Lately, I feel like I’ve been defining yoga by what it isn’t rather than what it is. Yoga is not about extreme flexibility, or doing advanced poses, or wearing fancy tights. Having a sanskrit tattoo, standing on your head or taking 5 classes a week will not make you better at yoga. That’s not to say you can’t do some or all of those things (I love standing on my head!) but they aren’t the essence of yoga. 

The poses are a portal into the practice of yoga but it’s not the only one. For those of us in the west, the physical practice is the way most of us come to yoga. It’s what brought me to the mat. But it isn’t why I stayed on the mat. 

If it’s not about the poses, what is it about? There are many books, teachers and schools of yoga that have answers to that question. Ultimately I think each person needs their own working definition. For me, it’s about noticing my response to stimuli, bringing awareness to my likes and dislikes, and challenging my very strong attachments to my physical body and my thoughts. It’s about having a lifelong practice that supports me regardless of my physical capacity. One that deepens my relationship to myself and others, and connects me to humanity.

Keep doing poses and keep exploring what they have to teach you. If you listen closely and are open to what they have to offer, you may be able to craft your own definition of yoga.

There are many benefits derived from back bending. They open the front body, strengthen the back body, extend the spine, and energize the spirit. Of course, like most poses, some people love ‘em and some don’t. 

We’re spending the month of July practicing  a wide range of backbends. Some backbends such as locust and cobra are great for development of back strength. Warrior I, pigeon and dancer lengthen the front body – especially the hip flexors. Upward bow has the added challenge of arms overhead and pushing up against gravity. In passive backbends such as supported bridge and reclining cobbler, gravity assists by opening the heart center and relaxing the mind.

Like all of our yoga, it’s important to approach back bending from an honest and personal perspective, and not from a place of striving or comparison. Done well, backbends can  strengthen the spine and improve posture and breathing. Done poorly, they can exacerbate back pain and sacroiliac joint instability. 

My intention for teaching backbends is for students to find their level of comfort in spinal extension and practice in a way that enhances their understanding and experience of back bending. Through personal practice and study it is my hope that students will learn best practices and find the freedom and strength that comes from this family of poses.

A few days ago, I asked a student to show the class revolved side angle pose. I wanted her to do it since I can’t ground my heel and achieve the “full pose”. Instead, I do it with a lifted heel. It works for me so I’ve never spent much time figuring out why I can’t put my heel down. After she demonstrated, she asked what I thought was limiting me. I’ve always assumed that my hips were too tight to allow for grounding the back heel. Then there’s ankle flexibility, genetics, and the incentive to spend time practicing the pose – so the answer was “no, not really”. If I’m truly honest, I’ve never found revolved side angle pose compelling enough to challenge my limits with it. I’ve always been satisfied with my variation.

The next morning on the mat, however, I got curious. Partly because I feel it’s important for me to “practice what I preach” and also, I truly wondered if I could find more steadiness and ease in revolved side angle if I practiced it earnestly and not be bound to my perceived end point (another thing that I preach).

What I discovered is that there are many interesting lessons on the road to revolved side angle. By fully experiencing the transitions that lead from straight front leg, to bent leg, to twisting the spine, there are opportunities to strengthen, maintain steadiness, and focus. The process rather than the final pose becomes the goal. I also realized that my curiosity was sparked by my student’s inquiry. Since I didn’t feel threatened by her wanting to know what was limiting me, I was able to reflect on her question without feeling inadequate or judging myself. 

Getting curious means having the courage to ask questions and look for answers. It may be a cliche, but it’s true that there is usually more than one person that wonders why something is done in a certain way, or didn’t understand the instruction, or whatever. So asking your question serves others as well. 

So be brave, get curious and the answers you find just might surprise you.

Recently, I attended a small local meditation gathering where the theme for the evening’s practice was seeing the good in others and ourselves. At first, this seemed like an easy concept to contemplate. After all, I don’t think of myself or others as being “bad”, maybe we make unskillful choices but we aren’t bad by nature. When I dig a little deeper into my thoughts, I’m not sure I always act from the place of believing in everyone’s basic goodness. What about my inner critic, and my judgements of people and their actions or beliefs?

This got me thinking about ways to practice seeing the good. Since I’m a yoga teacher and student, my first thought was “how do I practice this on the mat and in my teaching”? 

Most yoga classes focus on the physical body. Often yoga teachers are trained to look for where a student is lacking – correcting alignment and pointing out where the body is less flexibility or has weakness. To a certain degree that has its place. However, yoga is more than just the physical body. If emphasizing performance is overdone or not placed in a larger context and we spend all our time on the mat critiquing our poses, it actually prevents us from being in a true state of yoga. 

Yoga is a wide field of study and is defined in many ways. There are two definitions that I like the most. One comes from the Bhagavad Gita and the other is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Bhagavad Gita defines yoga as skillful action. Learning to see basic goodness is a skill. The definition of yoga in the Sutras is roughly translated as “ceasing the fluctuations of the mind”. If our mind is constantly judging ourselves and others, then it is not steady. Constantly focusing on external actions becomes one more way to keep the mind busy and miss out on resting in basic goodness.

When I reflect on what I hope my students gain from practicing yoga, reducing the busyness of the mind, and choosing skillful actions are two that come to mind. I also think it’s important to celebrate what we do right, and remember our basic goodness and the goodness of others.

Our local radio station has a segment every other week called Tips for Healthy Living. I recently went to KTNA and had an on-air conversation about the benefits and challenges of self care. It can be especially hard to maintain a routine during the Alaska summertime. But it’s worth the effort and you can do it!

If you’re interested in some “tips”,  listen to my interview with Holly Stinson. And if you have some tips of your own, let me know. You might just end up on the radio.

Last week in the Thursday night Inversion Series we practiced supported shoulderstand. Click here if you’d like to check out Jason Crandall’s sequence for warming up for shoulderstand. This inversion is one of the classics. It’s also one of the poses that’s caused me the most struggle. Over the years, I’ve used more blankets, less blankets, had my arms strapped, set up at the wall and tried just about every variation of shoulderstand I could find. All in the hopes of making it more comfortable. Some of those props did help. But what helped me the most was not giving up. And practice, practice, practice.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue to explore inversions in all of my classes. Inversions are safe and accessible for most able bodied students, and alternatives and variations exist for students with physical limitations. There are some cautions and considerations that need to be understood before going upside down and it’s always best to learn inversions from a qualified teacher. The benefits of inversions include a change of perspective, overcoming fear, core stability, and reversing the body’s relationship to gravity. And they’re fun! So I encourage you to come to class and give them a try.

Transitions are a fundamental part of life. Some are obvious, like graduating from high school, and some are more subtle, like the pause between the inhale and exhale. For the next month or so in my classes I’ll be teaching how to stay present during the transitions between poses and the transitions that turn us upside down (think getting into inversions like headstand).

When we focus our attention on the actions that take us from one moment to the next, we create space for awareness. Just like a graduation ceremony, the act of observing our transitions gives us time to reflect on what came before the present moment and what’s possible in the next one. The future can be tomorrow or the following exhale or the choice of where to place our feet.

Remaining present is a tricky business. We can’t orchestrate our every movement or thought. We do need some things to be automatic. It would be cumbersome to have to think about each footstep. But to be on auto pilot all the time doesn’t serve us either.

Practicing yoga provides an opportunity to examine our habits and patterns. I like to say that a good habit puts you in the groove and a bad habit leaves you in a rut. The yoga mat is a safe place to experience how your habits influence what you do in your practice and in your life. Are you ready to slow down and notice where you’re headed?