Category Archives: Getting Grounded

Non-Violence Starts with Each of Us

Before working on a problem, one must first admit that it exists. America’s most recent slew of police gun violence against people of color brought this conclusion from The Daily Show’s Noah Trevor, and I couldn’t agree more. But what I think this and most other analyses of violence in America fail to see is that violence is not only external. It begins inside each of us. Whatever appears in our words and actions first appears in thought. And our own reactions to life are really responses to internal experiences. In order to bring about the revolution toward love and compassion for all beings on our tiny planet, humans must first know their own internal landscapes. Certainly, we should all be working to change the world through exercising our rights as citizens. But in order to make wide-spread change that will stop the impulse toward violence, we must also set aside time to identifying and observe our own reactions.

Let me back up a step and explain how I got to this point. For the past ten years, I have practiced yoga. In my first savasana I felt comfortable in my own skin–a strange sensation since at that time I was immersed in clinical depression. I began craving yoga classes and gobbling up different types of yoga, from Kundalini to Vinyasa. After seeing how my yoga practice was moving me quite naturally toward self-acceptance and self-awareness, I decided the best way to guarantee that I would do yoga every day (which I recognized as necessary for my own health, sanity, and personal growth), was to become a yoga teacher.

What began from a very selfish place soon transformed. While I was indeed a happier, more centered person from practicing yoga regularly, I also noticed a special energetic echo from teaching yoga. I cherished observing students in what I consider their best moments–moments of struggle, challenge, doubt–moments when it’s so easy to run away or numb out. I was inspired to see people striving to stay present to all of it, the pretty and the ugly parts of themselves. I soon felt as “addicted” to the bliss of helping others practice as I was to my own   practice.

My awareness of the importance of regular, personal yoga and meditation practice grew through a retreat experience. Over the winter holidays, I spent ten days in silent meditation, learning and practicing Vipassana meditation. That style of meditation teaches that any action we take is precipitated by an internal response. Whatever strong emotions arise, we can move toward purposefully choosing our own responses by dedicating time every day to seated meditation.

That retreat reiterated the importance of personal, daily practice, and upon returning I prioritized regular seated meditation. Of course, it’s not always easy for me to set aside time for sadhana (personal practice). But I notice when I am able to practice regularly on my own (in addition to taking classes) I am much kinder to others and myself. I am better able to see my own negative mental and emotional patterns. And I am better able to take a deep breath before blurting out a hurtful comment or automatic judgement.

This fall, I will be sharing tools for inner awareness with elementary students in NE Portland at a local elementary school. In a part-time position teaching yoga to K-5 students, I will have the chance to teach breathing exercises, yoga postures, and mindfulness techniques to help students stay present. I will be focusing on how yoga can help us learn to stay present even when big emotions and automatic reactions arise. It is my goal that this work will help influence the next generation to choose awareness over violence. I hope that my work helps others feel more peaceful and more compassionate toward themselves and others.

These days, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by and powerless in the face of violence. Taking political action, volunteering, educating family members and friends–these are all healthy ways to feel better about the state of our world. But the ultimate shift toward worldwide love will not come until we also learn how to effect change from the inside out, through personal awareness practice, whether that is seated meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or other practices that help us feel present to our own physical, emotional, and mental experiences.

How do you stay present in the face of overwhelming emotions? How do you practice peace in your daily life? I would love to get a conversation started! Comment below.



Foot & Ankle Alignment Tips for Yoga

The feet are our foundation in life and in yoga. In standing postures, the feet must be properly aligned to encourage balance throughout the body, and to prevent injury. For instance, if we’re in a warrior 2 pose and the front foot is pointing outward, toward the pinkie side of the foot, the knee alignment will be thrown off, and from there the hip alignment will be off as well. If we set up the feet properly, there’s a much better chance that the rest of the pose will be safely aligned. Like I cue my students in class, “Start from the ground up” when building your postures. Establish strong, aligned feet and move up the body from there.

