Occasionally I hear students say that they aren't very good at downward facing dog, or not flexible enough to touch their toes, or want to have stronger arms. This is usually in response to comparing oneself to others and coming up short. It is important to remember why we practice yoga. Yoga is not a competition, a skill to be improved on or a sport to be mastered. It is a practice that cultivates mindfulness, increases the flow of prana and calms the nervous system. Of course it also strengthens, stretches and purifies the body.
One of the social practices (the yamas) of yoga is "aparigraha", which means non-grasping or non-greediness. Usually this is interpreted to mean that we not take more than we need, or that we not get overly attached to physical possessions. However aparigarha can also refer to not grasping for personal qualities (I wish I was more patient) or abilities (I wish I was smarter). Grasping or wishing for something you don't have takes your awareness away from what is real - what you do have.
Next time you are practicing yoga, take it as an opportunity to practice aparigraha. Rather than wanting your body to be something different than it is, mindfully observe the body and breath without judgement or expectations. As you gain a deeper awareness of "what is", rather than what you wish for, you will witness your body/mind slowly and positively respond to your yoga practice.
Did you know that my mom is a yoga teacher too?!
She wrote these nice paragraphs about alignment:
Dear Yoga Students and Friends,
Have you often wondered why there is so much focus on proper alignment in our Hatha yoga classes? Proper alignment can prevent injury, find the optimal position of bones and joints in relation to gravity, and open energy channels within the body. Focusing on alignment requires attention. It strengthens the body mind connection and cultivates mindfulness.
Over the years all of us develop less than optimal posture, movement patterns and habitual muscle tension. This is partly due to the pull of gravity and partly because of both physical and emotional injuries. When bones are lined up with the gravitational pull rather than against it, they provide maximum support. The muscles don't have to work as hard which minimizes stiff, sore muscles, joint problems and fatigue. When aligned with gravity, the body then also finds alignment with the flow of prana allowing it to move freely through the body. Prana is the force of life. It refreshes, rejuvenates and revitalizes.
Overcoming old patterns to rediscover proper alignment takes effort. It takes retraining our muscles. At first it seems unnatural and awkward. However, as self awareness of our habitual patterns grows, we begin to make adjustments more and more often. As we work to find optimal alignment in yoga poses, we can also take that learning off the mat into our daily lives.
Vakratunda Mahakaya Syura Koti Samaprabha
Nirvighnam Kurume Deva Sarva Karyeshu Sarvada
oh bent tusked one super super great body brilliance of the sun times 10 zillion
no obstacle act on my behalf all actions turning out well always
This chant to Ganesh begins by complimenting the deity and then once he is in a good mood proceed to asking for favor. That all endeavors be auspicious, tending towards success, always.
Although we often think the benefits of yoga have to do with developing flexibility and strength, yoga practice can also help us fight off disease. Yoga strengthens the immune system by reducing stress and by stimulating the lymphatic system.
Stress weakens immune system. When we are stressed our bodies release a variety of hormones that inhibit the effectiveness of the immune system. When psychologically stressed we respond the same as if physically threatened. “Fight or flight” hormones are released into the blood stream which cause heart rate to increase, digestion to slow down, breathing to increase - all so that we are ready to face whatever perceived danger is present. These stress hormones also slow the production of germ fighting cells. When we are chronically stressed, we are in the alert mode all the time and our immune systems are compromised.
The lymphatic system is a main player in our immune systems. Lymphatic fluid moves through the body collecting the toxins, invading bacteria and viruses and eventually deposits the waste into the blood stream. The lymph system does not have a pumping mechanism to move the fluid through the body. An efficient lymph system depends on muscle contraction and gravity to do its job.
Where does yoga fit in? First, Yoga offers us a way to relax the nervous system, slow the heart rate and breathing rate, and allow the “fight or flight” response to calm down. Production of germ fighting cells increases as our hormone production becomes balanced. Second, the muscle actions we use to move into and out of poses contract and release our muscles and provide the needed pumping action to move lymphatic fluid through our bodies. Inversions put us in positions where gravity also enhances the flow of lymphatic fluid.
Stay healthy, fight disease, be flexible, be strong, be relaxed. Come to class!
For many years I just couldn't do Vira III. It wasn't that I didn't have the muscle or the balance. Although balance is always a challenge for me. It was something else. I didn't believe I could do it. Which is silly because it isn't impossible to BELIEVE. After trying again and again and again and again I finally found all the pieces of balance, strength focus and belief that led to flying. This pose has taught me that practice, and willingness to try something over and over does create opportunity for accomplishment.