The Secret to Staying Free

Rachel's skeleton

the spine

My chiropractor once shared with me that he took part in a study that observed what happened to the bones after a chiropractic adjustment.

What he saw was that 30 minutes after being adjusted the muscles pulled the bones back into their old, incorrect spot. Then 30 minutes later the muscles moved the bones back into the correct position.

It’s as if they were reminded of where they were supposed to be and then the body corrected itself.

This reminded me of what happens through yoga. We go to yoga for a metaphorical adjustment. We intentionally adjust our bodies and minds to realign them and we leave feeling great.

But our ingrained habits and traits are very strong. Yogis call these habits samskaras. They’re like the muscle that pulls what we’ve just aligned back into its old patterning over time.

Years of reacting in a certain way can reach out and grab us just when we think we’ve left them behind for good.

Longtime yoga teacher Christina Sell puts it this way: “One fun (and humbling) thing about growing up is seeing how many times I thought I was changed only to realize what I thought was lasting change was simply a moment of freedom.”

Years of practicing yoga, instituting good habits and cleaning house internally can improve our lives externally so much that we sometimes think we’ve been cured. We’re past whatever it was we wanted to get past. We’re free of whatever it was that had us in its grip.

Life has a way of testing the new-and-improved us to see if we’re really walking our talk. How we respond when life meets our expectations is not as revealing as how we respond when it doesn’t.

The practice of yoga is a unifying one, not one of disunity. Through yoga we begin to unveil the inherent unity of our mind and spirit, of our head and heart, of our body and soul.

It’s not that we create the union, it’s that we become present and still enough to observe what’s already there, thumping in our hearts and rushing through our veins.

We are already whole. We are already complete. We are already free.

The more we remind ourselves how to stay aligned, the easier it is to return there when our samskaras pull us out of alignment. This is how we find the freedom hidden in the most compressed situations and how we maintain that freedom when life becomes challenging and intense.

We keep reminding ourselves. We keep creating healthy samskaras. We keep holding space for our self to grow in, whether that means digging through dirt or blossoming in the sunlight.

When our old habits show up we allow for them, we forgive them, and we learn from them. We bathe in the freedom of being ourselves.

How to Reclaim Your Prana

“A yogini is a professional of the interior landscape, an expert conservationist of the vital life force, Prana.” -Tenzin Palmo

Maha Prana, or the “great Prana,” is that vital life force.

I think of it as my raw aliveness.

Many of us first experience Maha Prana on our yoga mats. If you’ve ever been unable to sleep after an intense backbend class, found your body shaking midway through a powerful Vinyasa flow, or experienced a strength you didn’t know you had after holding standing poses longer than you thought possible, that’s the pranic energy flowing through you.

As Tenzin Palmo advises, the longer we practice yoga the better we get at containing, conserving, and managing this magnificent force within us.

Although we often feel great after a yoga practice, in the rest of our lives we might find our energy waxing and waning and seemingly out of our control or feel out of touch with our Prana.

When we reclaim our Prana, we reclaim our life. We tap into that great energy within us and guide it where it is most nourishing, most sustaining, and most beneficial for us and the world we live in.

wind powerMaha Prana can be broken down into 5 principle energetic functions. These are called vayus, which translates to “wind.”

If you think about the power of the literal wind when it’s wild and free versus when it’s contained, funneled or focused, you can start to get an idea how powerful these vayus can be.

Cultivating awareness of these vayus can help us stay in touch with our Prana off our mats and in our lives.

The vayus govern, not only our physical energy, but also our emotional and mental energy. Without getting into too much detail, here is a brief summary of the energetic qualities of each vayu:

  • prana-vayu is a receptive, receiving energy that moves inward, towards the center of the body. Think Inhale.
  • apana-vayu is an energy of elimination that moves downward and outward. Think Exhale.
  • samana-vayu is a unifying energy that moves from our periphery to our core.
  • udana-vayu is an expressive energy that moves upward from the throat.
  • vyana-vayu is a coordinating, connecting energy that integrates the whole body and extends from our core to our periphery.

Getting sensitive to the energy we experience in our bodies allows us to then find ways to redirect energy that’s not serving us or unblock energy that is stuck.

I see these vayus most clearly at work in yoga poses. For example, in Warrior 2 apana-vayu grounds my legs and pelvis while prana-vayu lifts and expands my torso and arms. When I hug into my core I tap into samana-vayu and when my head is balanced on my spine and my eyes softly focused over my fingertips I sense udana-vayu. Through vyana-vayu I feel the energy radiating from my core to my fingertips.

Knowing the names and details of the vayus is not the important thing. Sensing them at work in your body is what matters.

How do certain yoga poses and sequences make you feel and how do they affect your mental and physical energy? How does your body feel when you’re depressed or when you’re joyful? What happens to your breath?

