Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why I Take my Glasses Off Before Yoga Class

As I walk into the yoga studio to lay out my mat, my vision is blurry. I smile at every person I pass, since I can’t really see the details of their faces well enough to tell who is who. After class, people often remind me, “I was right behind you!” or “Yeah, I was in that class too.” They have to remind me, since I am too blind to tell where everyone is. My vision with my glasses is 20/20. But I choose not to keep this perfect vision when I practice. I take my glasses off before almost every class I take.

Why? Well, initially I started taking off my glasses because a ruined a pair in the heat. I practice various styles of yoga, including power vinyasa in a heated room. After many hours spent in a sweaty studio, I found the transition coating was flaking off my lenses. So once I got new glasses, I swore to protect them by taking them off before heading into a heated room. (The temperature is between 95 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit in the classes I take.) But as time went on, I found new, more important reasons not to keep my spectacles on.

First, I am much less self-critical with my glasses off. With perfect vision, I can’t help but catch myself in the mirror, and I’m more likely than not to become distracted by something superficial about my appearance. I am your classic “Type A” personality–I push myself harder than anyone else does–and my time on my mat is sacred because it’s an escape from personal criticism. It’s much harder to criticize yourself when you can’t properly see yourself.

Second, having my glasses off makes it much harder for me to compare myself to others in the room. It’s so easy as a yogi to spend your whole time in class wishing you could have someone else’s deep backbend, or wondering why the heck you can’t touch your toes with the ease of that ballerina two mats away. Deep in my heart, I know that every single person in the room (and in the world!) is a precious being, with their own unique anatomy and personality. As I sometimes remind my students, every person in the room is exactly where they need to be at that moment. We can’t just switch bodies, and even if we could we would find a whole new set of issues to worry over. Chances are that even the ballerina is consumed with body confidence challenges. But that attitude is easier spewed than lived. And I will take the little concentration tricks that life gives me.

With my glasses off, I find it much easier to shut out the negative internal voices, so that I can just focus on the present moment, on feeling the shapes in my body, and on cherishing every single breath. I also spend a lot of time on my mat with my eyes closed. After years of practice, I am confident enough in many of the poses to close my eyes and maintain an internal focus. In classic yoga texts this idea of shutting out unnecessary inputs is called pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses. It is a crucial skill in this era of over-stimulation.

Now, I’m not suggesting that eyesight isn’t useful on the yogi’s path. Clearly, there are times when I wish I had my glasses, so as to watch the instructor demonstrate a pose, for instance. But overall the rewards I get from imperfect vision are too great to give up. So I keep it up.

And in the end I think that “imperfect vision” may be a more perfect form of vision. Sitting in a meditation posture after class, I flutter open my eyes and see a human being, sitting in a beautiful space, tall spine, open heart. Just another human. Fallible and full of potential. That break from my ego–the break gifted to me by the absense of my specs–is quite restful to my soul.

What do you do to shut out negative thoughts during your practice, or out in the real world? I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, especially your little tricks for staying focused and positive on your mat!

<photo: torbakhopper>

The Power of Thought: Affirmations are All Good, Anytime!

[bandcamp width=350 height=350 track=397380065 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=e99708] My student Amanda shared this Ze Frank song with me today after my weekly downtown Portland 1:05pm yoga class at West Side Athletic Club. She was spurred to do so by my announcement that I’m co-teaching a kids meditation workshop at Mississippi Health Center on October 11th. “Have you heard of Ze Frank?” Amanda asked when I explained that the workshop was all about giving kids the tools to stay calm in the face of big emotions. I am so glad she pointed this song out! Ze Frank wrote it for a web pen pal of his who felt despondent. He wrote the basic chorus, and a whole crew of people sent him their own recordings of the positive message:

Hey. You’re Okay. You’ll be Fine. Just Breathe.

Frank mixed the voices together to create a lovely chorus! It’s such a simple message. Doesn’t listening to it feel like getting wrapped up in a blanket of loving kindness? Listening to it, it really does seem like everything will be just fine.

Why should such a silly little ditty have such a huge impact on mood? Why has this song struck such a chord with so many people?

Because it’s an affirmation.

That word — affirmation — sends many peoples’ eyes rolling, I’m sure. It probably brings to mind “The Secret,” and the idea that we can design our futures through the power of positive thought. Now, I’m not saying that thinking you’re rich will immediately make it so, but I can tell you that from a yogic perspective, thought creates reality. What we think becomes true for us.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes our mental patterns as samskara– mental ruts that are difficult to escape once the pattern is established. And neural science backs up this yoga philosopher. “What fires together, wires together,” the neurologists say, meaning that neurons that fire at the same time once tend to fire together more in the future. So the thoughts that we have over and over again are “ruts;” they’re habitual tracks that can seem almost impossible to escape.

What’s more, we see what we’re looking for. What I mean is this: If you have a certain lens on the world, you’ll see evidence for your own beliefs everywhere. And you’ll be quite likely to ignore, or not even notice, the parts of your experience that don’t fit in with that belief. Psychologists call this inattentional blindness.

Affirmations can help us “rewire” the brain to see more positivity and joy around us. During my last bout with depression, I used affirmations to see my life in a new perspective, and to set goals for what I was looking for in my life. Here are a few of my favorite affirmations–please use them, share them, make art with them!

All is well. The universe is bringing me to my highest good. Out of this situation, only good things will come. I am safe.

I am attracting supportive, positive friends who like me exactly as I am.

I can handle anything that comes my way.

I look and feel terrific.

To this day I continue to use affirmations as a daily prescription for mental happiness. I choose to fill my head with positive thoughts, and (as the neurologists predicted) more happy, positive thoughts come my way! Maybe you’ll think I’m crazy, but I do affirmations while on my bike, in the car, while swimming… anytime I want to add more happiness and joy to my life.

So… if the rain has you feeling down, say an affirmation or two! The keys to make an affirmation effective: a) Phrase it in the present tense. b) Practice it. The brain won’t shift immediately, it takes time and commitment to have the mental space you want. c) Change out the subject. I learned this trick from Louise Hayes. So I would say “I can handle anything that comes my way” the first three times, and then “You can handle anything that comes your way” the second three times, and “Colleen can handle anything that comes her way” the last three times.

Share your favorite affirmations below, and let me know how the practice goes!

~Colleen