The Gift of Yoga

This past Friday I got to do what I love to do the most – expose people to the wonderful gift of yoga. Had the studio at OmBodies filled with “old” and “new” CMU McNair Scholars. I feel blessed that I’m in a position to actually do this in my work, in addition to “planting seeds” with pretty much any person I meet or talk to. I took a risk and started incorporating yoga into our scholar programming almost five years ago now. You see, we strive to support our students in ways that go far beyond academics.

When I talk about McNair, I like to say that we’re in the business of developing confident individuals who have the wherewithal to achieve an advanced degree if they so choose. I also like to say that no matter what you have for a goal, you aren’t going to be busting out anything of any real magnitude if you don’t have yourself together with baseline self-care. I call it EAT SLEEP MOVE. If you aren’t taking care of how you are doing each, you’re not going to be in any shape to really flourish in your life.

The fact is, our scholars spend a lot of time working very hard in their classes, many have jobs in addition, and they just have really full schedules that sometimes don’t allow for things like downtime, exercise, healthy eating, etc.

So where does yoga fit into this picture? And what makes yoga special?

Most logically it fits into the MOVE category of self-care, but it’s so much more than just exercise. It’s a type of exercise that offers physical benefits like strength and flexibility, but it also incorporates things like breath work and present moment awareness that can really lead to significant shifts in the way we exist and move through our daily lives.

It’s really a “practice” that one develops over time that usually starts with the physical postures, but often ends up becoming a way to feel more connection among your mind, body and spirit. The physical practice becomes more like a “moving meditation” and allows you to become more in tune with yourself. Some people even say that yoga can help you discover your true self.

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Yoga helps me get rid of things that don’t really matter.

When you practice yoga, you begin to develop an “inner stature” or state of being in which your mind is at ease (thus, yoga is great for stress management). By going inward and focusing on the breath while engaging in the physical postures, you can, in a sense, train your mind to be more aware – more aware of how you might be feeling, more aware of external circumstances, aware of the constant flow of thought. The thing is, at the same time yoga teaches us how to become more aware, the goal is to not attach to any sort of outcome or desire. The goal of the moving meditation is simply to acknowledge what comes up and let it go – let it just float on by.

In talking with one of our scholars about what makes yoga great – she said, “It’s like cardio for the mind.” Brilliant.

This is where the real beauty is – as you go deeper inside yourself, you become clear on your intentions in life and who you are as a person. You also start to de-clutter the mind, getting rid of “stuff” that doesn’t really matter. Things in the past, things that might stress you out (that you can’t control), things that might not really matter all that much in the long run. You simplify. You simplify on lots of levels.

After I do yoga, I always feel wrung out. Wrung out on a physical level, but on the level of my mind too. It’s as if I’m getting down to the very nitty gritty of life, stripping away all the layers of bullshit that accumulate and getting down to my very core. Somehow, as I develop a sense of mindfulness, I’m finding myself letting go of things that don’t really matter. That might mean, something that someone said offhandedly that might have rubbed me the wrong way, to festering about the quiz that I didn’t do as good as I could have on, to being okay with where I’m at in my life, today. I think sometimes we can become so swept up in our daily responsibilities, our problems, our goals, that we can lose sight of the sweetness of life, that is, what is right at this very moment, right now.

That, in my mind, is the true gift of yoga.

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Getting Stronger

Funny thing happened while taking on the 30-day Yoga Challenge with Debbie Williamson this past month – you know that when you’re consistent and work on improving something everyday – you get stronger. I say this in a “sorta” joking way since that’s a pretty obvious thing. BUT, at least for me, I rarely get myself into that mindset where I’m (really, really) committed to doing “a little something” everyday so that I can grow my skills, my knowledge, my writing, my whatever. So doing this challenge really nailed this concept down for me firsthand. It’s also pretty damn cool connecting with fellow yogis across the country (granted, a good portion of Debbie’s tribe are Wisconsinites, of which, I am also one!) – sharing our goals, our challenges, our small steps being made, the funny things that might happen along the way, perhaps even our deeper observations of self and how this journey might really be striking a cord at the moment. A breath of fresh air.

