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Mindful Monday: Pratyahara

Happy Mindful, snowy Monday, darling ones!

We’ve swiftly arrived at our fifth yogic limb: pratyahara.

Our conscious breathing -pranayama- sets the stage for Pratayhara, where we transcend sensory stimulation and draw focus inward. We stay fully aware of the five senses, but we observe objectively and therefore the mind can rest. We stop living off the things that stimulate; we dispassionately observe the cycle of stimulation and reaction and are no longer a slave to the senses. No longer functioning in their usual manner, the senses become extraordinarily sharp.

This is a stage of yoga practice just beyond the physical where internal yoga practice begins.  Practicing pratyahara takes place when your individual consciousness is turned inward so you can master the flow of prana, or energy, in your body.  Specifically, pratyahara is the withdrawing yourself away from anything unwholesome, excessive, or distracting for the mind. 

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the ability to withdraw into seclusion in the mountains to meditate without distractions. It is so much easier to harmonize with prana when you can renounce the distractions of the world to focus on controlling the senses!

However, in our reality, we have temptations of money, sex, fame, gossip, overindulgence in food, shopping, alcohol, etc. If you can overcome the temptations here and now then you have really mastered your senses.

Concentration, in the yoga room or the boardroom, begins as a battle with the distracting senses. In mastering pratyahara, you no longer unnecessarily respond to the itch on your nose or hear the baby crying in the restaurant. You are able to fix your focus on your main objective.

According to Patanjali, the eight limbs work together: The first five steps — yama, niyama asana, pranayama, and pratyahara — are the preliminaries of building the foundation for  a spiritual life. They are concerned with the body and the brain. The last three, which we will cover in subsequent posts,  are concerned with reconditioning the mind.

So it becomes clearer that yoga is nothing more than a process which enables us to stop and look at the habits of our own minds; only in this way can we understand the nature of happiness and unhappiness, and thus transcend them both.

Yoga provides an opportunity to ultimately attain enlightenment or the full realization of oneness with Spirit.

Have a great week, friends!!!

Mindful Monday: Asanas

Happy Monday, oh Mindful ones!

Let’s continue our study of Ashtanga or the Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga as expressed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In previous weeks, we’ve discussed the first two limbs: the Yamas or the guidelines for social behavior and the Niyamas which refer to how we discipline ourselves. So now we move on to our third limb: the asanas or the yoga poses that we practice together at YBD.

The first two limbs prepare us to more fully inhabit this human body through our asanas. The postures that we practice are designed to develop discipline, focus and concentration in order to prepare us, the yoga practitioner, to sit with ease in meditation. The root of the word asana is “as” which means to sit.

This is such an important point: the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third of eight limbs, which factors out to a mere 12.5 percent of our complete practice. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, and the proper caring of it is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation (and life!).

The eight limbs are not necessarily developed in a linear fashion. Indeed, I spent the first eight years of my yoga practice firmly mired in the pursuit of the third limb with the other limbs much less developed. This is a common dilemma that we may find ourselves in- which is ok! The entry point of our practice is just that – how we enter into this lifelong practice. Like life, it evolves and transforms with its own natural rhythm.

There is so much focus on the physical portion of our practice, mainly because it appears to be a tangible. But we really cannot actually SEE yoga – we FEEL it. The only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for the Asana is “sthira sukham asanam”, the posture should be steady and comfortable. The next time you are in class, observe yourself:  are you gritting your teeth and tensing in order to find a more advanced variation of a pose? What if you pulled back and focused on calm, steady breathing?

While the asanas are only a small percentage of our complete yoga practice, let’s not forget they are a really fun part of it as well! Have a great week, yogis! Breathe, sweat and smile, my friends!

October 2019 Pose of the Month: Pincha Mayurasana or Feathered Peacock Pose

Happy October, yogis!

