Thursday, November 1, 2012

POST-HURRICANE MUSINGS - The Morning After



As I wake up to a quiet world, just the hulking echo of that terrifying wind lingers in the air, a still-ominous presence not quite gone. My dog, Cosmo, and I venture onto the 
street, I, dressed for bear, he, golden fur flying; I, with tentative steps, he, with 
curiosity and wonder, nose twitching to the new smells of trees ripped from the earth, 
wet mounds of leaves everywhere. 

We wander up one street and find a tall tree uprooted, on its side, a fallen warrior, half the tree on top of a car sitting in the driveway, crushed now, the windshield smashed, 
the hood caved in. Cosmo sniffs at the underside of the tree. I see the roots, torn 
asunder, and hear the question forming in my mind, "Shouldn't this tree have had deeper roots? Why didn't it hold?" Me questioning Nature: the silliness of that effort silences my 
thoughts. The owner surveys the damage to his car and marvels aloud, to me, to the 
wind, to anyone, to no one, to himself, "It could have been worse. Much worse. No one was in the car. It didn't land on the house. No one was hurt. Thank God. Thank God."  
I just listen as he speaks, hearing the words, and the fear behind the words, and the 
relief, too. The urgent need to speak, to connect, to know, through our speaking, our 
aliveness. My skeptical mind spews out a thought: in anger? in outrage? in frustration? 
"Yes, and it could have also been a lot better: the tree could have NOT landed on your 
car. You could have been spared this fear and aggravation,and the cost of repairing the 
damage." I find myself ashamed at this unbidden, unwelcome thought, at my inability 
to suppress it, to unthink it. I admire this man's faith: I'm jealous, knowing myself 
incapable of that type of belief. 

We move on, Cosmo and I, and we see power lines down; I warn a few cars to turn back, "It's not safe here," I gesture in some sort of universal language of hand waving: 'stop,' 
'turn around.' And they do.

Around the corner, my heart sinks. Another tree shredded into two perfect halves, one 
half proudly holding its ground, the other snapped and broken, drooping treacherously 
close to the earth. And yet, as I look up, I spot a bird's nest tucked inside the branches, 
safe and sound. Maybe it doesn't matter.Maybe they've flown the coop long ago. Still, I 
feel a stupid happiness, that something has survived that represents life and nurturing and home. 

Some houses look fine; not much there, just some twigs and branches strewn across a 
front lawn, some garbage pails tipped over, rocking softly side to side, as if resting after all the tumbling about. Other houses look wretched: gutters hanging down, twisted metal smashed into windows, or dragging the roof down on one side; trees knocked about and showing the fatigue from the long night's effort of Just Holding On. 

That house haunts me; I consider taking a few photos but feel like an intruder, as if I 
were stealing something, or uncovering something intensely naked and private. I resist 
the temptation and move on. 

And so we stroll, Cosmo and I, careful to step around cracked pavements where trees 
have ripped them open, revealing their surprised underbellies to the air, and to our 
curious stares. 

Hurricane Sandy. They're calling this a SuperStorm.  The Perfect Storm. Now I see why. 
The destruction makes the streets look like we've been through a war. A war we had 
warning of, a war for which we diligently prepared, imagining that we had done well and would be quite safe: water and batteries stocked, the barbecue grill tied down with 
rope. And yet, a war we couldn't possibly win. Nature, for whose bounty we can never be grateful enough. Nature, whose furious destructive powers raged through the night far 
exceeding what we could ever withstand.

The wind chimes hanging from the tree in our backyard have survived; they sway softly 
now, sounding a quiet harmony. Maybe it's like this: maybe if we don'thold on too 
tightly, we can allow ourselves to be whipped about, free to go this way and that, 
settling back in the lull between the wind-swept attacks, and surviving. And maybe the 
metaphor doesn't work at all, not supported by the rules of science.  
But I like it anyway. It gives me hope.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

THE QUIET BEFORE THE STORM: Breath as a Centering Force


Class is in session. But are you?

You’ve had a crazy day at work (as usual). Your boss was critical and demanding (as usual). You have a headache that’s got your temples clamped in a vice-like grip (as usual). You battled traffic to get to the studio (as usual). You had to hunt for a parking space (as usual). And then, you got to the studio – hurray – only to find that the studio is packed, mat-to-mat (as usual). You shut off your cellphone, sign in, kick off your shoes, toss your bag in the closet, roll out your mat in the narrow space you were able to carve out for yourself, get a bolster, a block, a strap. You throw yourself onto the mat. And that’s when it sets in, because it’s the first time you’ve made space for it; it’s the first time today that you were even able to pay attention to it: debilitating, crushing, knocks-the-wind-out-of-you stress.

Who can do yoga feeling like this?

You can. Definitely. But how?

With the breath, that’s how.

