Tag Archives: yoga

Doggedly Pursuing Wall Dog

For years, the yoga posture known as “wall dog” stymied me.  There are two versions. In the first, you bend at the waist, feet on the floor, torso flat and elongated, arms straight, palms flat against the wall. The second version is more challenging: arms and legs switch places so that the legs are against the wall, the torso is straight, at right angles to the floor and supported by the arms.

First version, no prob. Second version, no go.

I could get my legs against the wall; I could support my torso with my arms. But for the life of me I couldn’t straighten my legs and keep my arms and torso perpendicular to the floor. Every time our teacher called this one out to us, it felt like there was simultaneously too much of me and not enough. Either my legs were too long to straighten (Hah! When have my legs EVER been too long?) or my torso was too, too something.  How could there be too much of me, and not enough of me at the same time? I never could figure it out, and just did the best I could. It is yoga after all. Perfection isn’t the goal. Acceptance is.

Over time I drifted into other yoga classes, wall dog became less of an issue, and I moved on. Until last month. I’m coming up on eight years of practicing yoga and every year understand more deeply that yoga is indeed a practice. We come back to the mat again and again, going through the same postures, adding new ones, gaining insights, making subtle shifts in ones that are old familiar friends.

And then sometimes there’s a bit of magic on the mat, too. Sometimes the wall dog that always felt as cramped as an armadillo, smooths out sleek as a greyhound. I don’t know how it happened or what inside or outside of me changed. Last month, when the teacher directed us into wall dog, my body just did it. My legs straightened; my arms remained at 90°; my torso didn’t wobble. It was the mirror opposite of past such attempts when there was too much of me and too little of me. This time around, without much conscious thought or effort, my entire body just accommodated itself to the posture. There was room for all of me, inside and out.

It felt great.

What yoga pose has given you fits in the past that no longer does? Do you have a favorite?

Worrying like Ping? You still can’t prevent a whack.

When I get to yoga class just under the wire, I often think about Ping, the duck in Marjorie Flack’s children’s book. As I sign in, my name last on the list, I anticipate an imaginary whack on the back, like the one Ping received each evening when he returned late to the wise-eyed boat that floated on the Yangtze river. In the story, read to millions by Captain Kangaroo, Ping becomes so worried about avoiding an occasional whack that, one night, he dares to …

(Well, if this story is new to you, consider getting your own copy of the children’s classic, The Story about Ping, first published in 1933. And, if you want to discuss Ping further, please add a Comment below!)

One morning, I was as worried as Ping! I was late enough that class already was beginning!

The teacher had to ask two students to pull their mats aside for me so that I could roll mine between theirs.  They did, and the class proceeded: down dogs giving way to warriors one and two, which evolved into revolving triangles, half-moons and such. I felt a twinge of guilt for disrupting the yoginis beside me, but soon got into the flow as they say and welcomed the calm that yoga practice brings. The day’s true lesson was soon to come.

After class I approached the two women who had made room for me. I thanked each one in turn for doing so and apologized for disrupting their practice just as they were settling in.

The first woman responded: “Oh don’t worry about it!”  She laughed and waved her hand. “We all come late at some time or another.” I shared her laugh and thanked her for being so understanding.

Then, I turned to the second woman. I offered the same message, same offer of thanks, same apology.

But, this second woman snarled at me. I don’t even remember what she said, if indeed she answered with anything beyond the snarl. Her response made it clear that she was mightily ticked off to the max. I had committed a grave wrong and she wasn’t going to let me off the hook—even after an hour of very relaxing yoga practice.

Then, came the insight: So often the reactions we get from people have nothing to do with us. However much I worry, and however sincere my apology may be, I still can’t prevent an occasional whack. People often respond to us with what they already have bottled up inside of them.

The first woman made room for me on the floor at the start of class, and room for me in her heart in accepting my apology.

The second woman had spent her hour of practice mentally rebuking me as she moved into each pose, so much so that by the end of class she was a hot mess of resentment.My apology probably didn’t soften the first woman’s attitude any more than it turned the second woman into, well, a number two kind of come-back.

That morning’s biggest revelation wasn’t Hey! I can hold this pose today—but that others’ reactions to us—often just ain’t about us.

What’s your favorite yoga asana? Pose of the warrior?

Warrior is one of the first asanas (poses) that beginning yoga students learn, and one that all students continue to perfect over the years.  The stance: back leg is straight, front leg is bent at 90 degree angle with knee “tracking”  toward pinkie of the front bent leg.  The heel of the front foot is lined up with the instep of the back. Arms are extended, palms down; head is turned in the direction of the front extended arm.

It is a strong and powerful pose,  what with the hands extended like blades in opposing directions as if to challenge and/or defend from ahead and behind. The feet and legs are placed in such a way as to give stability yet with the arms extended, there is also a delicious lightness in the torso.  Whenever this one is comes up in class, I settle into the now-familiar feelings of stability and confidence. It’s comfortable, dependable, makes me feel good. Every now and then I assume the pose of the Warrior before doing something arduous or meeting  up with what I know will be  a difficult person or situation.  Fitting my body into the skin of the Warrior pose gives an instant shot of confidence.

There is a variation on Warrior that brings a curious complexity. The pose of the Gentle Warrior is a true contradiction in terms yet it teaches something crucial. Here’s how it goes: assume the traditional Warrior as above. Now turn your hands palm up. That’s it. A 180º turn of the wrists and the entire pose is changed, its entire feeling and intent transformed. In Gentle Warrior one stands  in strength, in a powerful and somewhat aggressive position, and yet, with the hands turned palms-up, there is vulnerability, invitation. “Come closer,” says this asana, not in a “Go ahead, make my day” taunt, but in a spirit of engagement.  The Gentle Warrior says, “Come here. I am willing to meet you and I am strong enough for the encounter I am inviting you into.”