Our October 2019 POTM is Pincha Mayurasana. You may know Pincha Mayurasana or Feathered Peacock Pose by one of its common aliases: Forearm Stand or Elbow Balance.

Forearm stand is an advanced pose that opens your shoulders for backbends; builds arm strength for more-advanced arm balances; adds an uplifting quality to your spirit and practice and deeply connects to the entire abdominal sheath.

Here’s how:

Bring your mat over to a wall.

1 Come to your hands and knees facing the wall. Your fingertips should be pretty close to the wall. (An inch or two away is good. This is so when you kick up and your heels are on the wall, your spine is as vertical as possible).

2 Bend your elbows to bring your forearms and palms flat against the floor. Your upper arms should be perpendicular to the forearms. Your gaze should be down on your mat throughout this posture. 

3 Curl your toes under and lift your hips to come into a Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) position with your legs. This position is sometimes called Dolphin (Ardha Pincha Mayurasana).

4 Walk your feet in toward your elbows as much as possible. Ideally, your hips will come over your shoulders.

5 Lift your dominant leg (the one you like to lead with) to a Down-Dog Split (Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana) position. 

6 Exhale and bend the knee of the leg that is still on the floor. Swing your lifted leg for a little momentum as your bottom leg hops up. Try to land both heels softly on the wall. Note that the head stays up off the floor. Keep your gaze on the floor between your hands.

7 If you are able to get both legs up and invert fully, begin to work on engaging your core so you can remove your feet from the wall one at a time and balance independently. Remain in the pose one to five minutes, breathing slowly and deeply.

8 Take five breaths in balsana or child’s pose to counter.

Mindful Monday: The Yamas

Happy Monday, dearest ones!

Let’s explore in more detail the Eight-Limbed Path of YOGA.

While the path is eightfold, we can work on each of the steps simultaneously or in any order that evolves organically. Most of us come to the practice through the third step – asana – which is a wonderful entry point! Remember that yoga meets you exactly where you are without reservation or judgement.

The first step in the path is called YAMAS – they can be considered as five moral guidelines, ethical considerations or universal vows. Yamas are basically the DO-NOTS of yoga.

Patanjali instructs us in the Yoga Sutras that we should practice the Yamas on all levels:  in our actions, words and thoughts.

1. Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, which includes physical, mental, and emotional violence towards others and the self. The starting point of your yoga practice begins with YOU. The most violence that we create is often towards ourselves through our reactions to events and others, habitually creating judgment, criticism, anger or irritation. I have observed within myself that for many years I habitually bullied and shamed and criticized myself which I mistakenly thought was motivating myself to achieve more and be more successful. As I began to observe this, slowly I realized how much violence I was directing inward and ultimately outward through these thought patterns. The most effective way to foster ahimsa is to practice being compassionate to yourself, first and foremost, and then towards others.  I try to allow my heart to remain open and loving and I strive to accept events, situations and others exactly as they are. Each time I experience my reactive self, I try to replace those thoughts and feelings with kindness, acceptance and love. This is very challenging and usually not very fun.  And I practice forgiving myself for not having compassion with practicing compassion.

2. Satya is the practice of truthfulness. We strive to live and speak our truth at all times. As always, we start with truthfulness towards ourselves – being honest and authentic with our own reality, opening to acceptance and loving gratitude.   Since Ahimsa must be practiced first, we must be careful to not speak a truth if we know it will cause harm to another. Living in your truth not only creates respect, honor and integrity but also provides the vision to clearly see the higher truths of the yogic path. It also gives those around us the strength and permission to walk proudly within their own truth.

3. Asteya is non-stealing, and is self-evident:  not taking what is not freely given. While this may on the surface seem easy to accomplish, when we look at the deeper implications of this Yama, we see how challenging this practice truly is. As an action, this is pretty clear-cut; obviously, we know not to take what is not ours, like theft of items from a store or someone’s home. But when we look at the level of words and thoughts, it becomes an entirely different practice. Asteya also refers to taking others’ thoughts and ideas and passing them off as our own. Constantly arriving late and having others’ wait for you is a form of stealing someone’s time. Practicing asteya also relates to dominating conversations without allowing the other person to speak and burdening others with our negative chatter (ahimsa).