At first, the busy-ness of the day stays with you: shoulders remain taut and hunched forward protectively, jaw clenched tightly shut, abdominals drawn into a tense knot, the breath erratic, the mind everywhere but here.

But slowly, the instructor’s voice reaches you. “Come to a comfortable seated position … a posture of comfort and dignity.” You hear her saying, “Feel your sitbones firmly anchored on the mat …”  OK, you know how to do that. You do that.

“Breathe in …” she says. “Pause for a moment … hover …”  “Breathe out …”  The invitation to be present to the breath arrives, and after a few rounds, barely heard, finally, you hear it: the invitation to let things be just as they are. The instruction to  “allow your thoughts to rest in the hammock of the breath” reaches you, as if for the first time.

And so you do. You take that first wave breath, following its oceanic movement: in … pause … out … pause. Again. Attention resting, finally, at the point of entry and exit, and not on anything else.

The tug of the day is still there. But it’s quieter now, less insistent. It can wait. It will wait.

Because you are busy now with what you need to do: breathing in, breathing out, watching the breath, attuning to the breath. Nothing else is happening right now. In this present moment, this is all that is happening. And that is enormously captivating, and comforting.

This you can do, and so you do: you breathe in; you breathe out.

And slowly, slowly, thoughts settle, and the mind quiets.

The day slips off your shoulders. Tense muscles unwind. Stress unravels.

And now, now, you are, truly, here.

Centered. Quiet. Ready.

Class is in session. And, finally, so are you.



____________________

Charlotte Chandler Stone, CYT, E-RYT500, is the founder & director of the Stone Center for Yoga & Health, Teaneck, NJ, a center for yoga, yoga therapy, and yoga teacher training.
201.833.5955
info@stoneyoga.com


Sunday, July 1, 2012

A JULY 4th MEDITATION ON FREEDOM

YOGA'S INDEPENDENCE DAY:  KAIVALYA


The Fourth of July is generally accompanied by serious BBQ-ing, way too many flyers in the newspaper, sales galore, and extra hours in the mall. Let's face it: it's hard to focus on the historic context of the day. But, if we choose to, we can take a moment to reflect on the meaning of the day a nation stood up for its rights and fought for its freedom.

Yoga presents us with a roadmap that can lead us to our own personal Independence Day: "Kaivalya." The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali speaks of this in the fourth chapter, verse 29, in its teaching about "DharmaMeghahSamadhi." 

Far from being a remote or ancient concept that no longer has relevance in our lives, DharmaMeghahSamadhi is most timely. When we walk the yoga path, we fine-tune our discernment. When we do that, we attain freedom from our attachments, illusions, and our endless - and ultimately unfulfilling - yearning for reward. When that happens, we catch a glimpse of our essential, true nature, which is Unity Consciousness, and we are showered with an understanding of the right path that is uniquely ours to tread. We become completely absorbed in Spirit. This is freedom as defined in the Yoga Sutras, yoga's quintessential text.


Note: "Dharma" means a path of righteous living, virtue, ethical behavior, justice, and all that helps us move toward our spiritual best. When we live a yogic life and practice all eight limbs of yoga (not just asana!), we move forward on this journey toward grace, light, and spiritual freedom.

Here's a translation from Mukunda Stiles: "One who is free of self-interest even from the attainment of the highest realizations, who possesses constant discrimination, is showered with virtue from being absorbed in Spirit."


This July 4th, by all means, let's enjoy the day, the official start of the summer season with its vacations, staycations, days at the pool, fireworks, and a lighter way of being. But let's also take time to reflect on the deeper meaning of freedom ... for this country, and for ourselves.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reduce Stress with 1:2 Breath Ratio


When life is stressful, slowing down the breath, especially the exhalation, can help bring renewed calm and a more relaxed state of body and mind.

Here's how ...

Sit on a chair, meditation cushion or yoga bolster, in a posture of comfort and dignity. You can also lie down on your back for this pranayama experience; support your head and neck, and your knees, so that you are resting very comfortably on your mat. 

Take a few moments to settle in and settle down. Take some Wave Breaths: allow your abdomen, ribcage and collarbones to expand as you breathe in ... and let your collarbones, ribcage and abdomen recede as you breathe out. Take several of these Wave Breaths at an easy, leisurely pace that is natural for you.

Now, as you breathe in, notice the length of the inhalation - you might count "beats" in your head: "inhale - two - three." 

As you breathe out, slow down the exhalation up to twice the length of your inhalation - you might count "beats" as follows: "exhale - two - three - four - five - six."

Don't strain, and do not hold the breath; this pranayama is meant to be comfortable and easeful. You should feel comfortable at all times.

Repeat this for several rounds, for 1-2 minutes. Then, return to your natural breath and notice how you feel.

The 1:2 breath ratio is designed to - quite literally - slow us down. It moves us from the sympathetic (stress) nervous system into the parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system ... and it is very soothing and calming.