This week I’m teaching classes toward the feet and ankles, as part of my Yoga from Head to Toe series this summer. For 10 weeks, we’re looking at a different section of the body each week, learning alignment tips and yoga postures for each body part. This week, Bright Yoga is all about the Feet and Ankles.

1. Activate the Arch of the Foot. While in a standing position, imagine I’m trying to slip a pencil beneath the arch of one foot. Lift the arch, so that the pencil has more space to slide underneath. You’ll notice this activates your leg muscles and anchors you down into the earth.

Supination and overpronationPulling up on the arch of the foot improves balance by recruiting the full musculature of your legs. Moreover, this simple trick prevents ankle supination and overpronation. In supination, the ankles tilt outward. I definitely fall into this camp. Ladies in my family tend to roll their ankles outward while running. Due to years of rolling my ankle in soccer, they were swollen, with excess fluid and scar tissue. Since I’ve been practicing yoga, my ankles and feet have become much stronger, and I’m convinced that it’s the yoga balancing postures and this little trick of lifting the arch that have largely eliminated my tendency to turn out the ankle. I feel much more confident while moving around in the world as a result. This is what yoga tends to do for everyone–it balances us out and ultimately moves “off the mat.”

Activating the arch in the foot impacts the alignment of the legs as well as the pelvis. Overpronation causes internal rotation of the bones in the lower and upper legs, as well as anterior tilt in the pelvis. (What I sometimes call “cheerleader butt” or “duck butt” in my yoga classes.) Suppination does the opposite– it causes external rotation in the legs, and a posterior tilt in the pelvis (“cowboy butt”.) So lifting the arch of your feet can help bring you correct pelvis alignment as well! We will be playing around with this in my classes this week.

2. Push Down into the (3 or 4?) Corners of the Feet. This is a cue you’ll definitely hear in Portland yoga classes–a teacher will often encourage you to “Ground down into the four corners of your feet.” Now, I have a bit of a beef with this phrase. Like many cues, it gets thrown around as a matter of habit. However, the truth is that we really have three corners of our feet, as Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews diagram in their exceptional book Yoga Anatomy.

Imagine the bottom of your feet. There are several arches here which give back strength from the pressure of stepping down onto the earth. (This is one reason why humans are so good at long-distance running; our foot arches and achilles heels are bouncy enough to “give back” some of the pressure from the foot’s strike against the ground. To geek out on this more, check out the Smithsonian’s video The Perfect Runner.) The arches are arranged such that there are actually three places where most of the pressure is deposited; these are the best places for us to imagine grounding down in a yoga pose. There are two points at the top of the foot–one under the big toe knuckle, and the other under the pinkie toe knuckle. Then there’s one main balancing point right under the middle of the heel. (Not one on each side of the heel as some yoga teachers claim.)

But in the end my little tiff about three or four corners doesn’t impact your practice that much. Just imagine grounding down into your feet evenly, with the same amount of pressure on the front vs. the back of the foot, and the same amount of pressure from side to side. This will help balance out your leg muscles and also bring you stability. One similar way to achieve this effect: Lift the toes, which will automatically ground down your feet.

3. Point the Toes where the Knee Goes. As we’ve seen, it’s impossible to completely isolate a certain body part during practice. Whatever we do in our feet radiates up the leg to the hip and beyond. We are unified creatures, in which one small change ripples throughout the whole system. So how we point our feet in postures really matters; it sets up the rest of the body for safe standing yoga postures.

To make sure your feet are properly aligned, make a “Karate chop” hand with the fingers glued together. Place this along your lower thigh, over the middle of the knee. This can show you where your knee is pointing, so that you can adjust your toes to point the same way. Horse posture and warrior stances are excellent for practicing this aspect of foot/knee alignment.

What other tricks have you picked up for safely aligning the feet and ankles in yoga? Do share.

To practice these tips, I invite you to take class with me this week! I will be selecting postures with a focus on strengthening and opening the feet and ankles. Or, if you’re interested in strengthening this aspect of your practice in a more focused way, email me about private or small group lessons, which I am happy to offer in your home in the Portland area.