4. Brahmacharya or continence technically refers to practicing abstinence or moderation in a sexual context, but the overarching thought is to practice control over all of our physical impulses of excess. The thought is that we attain knowledge, vigor, and increased energy when we channel the satisfaction of physical urges into higher goals. This applies to the overindulgence of food, wine, social media, binge watching TV shows, shopping and even getting addicted to the physical practice of yoga. To break the bonds that attach us to our excesses and addictions, we need both courage and will. And each time we overcome these impulses of excess we become stronger, healthier and wiser. One of the main goals in yoga is to create and maintain balance. And the simplest method for achieving balance is by practicing Brahmacharya, creating moderation in all of our activities. Practicing moderation is a way of conserving our energy, which can then be applied for higher spiritual purposes.

5. Aparigraha is the practice of non-coveting. Yoga teaches us to trust in the abundance of life. When we truly open up to the the truth that any and everything that we ever need shall be provided for us, we can resist the urge to cling, grasp, grip and possess anything. This is similar to the concept of stewardship – that we are all here to care for and pass on the gifts of this Earth – but we own nothing. As with all of our Yamas, this one can be so challenging in our consumer-driven society. How can we deprogram our minds’ need to own, possess, acquire and collect? When we know our true intrinsic value, we can stop searching for our worth to be defined as what we have and focus on who we are.

Whether you are an enlightened being who lives, breathes and eats the Yamas to perfection, or you are a flawed struggling yogi like me just trying to do better and be better each day, please, please, please practice compassion for yourself! You are doing the best you can each day. We all stumble, and we all fall and get back up.

Make it a great week friends!

Mindful Monday: the Journey

Getting upside down at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville

Good morning and happy Monday, mindful ones!!!

It was Family Day at Vanderbilt this past weekend – the first time I’ve seen my baby boy since we said our farewells outside of Murray Hall on Sunday, August 18th.

We had a blast this weekend! Nashville is a thriving and beautiful city with so much to offer. It is overflowing with entertainment, amazing food and lovely people.

And to see my son in his beautiful new life and to hear him say that he made the right choice for himself is an indescribable medley of emotions: pure joy, happiness, pride, gratitude and comfort. He compared Vandy to the other top 15 schools he was accepted to, and said that Vandy students are ranked as among the happiest in the nation!

And I have to remind myself that the road to get here was certainly not a smoothly paved, perfectly straight path. It was far from that!

But the journey was worth it. A billion times over.

And those times where we struggled (he’s more stubborn than me!!) are now funny stories. And the big, significant milestone moments are precious memories that warm the heart.

And the every day grind times are the memories most cherished. The mundane, every day stuff that at the time felt routine and tedious and sometimes boring and annoying are what I miss the most during the course of my day.

But I certainly don’t dwell on that! I shift my focus and awareness to Julian, and we are so excited to see the amazing things unfolding in this young man’s future.

After only a month, he seems taller and he’s definitely filling out his frame with wider shoulders and more meat on his bones! 🤣😍

And watching his journey is a constant reminder to me to stay grounded in the present. To anchor my awareness to right now. And that it’s OK to feel whatever it is I’m feeling in each moment, as long as it’s honest and authentic.

Family day was experienced with my parents and my ex-husband. Just like the 18 year journey to get Julian settled into “the Harvard of the South” was rocky and less than smooth; this weekend also had its ups and downs. Lol.

The majority of ups! But a few instances where we were annoyed with one another. Lol. That’s called family living or just life itself!

The trick is to anchor down (<<< see what I did there?) into the present and love and accept every single moment. Even when you want to strangle someone. Or wrap them in your arms and never let go. It’s all good stuff. All of it!