Becoming sensitive but not judgmental is the balance we strive for when stepping into our skin.

I’ve found the sequencing of yoga poses and the quality of my breath has a major effect on my overall energy after my practice and through the rest of my day, sometimes even the rest of my week.

To that end I try to first listen to what my body actually needs on any given day and respect that by choosing a practice that will balance my energetic body as well as my physical body.

Sometimes that means just breathing without additional movement; sometimes that means a strong moving practice; and sometimes that means an evening of restorative yoga. (Two online resources I love for balanced energetic practices are here and here.)

Reclaiming our Prana is not a matter of charging in and demanding it obey us.

Reclaiming our Prana is a matter of stepping into our body with awareness so we can hear the quiet wind that blows through every cell of our being and gracefully and gratefully navigate the river of life that flows through each of us.

 

photo credit: Chuck Coker

The Mindful Mother

shadow swingYou chose me because you knew.

You knew I would show up for you today
And every day forward
Starting with your first breath
Ending with my last.

No lousy excuses about what I need to do
Or what’s more important
Or not now little one

It is always now for us
This is always the most important moment
This is always where I’m supposed to be
Here with you, right now

When you look at me with those clear eyes that haven’t yet seen disappointment
Or joy
Or loss
Or your own reflection in a mirror

I know you are saying:
Return to me.
Come back from wherever you are

This is why I chose you to be my mother.
Because I knew you could show up for me
I knew you would show up for me

I knew you would choose Here over There
Every time

I chose you.
And you choose me.

Originally published on elephantjournal.

4 Bedtime Poses to Help You Sleep

30 percent of adults have symptoms of insomnia.

5,000 to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers.

Sleep disorders are associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, cancer and high blood pressure.

At the end of the day our minds are often wired while our bodies are tight and fatigued.

“Active relaxation” is what happens when we use restorative yoga poses to both stimulate and relax the body so that it moves towards a more balanced state.

These 4 poses can easily be done in bed to calm your central nervous system and prepare your body and mind for deep, quality sleep.*

*****

Legs up the Wall (Viparita Karani)**

This is a gentle leg inversion that allows gravity to work on your lymphatic channels (an important part of our immune system) encouraging lymph fluid to circulate.

  • Viparita KaraniLay on your back and rest your legs up against your headboard or a wall. Alternately, you can lie on the floor and rest your bent legs on your mattress. (This option is great if you have very tight hamstrings.)
  • Bring your attention to your breath and try to lengthen the exhales.
  • Rest here for 5 minutes.

Child’s Pose on a Pillow (Balasana)

This forward fold calms the brain and gives your hips and thighs a gentle stretch.

  • Supported BalasanaCome into a wide-legged child’s pose on your bed with your feet touching and knees wide.
  • Stack one or two pillows in between your upper thighs and walk your torso out over the pillow.
  • Turn your head to one side and rest here 5 to 10 minutes.

Reclined Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

Twists are detoxifying and rejuvinating. They release tension in the back and are energizing for the spine.

  • Lie back on your mattress and bend your knees.Reclined Twist
  • Lift your hips and shift them an inch to the right.
  • Bring both legs over to the left and place your right palm on top of your left palm.
  • Keeping the knees stacked, lift your right arm and stretch it to the right.
  • Take 10 to 15 deep breaths here, releasing any tension on the exhales.
  • Repeat on the other side (shifting the hips an inch to the left.)

Left-Nostril Breathing (Chandra Bhedana)

At any moment we are breathing through only one nostril. Which nostril that is changes throughout the day.

Right-nostril breathing is associated with being more energized, increased heart rate and blood pressure, whereas left-nostril breathing reduces heart rate and blood pressure and helps to induce a more restful state.

If you feel very awake, stimulated, or jumpy when trying to fall asleep, try Left-Nostril Breathing to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which will help your body to calm down and relax.

  • Nadi ShodhanaPlace your pillow under your hips for a comfortable seat.
  • Rest your right thumb gently on your right nostril and your right ring finger on your left nostril.
  • Gently close the right nostril.
  • Inhale through the left nostril.
  • Close the left nostril, exhale through the right.
  • Close the right, inhale through the left
  • Close the left, exhale through the right.
  • Repeat for 10 to 15 breaths.

 

*Consult your doctor before beginning any yoga regimen.

**Do not practice Viparita Karani if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or glaucoma.

Take Heart

IMG_9958What do you think of when you hear the word courageous?

I think of someone being strong, brave, and trembling. They are not without fear; they are just with courage, which gives them the strength to face their fear.

When we are courageous or when we are encouraged we feel inflated, filled up, hopeful, inspired, and strong. When we feel discouraged the deflation is almost palpable.

The word discourage has the French root des, meaning away. The second part of the word, courage, comes from the Latin cor, which means heart.

To feel discouraged is to lose heart or to have our heart taken away.