Take Yoga to Go! The Health Benefits of Practicing Yoga during Travel

There’s a brand new new yoga room in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport! I have been delighted to see this trend growing across the country. Airports in San Fransisco, Burlington VT, and even Dallas now have designated spaces for stretching and yoga.

As I have become more immersed in my yoga practice over the last few years, I’ve noticed what an enormous difference yoga makes during travel. The pre-trip moment of strapping my super light travel mat onto my carry-on backpack has become delightful, as I imagine the new places where I’ll practice. But even beyond spurring sheer enjoyment, practicing yoga feels necessary to me during travel–it’s the only method I’ve found to make me feel relatively normal after landing. Despite being stuck in a thin metal tube with hundreds of strangers, sharing the same recycled air, unable to fully stretch my legs for hours at a time, despite all this, if I can roll out my mat somewhere along the way I know I’ll feel pretty good stepping off the plane.

During our recent honeymoon voyage to to Spain, I was very disappointed to be unable to practice in the Frankfurt airport. The floors there were disgustingly dirty, and there was no place to practice–no protective visual barriers, no open space, nothing. They did have free coffee and hot chocolate, but I would have much preferred an area to lay out my mat and reset with yoga postures, breathing, and meditation. This layover was especially brutal–5:45am to 9:05am, after a two hour layover in O’Hare (land of the unhealthy food options) and a four hour flight from Portland. An hour of practice would have been a blessing–and I’m pretty sure I would have felt far less jetlag-crabby on arrival in Madrid.

Go Healthy: Reasons to Practice Yoga during Travel

1. Improved circulation after the flight. Sitting in any one position for long periods causes blood to pool in the veins, potentially leading to DVT (deep vein thrombosis) and other potentially fatal clotting disorders. Offset the dismal circulation caused by sitting in a tiny coach seat: Practice yoga during your layovers!

2. Relaxing Yoga Breathing = Stronger immunity. During air travel, each passenger gets just 7 to 10 cubic feet of air every minute–about half of what is recommended for healthy internal environments, such as office buildings. And once you’re on the ground, waiting for everyone else to deplane, the plane’s circulation system turns off, meaning there’s a much better chance that you’ll catch the same rasping cough as that perpetually hacking lady in seat 19C. Deep, mindful breathing is a core element in yoga. As you practice, you focus on cultivating calming thoughts and a peaceful mind/body. This activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. the “rest and digest system” or the “relaxation response”) which activates the immune system.

3. Offset the Stress of Travel with Yoga. Traveling is inherently stressful. Being in new surroundings, surrounded by other stressball travellers, while away from your normal home routines–these are just a few of the things that make traveling so anxiety-inducing. Yoga is the best stress-buster there is! Roll out your mat to get grounded once you’re back on the ground, and the stress of your travel day will melt away.

On our way back from Spain, my parents were so good as to give us a hotel room for our 9-hour layover in Newark. After several long dehydrating fights, and going through customs, my new hubby and I were snapping at each other. Fortunately, I had my mat! And enough space to roll it out! That yoga practice (and every practice, really) helped me let go of the small stuff, focus on gratitude, and get in touch with the peaceful center inside myself. If you have a chance, I encourage take advantage of one of the yoga & stretching rooms popping up in airports across the country, it will leave you feeling fantastic!

3 Fast Ways to Get Centered & Grounded

Girl meditating against treeYesterday I wrote about the modern sense of being uncentered. I even got all high-falutin’ and looked at how one 1920s poet described this sense of losing one’s center. That’s all well and good, but how exactly does one go about getting centered in the moment of chaos? I have three ways –what’s your fave way to get grounded?

Portland Yoga Teacher’s 3 Fast Ways to Get Grounded and Centered.

