Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My Yoga Practice - it may not be what you may think

In what seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I had a very active and powerful yoga practice. After taking my teacher training with Baron Baptiste I was on a power yoga trip that inflated my ego and had me pushing my students in crazy ways on the mat - which reflected what I was doing for myself. People seemed to like it and that made me feel even more powerful about how I was teaching and practicing. My body was the strongest it had ever been in my entire life and postures like arm balances and fancy twists seemed to come very easy to me. Around this time I lost some people very close to me unexpectedly, and I began to make some very poor choices. I was not living a yogic life at all. I was living a life based out of fear that it may not be there the next moment - and I was determined to do whatever I wanted.
Me...back in the day...

And then my appendix burst.

My body literally said, "stop this shit right now, or I'm gonna kill you."

Recovery time was slow. I couldn't even sit up out of a chair, let alone get on my yoga mat. People were telling me that I should practice Restorative Yoga, but that wasn't what I wanted to hear. So I did nothing. When I went back to teaching, I taught off the mat primarily, and struggled to find the right voice because something felt off about what I was teaching. I wasn't feeling very powerful any more, how could I teach a powerful practice? Nothing was jiving, although most of my students were thrilled that I was back and still loving my classes. But I wasn't.

At home I could barely stretch and forget about any core or uddiyana bandha for the postures that required it. I'm not sure what it was that jolted me awake or moved me forward, but one day I broke down and purchased a bolster and humbly threw down my body into Restorative postures. At first I was bored. But just like after the first power vinyasa class that I took, I did it again. And soon I was falling asleep in Restorative poses.

I had some other health scares at this time too, so I started eating better. I stopped drinking alcohol. I started to take care of myself. And, in turn, I started to see how I had been taking care of (or not taking care of) others. I didn't like what I saw. And when I was doing my yoga teacher training and talking about what it was to be a yogi, I realized I had not been practicing what I preached.

First you must understand that "yoga" is not just an asana practice. That is a but a limb or a part of yoga. And yes, it is important and needed, but not necessarily even the most important aspect of the practice. As most yoga practitioners know (conceptually) there are 8 limbs of yoga:
1. Yamas (ethical practices)
2. Niyamas (disciplines)
3. Asana (postures)
4. Pranayama (breath control)
5. Pratyahara (withdraw of the senses)
6. Dharana (orienting the mind to a single point)
7. Dhyana (meditation)
8. Samadhi (merging/ becoming one being)

Together, when practiced, we cultivate yoga or union. So if a person only practices asana, they still are not practicing yoga. Yoga is practiced by cultivating all of these things - sometimes one at a time and other times together. But ultimately it is through a consistent practice that true yoga is gained. I had been focusing on two of the branches. In fact, I had been a very bad yogi. I was breaking nearly every yama and niyama in the book. Sure, my asana practice had been strong, but it was not nurturing nor mindful. And I had pretty much skipped the upper limbs entirely, thinking they might come at some time if I kept up my asana practice.

From the time I allowed myself to nurture and be more mindful of my body, my yoga practice changed. It finally became what it was intended to be: a yoga practice! I started practicing all of the limbs to the best of my ability - every day.

When I am driving to work or from work (which is an hour in each direction) I have a lot of open time. Of course I have to focus on driving, but I often find myself doing pranayama or chanting (a form of dhyana). The case for practicing the first yama - ahimsa; which is non-violence, can be made for every encounter on the road. When someone cuts me off, drives slowly in the left lane blocking traffic, or pushes up on my bumper I could react very poorly...and sometimes I still do...I never try to pretend that I am perfect. But practicing ahimsa means stopping the negative patterns of behavior (be it thoughts, words or actions) and replacing them with kind and loving ones. So whenever I can I often watch to see how changing my own energy may affect the traffic patterns and people on the road that I encounter each way. And it often does align to my own patterns of consciousness. I even wrote a story for "Elephant Journal" online a few years back about creating a meditation around driving. I find that I often do this and find myself completely absorbed in the action of driving to the point that everything else fades away and I arrive at my destination unharmed and in time as if divinely guided there.

At home I find more time to practice the yamas and niyamas - both with my family and by myself. My husband and I have been working on Satya, or truthfulness, (one of the niyamas) for years. It is something that I try to point out all the time as we discuss certain aspects of our life and if we are being completely honest and truthful in them. And there are many, many more examples of how this comes to play at home for each of the practices and disciplines.

It is said that yoga is both a natural and cultivated state. For me, Pratyahara, Dhyarana and Dhyana have all begun to happen spontaneously. In fact, the first time I actually had a connection to these was in the hospital when I was waiting to be seen by the doctors the time my appendix burst. The pain was so bad at one point that I began a deep breathing technique and gentle rocking spontaneously. This took me to a place I had never been where the pain, time, space and everything was gone - or merged - or something. Everything was white and then I "woke up" when it was time to be moved into a room. I am told this took somewhere around 45 minutes or so but it felt like just a moment to me.