The things that discourage us are numerous, but here are four that come to mind:

ILLNESS. When we fall ill or become injured we lose our ability to engage in the world in a physically healthy way. We become limited, dependent on others, and can perceive ourselves as weak.

Weakness is not a quality we’ve been taught to embrace. It makes us more vulnerable, more fearful, and requires submitting to the needs of our body instead of pushing our body to meet the demands of our minds.

REJECTION. Rejection discourages us because instead of receiving rejection as an opportunity to reflect and improve if need be, we tend to use it as a mirror from which we think our true value is reflected. Since our self seems to be of no value to the voice rejecting us, we lose heart.

LOSS. Loss feels like our heart is being torn out of our chest. It’s as if we lose a part of ourselves and not just a person we loved or an object we owned. It reduces us to our neediest and weakest state of being and it can feel like we will never recover.

SHAME. Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” She explains that “there are specific memories that we can recall that can bring up shame for us, but there are also very insidious quiet messages that we just marinate in over a lifetime.”

Shame does the opposite of encouraging us to love and live freely. It makes us feel like we shouldn’t be taking up space in the world and discourages us from speaking our truth.

At their best these human experiences deflate us. At their worst they crush us. They make us question our worth, our value, and bring us face to face with our deepest needs and fears.

When we feel discouraged is when we need summon the courage from deep within to stay mindful, stay attentive, and stay rooted in our experience.

These experiences might appear to be more shadow than light when we’re in them, but just as a literal shadow changes depending on where you stand and how the light falls, so can the dark times in our life change shape depending on the perspective we choose.

The next time you feel encouraged, notice how your body seems to lift itself up from within.

When you are in need of courage, look within and listen quietly until the sound of your own breath is the only thing that whispers in your ears the truth of who you are; a truth no one can give you or take from you.

You were born with that truth and will die with that truth. The only question is what will you do with it in between.

 

We are the Lucky Ones

I was really crushed when I heard about the Malaysia Airlines tragedy.

For a moment. Then I was really angry.

I was angry about a lot of things, but mostly because I could feel the loss in my own heart. It was almost as if I was holding those broken hearts in my hands, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

So I wrote about it. I wrote about it for them and for me and for anyone who’s ever lost someone and for everyone who ever will. I wrote about it for the victims and for the survivors and for those of us who sit comfortably in our homes with our spouses and children and pets. We who get to turn off the TV when we’ve heard enough. We who get to forget about it tomorrow when we go to our jobs and return to worrying about the little things.

We are the lucky ones. We are alive.

May we be reminded of the fragility of life. May we eat differently and converse differently and live differently from here on out. May we live our lives fully while they’re ours to live.

*****

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. – Gandhi

Those words are easy to say when it’s not your son that’s been senselessly beaten, when it’s not your daughter that’s been raped, when it’s not your parent that was in the World Trade towers, when it’s not your fiancé that was on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Injustice rubs up offensively against our inherent sense of fairness. We want revenge, we want justice, and we want payback, but mostly we want the hole in our heart to stop bleeding. We want our suffering to end. We want the hurt to stop hurting. We want reality to stop staring us in the face even when our eyes are closed.

We want them back.

And they’re not coming back.

You who have lost, we have lost with you.
You who are howling, we howl with you.
You who are in shock, we are in shock with you.
You who are enraged, we are enraged with you.
You who are crumbling inside, we crumble with you.
You whose scream inside has not yet made it to your lips, we hear you.
You whose world just came to an end, we are here for you.

We are the only ones who are here for each other. I for you and you for me. Wherever you live, whatever you do, however you speak, we must hold each other in loss, in laughter, in life and in death.

Gandhi’s words don’t ask us to stop hurting inside. They ask us to stop hurting each other in response to our hurting inside, because if we don’t we will all end up blind and hurting and unable to help each other when we need it the most.

 

Originally published on elephantjournal.

3 Poses Using 3 Blankets

Restorative yoga often gets overlooked in our day and age.

Perhaps it’s because this type of yoga does its work much more subtly and requires little help from our muscles. It asks us to let go in a different way than yoga poses like Warrior 2 ask us to let go.

In resting poses gravity is doing most of the work for us and our job is to stop fighting it by noticing where we are gripping in our body and in our mind.

Slowing down is essential to our health, both mentally and physically, but can be very challenging since we’re used to moving fast and being overstimulated.

I do one or two restorative poses at the end of every day. It helps me sleep better and guarantees me I will have a moment or two to reconnect with myself sometime during the day.

In the 3-minute video below I demo 3 ways to use 3 blankets. I show two restorative postures and one meditation posture. I often like to do the two restoratives before doing sitting meditation because it gives my mind and body a chance to slow down.

I will be uploading a guided meditation in the near future, and the meditation setup I demo is a great way to practice it if you don’t have a zafu (meditation cushion) or some other preferred way to sit.