1. Close Your Eyes and Breathe. Shut your eyes to shut out the visual world for a moment. (When we choose to limit the number of sensual experiences coming into our brains, it’s much easier to focus. This is what yogis call Pratyahara.) Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Take three full breaths in and out, pausing at the top of the bottom of the breaths to feel full and empty. As you breathe, feel each breath through your hands lifting and lowering. Aim to take such deep breaths that you feel your hands moving. Once you get the hang of taking deep “belly breaths” you can practice this technique anytime–even with the eyes open. Say when you’re driving, talking to a person, etc.

2. Feel Where Your Body Connects to Earth. Pay attentions to the parts of your body that are closest to the earth (your feet if you’re standing, your sit bones if you’re sitting, etc.) Trace the places where you are connected to the ground. Wiggle a little if it helps you feel those spots more. It may help to close your eyes. Gently press down into those grounding parts of your body, as if you were trying to grow roots. Finally, feel yourself sinking into those places–giving into gravity. Earth is our home; when we reconnect to it we feel more at peace in our own skin.

3. Listen With your Whole Body. In Eat, Pray, Love, one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s teachers commands her to “Smile with your liver!” while in seated meditation. I love this description. And I think it’s a helpful way to think about my last grounding technique, full body listening. Again, close your eyes. Direct all your attention to your sense of hearing, as if this were the first (or the last!) time you could ever hear sound. Thrill to every detail of what you hear around you, but see if you can avoid judging whether the sounds you hear are good or bad. Just listen. Once you’re fully tuned into hearing with your ears, imagine listening through your skin–listening to the air currents in the room. If your mind wanders, notice that and gently bring your attention back to what you can hear and feel. Practice for 30 seconds to start, and work your way up to longer intervals.

By the way, these three ways of getting grounded are also wonderful meditation techniques. The next time that it feels like life is spinning out of control (a common occurrence in our age) I hope you will try one of these techniques to feel centered. Oh, and by the way these exercises take practice! Please don’t become discouraged, just remember that we are all works in progress. And if you have a regular yoga or meditation practice it will (of course) be easier to implement these and other grounding techniques.
<photo: via crdotx>

Finding Your Own Center

The author William Carlos Williams. Via Wikipedia.

Last night Billy (my husband) and I enjoyed geeking out over a bit of literary analysis. We were reading a William Carlos Williams poem on the nature of modern life. Lines from the piece keep floating up in my mind today. The last few lines are perfectly haunting:

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

Although this poem was published in 1923, Carlos Williams is expressing something we still experience today– a lack of center. Modernists like Pablo Picasso, Hemmingway, and T.S. Elliot were experiencing the break from the traditional models of self-understanding. Before the arrival of modernity, people judged themselves and others by local traditions, regional mores, and religious dictums. As Carlos Williams refers to earlier in the poem, the young people he sees “have no / peasant traditions to give them / character.” It seems as we’ve gained the informational freedom and online connectedness of the modern era, this loss of center has only grown more acute.

We have more news than ever but few people question the quality of reporting. We can entertain ourselves with a huge array of television shows, video games, and online cat videos–but what lasting lessons do these superficial time fillers provide? TS Elliot wrote about how “the center cannot hold” in modern life–we’re all spinning away from the anchors that kept society stable in eras past: Family. Religion. Social hierarchy.

So how do we stay grounded and centered in this modern maelstrom?

We have to be our own centers now. We have to get quiet enough to listen to what’s true within our selves. We have an opportunity here to figure out what it is that matters for each of us, according to our own experiences. And to live by what we learn from our hearts.

Our scattered modern life gives us plenty of distractions–plenty of reasons to avoid witnessing our lives, to neglect readjusting our steering, as Carlos Williams would have it. But with a mindfulness ritual (yoga, tai chi, qi gong, martial arts, meditation, prayer) we can discover the center within each of us. We can learn how to step back for a moment from the endless distractions and adjust our directions.

Rather than giving in to the incredible pace and frenzy of our lives, we can slow down. We can stop. We can listen and breathe. And we can get to know the witnessing part of ourselves, the part that sees everything that happens to us. And the only part that can act as a grounding center in our own lives.