Have a great week, my lovely friends! Embrace all of it!

Make it the best week ever!

Mindful Monday: Graceful Acceptance

Happy Monday, yogis!

It’s happening again, isn’t it? That final rallying that summer’s not really over.

Scoffing at pumpkin spice’s far too premature appearance. I mean seriously, my birthday is in September (oh, the 14th if you were wondering), and my birthday is literally always warm, bright and sunny. And I’m positive I saw pumpkin even before Labor Day!

Wearing shorts and tank tops, because, it’s like the first week of September! (Thank goodness I had my son’s track hoodie in my trunk for these early mornings.)

Still ordering iced chai rather than hot chai because I don’t need to warm my fingers – cold is like a mini Cryo treatment to my hands.

Then the realization that resisting the natural cycles of nature is just the same as complaining about the weather, which is my greatest pet peeve. Complaining about something that you have zero control or input over is an exercise in futility, frustration and insanity.

So today I ordered a hot coffee for myself and my friend Gina (not pumpkin) and felt gratitude for the chill breeze early this morning.

I admired how the trees are preparing for their big color show and inevitable release to bareness by slowly shedding extra leaves.

And I acknowledged the energetic effects of this transitional time on my body. It’s starting to slow down. It wants more rest and grounding.

The fall is characterized by vata dosha: airy, windy, cold, light, moving and dry.

As long as these qualities are in balance, a person whose dosha is predominantly vata (like me) will be healthy, creative, and exuberant. But when too much vata accumulates in the body and mind, the imbalance may manifest as physical or emotional disorders, including insomnia, dry skin, arthritis, constipation, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.

Many of us naturally and subconsciously move toward grounding ourselves during this windy, moving energy time. We move toward heavier, cooked foods that are filling and warming. We may see an increase in our appetites; be intuitive and take cues from your body on what it needs.

Tending toward softer, heavier fabrics in earth tones will ground and calm vata.

  • Even our yoga practice will reflect this transitional time: more stabilizing and grounding poses and flows.
  • As always, taking our cues from intuition and nature are the simplest ways we can gracefully weather life’s shifts and transitions. From the weather to kids back in school to shifts at work, in life and relationships, we learn to stabilize within and be more allowing to whatever flows our way.

    Have a lovely week, friends!

    Mindful Monday: Sangha

    Good morning and happy Monday, dearest mindful ones!

    I’m so grateful to be part of the Yoga By Degrees sangha. I’m so grateful for each and every one of YOU! 🙏🏾

    Sangha is a Sanskrit term meaning association, company or community.

    In Buddhism, sangha has two meanings: 1. A community of Buddhist monastic monks and nuns, or 2. a community of awakened beings.

    When I refer to our YBD sangha, I’m acknowledging that you are all my TRIBE! My peoples.

    I’m appreciating the fact that through all of my life transitions over the past eight plus years, YOU my dearest mindful one, have walked by my side; grabbed my hand and pulled me when I needed it; kicked me in my booty at times; pushed; cheered and supported me through ALL of it.

    And I sincerely hope that you feel I’ve been able to do the same for you.

    How lucky are we to have a sacred space to go and hide, heal, cry, laugh and receive love, compassion, support and understanding?!

    I am particularly grateful for all of the love, support, wisdom and much-needed advice as I’ve navigated the turbulent years of parenting a brilliant, talented and very stubborn (not sure where he got that from!) teenager!

    And yesterday was a successful launch into his brand new, bright, shiny future as a college freshman in Nashville at Vanderbilt University.

    It truly takes a village or a sangha to raise a child.

    From the bottom of my heart, thank you my dearest mindful ones.

    Namaste.

    Mindful Monday: Summer is Slipping Away

    Good morning and happy Monday, dearest ones!

    Summer is slip sliding away so quickly!

    And isn’t time such a relative perspective?

    For parents with young, loud, messy, high-energy, easily bored little ones, the advent of a new school year can’t come quickly enough!

