connection to Earth.

How shall I maintain my composure and balance over the upcoming years as the logging project marches toward the scheduled date when large tracts of land shall be harvested all around us? Vrksasana pose has become more difficult.

The yoga mat is my ballast when I can no longer focus. I broaden  the collarbones and descend the shoulderblades to recreate space and release the muscles adducting my heart. I practice breathing. After all these years of practice, why is it still so hard to breathe?

Where would I be without my mat? Yoga is my companion, my teacher. And yes, I know the forest will grow back eventually. Meanwhile I need to practice patience, balance and breathing.

By Heidi Martin
Heidi is a current member of the Yoga Centre Winnipeg 200 hour teacher training program.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

An Alignment Practice-Journey from Student to Teacher

Trikonasana – Virabhadrasana – Parsvakonasana

It’s a beautiful spring morning as I enter the sunny yoga studio on Grosvenor Street.  I’m greeted with cheerful good mornings as I take an Angel Card: “Alignment”.  I frown.  Not quite as inspirational as I would have hoped.  I find a pen and sign my name onto the studio list.  “You write your name as if you were left handed.” My yoga teacher observes.  “I am left-handed.”  I reply.  And relate the quirky story of how I came to write with my right hand.  In kindergarten my teacher took on the arduous task of teaching 29 children (all armed with scissors) to cut along a straight line.  “Raise the hand you like to use best!”  She asked us.  29 little hands went up, 2 of which were left.  “I think it would be easier for this exercise if you were all right handed.”  And then I was!  Not only am I naturally left-handed; I am also naturally very compliant.

Trikonasana – Virabhadrasana – Parsvakonasana

“Ha. Ha.”  Says my yoga instructor.  “It just goes to show that you cannot suppress your true nature.”  I’m not sure if she remembers this exchange but I do… It made me want to be a yoga instructor.

Trikonasana –Virabhadrasana – Parsvakonasana

We moved a lot as kids, every few years.  It was sort of uncomfortable but mostly fun.  Each time we moved it gave us an opportunity to reinvent ourselves.  I would be better this time, more fun, less serious.  I should have new clothes; a new hair cut.  I liked to move.  I probably shouldn’t have married a Winnipegger.  They will tell you they will move but it’s not true.  They are family people.  Grounded.  That’s why I fell in love; but staying is still hard.

Trikonasana – Virabhadrasana – Parsvakonasana

What does it mean to continue practicing the same poses day after day on a mat that is barely as long as you are tall?  What does it mean to raise a family in a community that doesn’t let you forget?  To shop in the same stores and speak with the same people.  The body remembers – the people remember – and somehow you remember too.  The movements become less grand the adjustments more subtle.

Trikonasana – Virabhadrasana – Parsvakonasana

Yoga has taught me to be still, to be present, to ground, to move honouring my natural curves.   When I make a mistake on the mat I have to return and face the consequences the next day.  There is no running from the self.  And as the alignment becomes more refined the adjustments become subtle I find myself returning home.  I return to my mat day after day because it reminds me to return to my life day after day.  To face my mistakes, the people I love and the life that I work to create.

Trikonasana – Virabhadrasana – Parsvakonasana

Sarah  Swanson
Sarah is a member of the Yoga Centre Winnipeg  200hour Teacher Training Program