By slowing my breath and becoming truly present and true, I have found that I can repeat this experience and take it even further. It only happens when I am completely present and natural - when I have let go of my mind-stuff and the moment that I am in is completely true. But I have found recently that I can do this even while talking to someone. It is really fantastic!

As for my asana practice, this has become much less aggressive. I have found tremendous power in gentle yoga practices. And it took me about five years before I could again begin to use my core for stronger Hatha practices. Now I can finally do more vinyasa and I am back to some arm balances and bigger twists, but I am coming to these poses with a different mindset. I am not doing it to prove anything - to myself or anyone else. I am not even trying to get better at them or when I am teaching to even try to encourage others to push themselves further. My asana practice is a very natural thing. I can naturally move into asanas throughout the day and often do. When I have time to roll out my mat, I do whatever feels right. There is no script and I do not try to do anything. I clear my mind and move naturally. Some times this is very gentle and other times there is more fire to the practice. But it is always an organic and natural state. And my teaching has changed to reflect this more mindful and integrated practice as well.

There are many days when my yoga practice is simply being mindful at what I am doing. Even when walking the dogs I now leave my cell phone home so that I can be present for them and the walk. I have found the walks to be much more pleasant these days.

So when people ask me how often I practice yoga, the simple answer is "every day and all the time." But the yoga that I practice is not always asana based. Although I never say "never," I cannot see myself doing a set practice every day. That just doesn't work for me and it doesn't feel natural. Every moment energy shifts and changes. So why not shift and change with it? For me, this natural state has helped me to find a deeper connection to my practice. It may not be what you think of as a practice, but it is a much stronger and more powerful one than I ever knew existed.

Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

October's Theme: "HOPE"

"Hope" is our theme for October. Last month was National Recovery Month and as many of you know, we offer Yoga4Sobriety classes and teacher trainings to help those in their ongoing battle with recovery. We also offer Yoga 4 Cancer - classes that offer those healing from cancer in whatever way. Our hope is to continue to offer special classes for those suffering in any way - be it from illness or addiction - or anything else. 

The whole of the human frame, according to yoga, is about liberation from suffering, although all humans suffer in one way or another. Some yogis advise that hope only inspires more suffering, and so to give up hope means that we can move past our attachments and thus suffering. But other yogis say to never give up hope and to keep a positive attitude for tomorrow by using various yogic techniques in which to help guide us along the way. Either way, yoga gives us methods of alleviating our suffering and it is certainly up to the individual to define his/her own path.

According to the Father of Yoga, Patanjali, "Change, longing, habits, and the activity of the gunas can all cause suffering. In fact, even the wise suffer, for suffering is everywhere." Yoga Sutra II.15.

To ease suffering, yoga says to respond with equanimity to changing circumstances, longings not met and patterns that may not be serving you. It is about clearing our perception and being more connected to a quiet place of inner Self. We can do this by bringing our awareness to breath and regulating it so that it is even and smooth. While we are there, reflect on the situation that has you agitated and experience your feelings. Once you pinpoint what you are feeling, ask if you have control or not. And when you realize that you don't, practice letting go.

This type of self-awareness takes time and patience, but can be done. We are all suffering, but it really is about stopping, taking a breath, and recognizing that what matters is how we react mentally, emotionally and physically to the situation that matters. So for this month, let's all surround ourselves with positive energy and focus on the energies of hope. 
(Source: Yoga Journal: "Life HappensL the Yoga Sutras Take on Suffering").

In Love & Light.
OYC Founder, Tracey L. Ulshafer & your OYC Teaching Staff

* * * * * * *

I wish that I could say that Hope is something that I've always had and been connected to. The truth is that like most people when I was dealing with a very challenging time, I sometimes battled with giving up on it. I often found myself wondering why something was happening to me or why God had forsaken me. It was; in fact;  a lot of "poor me." I remember one day in particular when my father told me I had to stop feeling sorry for myself because life was hard and I had to find a way to deal with it. I didn't like what he said and I certainly didn't want to hear it, but it was what I needed to hear and it stuck with me ever since. 

Of course I still have moments or days when I struggle with keeping my faith up. So I do my best to keep quiet those days and wait until it passes...which it inevitably always does. Yoga has become such a powerful tool for me to keep a positive attitude and cultivate an attitude of hope with. Before yoga I actually had no tools. With yoga, I find a place to be still and reflect without reacting. It's a way to get in touch with my "shit" and move through it intelligently and non-reactively. 

I know that many yogis talk about hope being just more attachments, but I'm not talking about hoping for a sugar-daddy to pay your bills. I'm talking about keeping a positive attitude and knowing that the moment will pass and tomorrow will be a better day. I know a lot of friends and family who literally live one day at a time - one moment at a time. They have to for their own health. That takes inner strength, self-love and hope to happen. And so I never underestimate the power of being hopeful.

I truly hope that you all have a wonderful month. Harvest season is upon us, so let's relish in all that we are grateful for cultivating and hope for a restful and nurturing winter ahead.

In Love, Service & Wisdom.
Tracey L. Ulshafer,
Founder/Director, One Yoga Center