    For one of my dearest friends whose daughter is in her last two weeks of Beast basic training for the United States Military Academy aka West Point, time seems interminable.

    For me? I’d love to slow down the clock because my son Julian leaves for Vanderbilt in less than three weeks! Not to mention summer is hands down (legs up) my absolute best time of year!

    Thus is our human nature. Trying to cherry pick life’s moments and experiences. Attaching to and desiring what we perceive to be “good” and resisting and averting from what we deem as “bad.”

    We can never achieve permanent, authentic happiness and inner peace if we are constantly defining the conditions for it.

    I will be happy if he brings me flowers.

    I can’t be happy if she keeps smacking her gum.

    I will be happy once I can get my leg behind my head.

    I can’t be happy unless I get married again.

    I’ll be happy if my mother-in-law doesn’t criticize me.

    Whether or not these (temporary) conditions come to pass, we can still choose happiness if we don’t expect or depend on them.

    Think about why you take a vinyasa class at your favorite studio: it’s awesome specifically because you don’t know what the teacher had planned! You are a student: open, eager and ready for whatever unfolds on your mat! Especially when you first began practicing, right?

    It was all shiny and new and challenging and intoxicating. You didn’t second guess the instructor or try to anticipate what was coming up next. You listened, tried, experienced it.

    You learned how to try new things.

    How to fall. And get back up with a giggle.

    You learned how strong you are!

    You learned where you had areas and potential for growth.

    You learned to breathe

    To listen to your heart.

    To accept wherever you happen to be on your journey.

    And the entire point of yoga is to transpose all of those lessons off of the mat into real life.

    So, rather than trying to make time slow down or speed up, we breathe in fully and deeply each and every moment. We trust in the higher intelligence of LIFE. We surrender to being such a beautiful, integral part of the greater universe.

    Of course, it ain’t easy! Lol. Where would the fun be in that?!

    So even though my heart aches down to the deepest level of my soul, I choose to be happy even during my moments of deep sobbing and panic. To feel grateful that I am able to love on the deepest of levels. To be thrilled for this ridiculously bright and amazing future my son is embarking upon.

    To know and trust that of course it is all necessary and amazing and beautiful. All of it. Especially those circumstances that break us down; crack us wide open; leave us feeling raw and vulnerable and tender.

    For these are the opportunities for true growth. Here we learn compassion, patience, healing, acceptance, depth of love and letting go.

    Each moment may seem to last forever, but they are so precious and fleeting.

    And one day in retrospect, you’ll look back and those moments you tried to rush through are the ones that you deeply long for!

    One more day of summer break with my son

    One more afternoon answering endless questions

    One more early Saturday morning of baseball/karate/track meet/practice driving/soccer

    One more night filled with loud, silly, messy hungry boys sleeping over

    One more weekday night after a long day of work to hear the words: “mommy, will you play with me”

    Recognizing on the deepest level there’s no going back for do-overs, I know the next best thing is to stay mindfully aware and present for all of the moments of each day.

    So take advantage of the gift of these last weeks of summer! What have you been planning to do? Get out there and make it happen! So when you do look back, it’s with a deep, joyful knowing that you appreciated and maximized each moment.

    Have a great week, friends!

    Mindful Monday: Hot Yoga in the High Heat of Summer? Yes, please!

    Good morning and happy Monday, my beautiful, mindful ones!

    There’s been tons of rain this summer, but summer is finally here!

    Summer is hands down my absolutely favorite season! I love being outdoors. And summer in Chicago is literally the best place on the planet to live!

    Summer concerts, Cubs games, street festivals, beach days, pool days, breakfast, lunch and dinner al fresco, long walks in nature, fireflies, funnel cakes, Fourth of July… the list is endless!

    But when that heavy humidity is blanketing you, and sweat is dripping from virtually everywhere in your body … a hot yoga class may feel like the last place you’d ever want to be.