Try it, and enjoy!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

TIPS FOR TEACHERS: Where Do You Stand?


Do you always teach from the front of the yoga studio, with your students facing you? Of course, that's where you would want to be ... much of the time, unless you're moving around the room to offer gentle assists or whispered words of encouragement or guidance.

But there are some times when you could refine your teaching by positioning yourself at a different spot in the room, with better results.

The Problem: You are teaching a creative sequence that involves moving the class from, say, Warrior I, to Warrior II, to other poses sequenced into the flow. Your students will be facing the front of the room when you first start the sequence (Mountain, Warrior I, Sun Salutation); then they will face the side of the room for Warrior II and perhaps some other fun "open hip" poses (Stargazer, Side Angle, Half Moon) that you've choreographed into the sequence. To do the sequence "on the other side," the class will be transitioning to face the other side of the studio.

And where are you? At the front of the room, where most of your students can't see you for a large portion of the sequence. 

Your beautiful demo isn't going to be effective if no one can see you, or your students have to crane their necks to see what you are doing.

Is there a better way? Yes.

The Solution: When the class is facing the side wall of the studio, GO OVER THERE and demo the poses while facing the class. When the class faces the front of the room, MOVE THERE. And when you lead your class through the sequence on the other side, MOVE AGAIN, this time to the other side of the room, so that it is always easy for your students to find you, and for you to see them. 

There are three rationales for this:

- we want our students to be able to see us, so why not make that easier for them?

- when we stay glued to our mats at the front of the room, our students will turn their heads in order to see us; this has them twisting their necks uncomfortably, or moving in ways that take them out of proper alignment, and might strain necks, shoulders, low backs and knees.

- it is WAY easier to move one person (you, the instructor), rather than an entire class; this is simply more efficient.
  
Try it and let me know how it works for you!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tools for Teachers: Giving (Even) Better Instructions


TOOLS FOR TEACHERS:
Giving (Even) Better Instructions








You're teaching an awesome class. Textbook perfect. Everything's going well. Until that one moment when you see the entire class turning THIS way, when you really wanted everyone to go THAT way. Argh! 

It's a common problem for yoga teachers, and one that's easy to correct with a little practice and a lot of mindfulness.

The Problem: As we teach, we give multi-layered instructions. Turn to the right. Step the left foot forward. Side-bend right. Inhale. Exhale. Nothing wrong with that. The issue is that our students know us ... sometimes too well. They assume we will always go to the right first, for example. Or they just did a sequence on one side, and they assume they know what's next. But they don't necessarily remember the sequence -- or you've choreographed an element into the sequence before repeating it on "Side B" ... but they don't know that and assume they'll go through the sequence to the other side NOW. 

The students are with you one moment; the next moment, they've gotten a step ahead of you.

What's a yoga teacher to do?

The Solution: We tend to give the breath instruction first, and then we add the movement instruction. E.g., "inhale and elongate; exhale and twist left." Breath first, then movement. This works really well most of the time. Except when it doesn't, and the entire class just went the wrong way.

Know exactly what you would like your students to do. Now, plan the movement that's coming up, and give a more nuanced instruction than the one you usually offer. If you need the class to "twist left" next, give the DIRECTION first, and then very quickly add the breath instruction. E.g., "Inhale and elongate; SIDE BEND LEFT ... exhale." Movement first, then breath. 

In this example, the movement instruction comes a split second before the breath. Students will still do the movement with the correct breath, but now, they will be more certain to move to the side you intended, because you caught the potential for confusion just before they move again. You've caught them in the moment before they move -- and that is when you need to give that more precise, differently-timed instruction.

The best place to practice this technique may be on "Side B" of the sequence you're teaching. 

By adding a heightened degree of mindfulness, and precise movement and breath instructions, your students are likely to follow your lead even better, making for smoother transitions and a more elegant teaching style.

Try it and let me know how it works for you!
 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Of Passover, Easter, and ... Yoga?

On the eve of Good Friday, Easter and Passover, I can't help but stand in awe of the connection between Passover, Easter and yoga.

How's that? Let me explain.

Easter celebrates the miraculous rebirth of Jesus. A dying, and a returning to life everlasting.

Passover celebrates a people's move from bondage to freedom. A dying of the confined and restrained soul, to be reborn as a new nation.

And Yoga? Yoga is the discipline of freedom. Yoga celebrates our diligent practice, and our capacity for attaining "moksha" (spiritual freedom), by giving us a roadmap for going deep within, using Patanjali's Eight Limbed Path as our guide. What dies? Illusion and attachment. What is reborn? Nothing less than the true self.

So, whatever your background or belief, celebrate this weekend, when so many energies flow together in such extraordinary synchronicity. Tell the story of the exodus. Share the promise of immortality. And practice yoga, and dance the dance of "moksha."  Freedom.

Happy Holidays to All ! 

Metta, 
Charlotte