Yoga As An Undoing

I recently attended an evening yoga class at a small studio near me that holds classes outside on a large wooden deck.

I practiced next to a large tree trunk that emerged through the deck and the ocean air reminded me to inhale fully.

At the end of the class as I set up for savasana and stared at the open sky, I remembered these lines from Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind.

The ancient Greeks had a structure they called the temenos: a four walled enclosure with no roof. The warriors would come in off the battlefield and remove their armor to lie down on their backs and open their hearts again to the sky.

Laying there I felt like that warrior. I’d spent the previous hour removing the armor I wear all day long. The safe space I was in encouraged my body and mind to soften their constant gripping.

Without the weight of my defenses and the stiffness of my judgements weighing me down I found I could easily slip into the sacred space of my own heart.

Here in my heart it’s dark and I am alone, but somehow I’m able to see so clearly and I don’t feel lonely.

I say I do yoga, but really yoga is undoing all my doing. It unravels my tension, releases my breath, and softens my mental and physical gripping. It reveals to me who I am under my armor and my judgement. It polishes my heart and reflects back to me a capacity for love that I often forget I’m capable of.

In a world where doing is praised more than being, yoga as undoing is exactly what I need to become more present, more conscious, and a more authentic human being.

#SetYourAngelFree

davidIf you’ve followed the blog for a while you might recall I wrote about this a while back.

I so love this quote, this concept that every time I revisit it, it takes on another layer of meaning. Or perhaps it is another layer removed that allows me to see more clearly.

I’m referring to a quote by Michelangelo, where he comments on his creative process and how he was able to carve statues such as the David and breathtaking art like the Sistene Chapel.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

This just speaks to me. It doesn’t just speak to me, though… it melts me, it invites me, it begs me to step into my own creative process, to unveil my own unique beauty, to commit to the process of digging deep to reveal my inner magnificence.

On first glance it seems a little presumptuous, a little conceited, a little egotistical to use the word magnificent. I want to back off from it and use a smaller, more diminutive, more hide-in-the-shadows word.

But I don’t. As Marianne Williamson reminds us, Your playing small does not serve the world.

And at the end of my life I’d like to say I served the world. Not that I hid from it.

That’s what #SetYourAngelFree is all about. Serving the world by freeing yourself. Digging deep and revealing your angel to the world, in whatever form she or he may take.

I hope you’ll contribute your words, your pictures, your dreams, and your visions on your social media of choice.

When I see other angels flying it reminds me to keep working on my wings.

photo credit: fincher69

4 Ways to Be More Authentic

“At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.”-Albert Camus

I feel porous lately. Life is sinking in, not just rolling off of me as I rush through it.

I don’t want to lose that porousness. I want to soak up more of life, even though it means I’m opening myself up to great pain as well as great joy. I made this list for myself to remind me to be accountable, vulnerable, authentic, open, and honest. I hope it serves you as well.

1. Stop pretending you have your shit together.

This one always makes me think of a friend of mine who can do anything. She could probably fly if she wanted to. Every time I see her I feel this need to prove I can do anything too. It’s subtle but it’s there. We have a regrettably superficial exchange and I leave wondering why I always fall into the trap of pretending I’m something I’m not.

The backstage of our lives is never as refined and beautiful as the act we put on for the world. When I compare my insides to other people’s outsides I feel inadequate. When I put on pretenses I feel inauthentic.

I’m trying to notice when I feel the urge to prove myself or protect myself and soften a little instead. Soften right where I feel the urge to harden.

2. Become accountable for your life.

When things are going along great, I like to take all the credit. Then things start getting uncomfortable or what I label as “bad” and I want to put the blame anywhere except on me.

I’m trying to become accountable with the small things. When I’m accountable I take back my power to respond instead of react, to participate in my process, and to choose what my next step is. The more accountable I become with the small things, the easier it is to own up to the big things.

3. Speak your truth.

And listen to other people’s truth.

In order to speak my truth I have to know it. Which means I have to listen to that small voice inside of me that too often gets ignored.

You know the voice. The one you tune out because you’re afraid it will ask you why you’re living your Plan B life instead of your Plan A.

These days I’m trying to have the tough conversations I’ve avoided my whole life, with others and with myself.

4. Show up for the people in your life.

Starting with yourself.

The other day one of my parents was talking and I literally felt myself shutting down. I didn’t want to listen to it, let alone deal with it. (This is where No. 3 comes in handy.)

Those moments I want to tune out what’s happening, I’m trying to tune in instead. I use the mantra “Honor the present moment” to help me stay focused on whatever or whoever’s in front of me, no matter how small or unimportant it seems.

This isn’t a recipe for a easy life. It’s a recipe for an authentic life. Season it will love and compassion and feast on your life.

 

Post originally published on elephantjournal.