    However, there are so many great reasons to continue your practice in spite of the summer heat!

    1. Consistency and discipline.

    The height and depth of your yoga practice (and virtually every other aspect of life) is directly related to how often you practice. That means being very consistent with your commitment to your mat. If you truly want to make Yoga an integral part of your life, it becomes habitual. Just like eating and sleeping. It’s a daily practice!

    2. Detoxification.

    Sweating aids in cleansing your organs, muscles and glands. Whether you’re feeling lethargic or overindulging during weekend barbecues, summer is a great time to detoxify your body! During the warmer summer months people tend to get sluggish. Doing hot yoga re-energizes you and helps you sweat out bad toxins. So go ahead and eat that Andy’s custard! Just work it off on your mat!

    3. Training your cardiovascular system.

    Your cardiovascular systems helps regulate and control body temperature. In our privileged society, we externally control our environmental temperatures with air-conditioning and heating. This ensures that we are comfortable throughout the changing seasons of the Midwest. However it does not allow us to train the vascular system to regulate body temperature internally.

    When practicing yoga in a heated room, it provides a great opportunity for your cardiovascular system to also train and get a workout!

    4. Strengthening your brain!

    You’re either comfortable or you’re growing. It’s that simple. If you seek safety in life, relationships, career moves, you’ll never find true growth.

    Learning to cope in high heat yoga classes teaches valuable coping skills off of your mat! You become much less reactive to external stimuli and become much stronger in mentally focusing and executing your life goals.

    Whatever you “think” you are or do, is the absolute truth.

    5. Deepen your asana practice.

    After a long day sitting at your desk, you feel stiff basically like everywhere! With your body already warm from the outside temperatures, stepping into the heated studio gives your body an opportunity to become more limber and flexible. With the heat, you begin from a space of warmth and may find a depth to your poses not readily accessible in the colder, stiffer months.

    I certainly see very clearly how students’ backbends are so much deeper this time of year. So much more space in the upper body when we’re not hunching over and bracing against the cold!

    What are some other benefits that you are seeing through your consistent, year-round practice?!

    Have a great week, hotties!!!

    Mindful Monday: Saluting the Sun

    Good morning and Happy Monday, mindful ones!

    Have you ever really stopped to contemplate Surya Namaskar? It’s such a common part of our practice, that it’s easy to be on autopilot as you flow through.

    No worries! I have found myself doing this at times as well.

    Yes, sun salutes are the perfect “warm-up” for the physical body. We lengthen and engage all major muscle groups and joints; cardiovascular system increases; lungs, blood circulation and digestive system all benefit. In fact if you don’t have time for a full hour of practice, do 10 to 12 sun salutes for a perfect physical workout!

    But we know that Yoga transcends so much more than just the physical.

    In our sun salutations, we are yoking mind and body together, creating a pathway to dhyana or meditation, a state of deep contemplation and reception.

    In our fast-paced world, we are often ahead of the current moment. The mind has been trained to fast forward in anticipation. Our sun salutes offer the opportunity to pause, return to our center, rekindling our relationship to breath and pure awareness. With this new awareness of breath and movement, we connect to our deeper rhythm and experience a moving meditation. It’s not in fact the physical poses but the deeper awareness of our inner energetic flow that awakens the state of yoga.

    The Sun is central to this devotion, as it is the giver of all life on this planet. Without the sun, life on earth would dwindle and slowly die. The Sun warms our seas, stirs our atmosphere, generates our weather patterns, and gives energy to the growing green plants that provide the food and oxygen for life on Earth.

    Miraculously, we are the perfect distance from the sun. Any closer, and we would be scorched. Any further away, and we would be in the Ice Ages.

    The next time you flow through Surya Namaskar, focus on the miracle of your existence! Use your awareness to honor and notice where your body happens to be at this moment. Take each breath with gratitude.

    Namaste, dearest mindful ones!