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30-Day Yoga Challenge

I didn’t do “my challenge” EVERY SINGLE DAY but of the 30 days, I probably hit it for 25. That’s pretty damn good in my book and for those days I didn’t, I decided not to beat myself up about it. Maybe my arms really needed a rest or maybe I just needed not to be accountable that day. The point is that – overall – I really rocked it! Since I’ve been wanting to jump back into chaturanga from crow (see pic below) for a while now, I decided that my daily goal would be to hold crow 2x for a minute each time. Since I really don’t enjoy L-shaped handstand (thus the real challenge) but know it really builds strength, I also held L-shaped handstand 2x daily for a minute each time. I “threw in” holding a forearm plank and high plank too just for kicks and giggles. Now believe me – while holding these poses did get easier, I would still be squirming, losing focus, stopping my breath and itching for the final 30 seconds to GET DONE pretty much every time I held L-shaped. A great practice in patience, perseverance and “breathing through” any real challenge that might arise – on the mat or in life.

bakasanatochaturanga

This was my goal – which I have now achieved – jumping back from crow into chaturanga. Now I’ve got to work on having enough arm strength to float into up dog.

I’m inspired to continue with my “daily challenge” and I’m thinking about expanding and getting a little crazy creative – maybe even starting to hold my full handstand (still against the wall, of course). I tried it out the other day and did a 30-second hold 2x. I even brought my feet from against the wall and challenged my balance, holding in mid-air for like 3 seconds. As my yoga teacher, Heather, always says — milliseconds count! So, I’ll have to keep you updated on my progress. In the meantime, I challenge you to think about stepping up and exploring with something like this – especially if you are already a yogi or even if you aren’t and are interested in seeing what yoga can possibly bring to your life. Start with a simple down dog. Holding and breathing deeply in down dog, even for 20 seconds or so, can help release tension and get the blood moving, just like that. Simple simple! It’s a start that can open the door to a life-changing practice.

Samskaras

The other day in yoga class, my teacher Heather, brought up this notion of samskara. It’s something I hadn’t heard of, but as I’m exploring, I’m finding that it’s something that I’m thinking about all of the time. And pretty much have for most of my life.

Samskara is a Sanskrit term that refers to our natural tendencies to be, act and feel in certain ways. Whether it stems from our conditioning, experiences or deeply rooted ideas about life, samskaras are grooves that we fall into on a regular basis. They can be positive or negative.

One example for me is feeling overwhelmed when I have too much stimuli coming at me or too many details/items to organize and take care of (both of these usually relate to our kiddos). I’m not sure if it’s because I tend to be overly anal, controlling, or thrive on peace, order and calm, but that’s likely it.

I’ve always been that way. I’m guessing it’s partly genetic as my mom and grandma both exhibit these tendencies, although one might argue to an even greater extent. It’s probably related to being the oldest child and being an “only child” until the age of five when my sister Patty was born. Any way you slice it, I’ve always needed to feel in control of my environment.

So what does yoga have to do with this and why is Heather bringing it up this concept of samskara in class? Because yoga has the power to dissolve our samskaras that might not be in our best interests. We use our experience of intense heat and focus (which happens during our asanas) to train ourselves to not attach and instead be open to new pathways and possibilities. Modes of being. Through the practice we turn inward and begin to drill down through some of these blockages, these tendencies that no longer serve us. By setting our intention we begin to create new tendencies that take root and grow.

This week I’m paying special attention to samskaras I wish to create in my life. I can already feel a spark happening on several fronts. I’m developing “less tight and constrained” ways of being. I’m developing healthier habits when it comes to nourishing my body. I’m starting to cut a groove in “upping” my game when it comes to creating and writing and moving onward and upward.