Over time, processing the inner meaning of this pose has enabled me to engage better with difficult people. Not all the time, by any means. But just having the body memory of strength and lightness, enables me to deal more securely with folks and situations that can make my heart pound. Over the years, in class after class, I toggle between Warrior and its gentler twin. I enjoy the feelings both asanas impart. It’s not about vanquishing an opponent so much as engaging from a place of confidence and security. A place of knowing what I have to offer and doing so with invitation, kindness and firm boundaries.

What is your favorite yoga pose?

What does it give to you each time you practice it?

Sharing this post with your favorite yogis and yoginis will bring you extra good karma this week. You can share this, so easily, by clicking on the blue-“f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped icon for email.

And, I can’t close this column without expressing gratitude to Katherine Austin and all my wonderful teachers at Karma Yoga and to Yvette Cobb at Yoga for Life.

Cellular Memory

According to many in the fields of holistic and integrative medicine, our experiences –physical, mental, and emotional — leave their imprint upon our cells.  The term, cellular memory has been coined to describe this phenomenon. There are massage and other techniques of physical manipulation designed to release past hurt and trauma stored on a cellular level. Once released, the trauma can be transformed.  That’s the idea, anyway.

I hadn’t given it much thought until a yoga class some weeks back. We were to hold our arms straight up and above our heads. As you might imagine, after a minute or two holding the posture grew challenging.  Usually I’d lower my arms, rub out the kinks and resume the posture. But on this morning, I decided to see how far I could push it.  How long could I actually hold the pose?

A funny thing happened on the way to finding out.  As I reached that I-can’t-take-it-any-more threshold, I remembered this was our third grade teacher’s punishment of choice. Talk out of turn or pass notes and off to the corner with you, spindly arms held aloft for what felt like hours. Couldn’t have been more than a minute but all it took was once to bring you into line.

As I held the posture that morning in yoga class, third grade came rushing back: where my desk was (Jimmy Brantley behind me, Cindy Wright in front); the wide uneven wooden floor boards; the multi-paned window that spanned nearly the entire back wall of the classroom overlooking two enormous oaks in the front of the school yard; the heavy green plastic window shade blocking the afternoon sun. I hadn’t thought of the cloakroom in years, nor the covered brick archway that led into the building, nor the water fountain right outside the girls’ bathroom. The bathroom with the windows that looked down upon a courtyard and the windowed breezeway that connected the older part of the school with the newer. It was all right there. I could have held my arms up all morning. All discomfort vanished, replaced by a delightful rush of memory.

So that’s what it meant to release cellular memory. What it means to reconnect and transform it. Who knew all of those third grade memories were still there? Like microscopic Las Vegases, what goes on in the cells stays in the cells. Except for those random moments of transformation when you move through the discomfort and hit the jackpot instead.

Happy Baby

This posture is called “happy baby.” If you’ve ever been around infants, you’ll know why. Once these delicious little beings gain some sense of their own bodies, you’ll often find them tummies up, grasping their delicious little feet with pudgy palms and giggling to beat the band. Maybe they roll around a bit, too.

Easy for some, a challenge for others, Happy Baby pose can leave you feeling very exposed and vulnerable. Because you are. But babies don’t know that. They’re just reveling in another new sensation. “Hey couldn’t do this yesterday but sure like it today!”

Yoga teachers are quite fond of saying, “Close your eyes, and no one will see you.” A class full of students with closed eyes can’t see what your Happy Baby looks like and neither can you. When I get into the pose, lightness overtakes me. There’s a confidence that infuses me, because I know that while I might look vulnerable, it is my own inner strength that allows me to assume this vulnerable pose.

Give it a try. On your back, hands reaching through your legs to grasp the soles of your feet. Encourage your knees toward the floor. And smile! Let that inner baby have a laugh, and a side-to-side roll. Give yourself a point or two for choosing a moment or two of vulnerability.

This pose is also called Dead Bug. But who wants to be a dead bug? Not me. I’m going for Happy Baby!

Silence is Golden

During a stay at the Ragdale Foundation a few years back, one of the residents kept a weekly day of silence. From the moment she awoke until the moment she went to sleep, she didn’t speak. Not a word. She carried a pad and pencil in case something crucial needed communicating, but other than that she merely nodded, and was a silent, though involved, presence at dinner as the rest of us talked shop.  It intrigued me no end. What would it be like not to talk for an entire day? Could I manage it?

Not infrequently, I retreat into silence at the end of yoga class when the students chant Om, shifting from participant to active listener. It’s a gift I give myself to relax, to step back and enjoy the sounds of so many different voices blending together and washing over me. Sometimes a peevish little voice within chastises, “Well if everyone stayed silent, what then?” What then, indeed.  I suppose we’d all just enjoy a few moments of shared silence.

One of my teachers goes on silent retreats every now and then, sometimes for a weekend, sometimes for an entire week.  She said that the weeklong retreat was quite upsetting for the first day or so. Then she settled into the experience and began to enjoy this different state of being. Silent orders are not unknown in the Christian world, but it’s never been an institutionalized goal in Jewish life. Can you imagine a group of Jews coming together for a weekend and not saying a word to each other? Like what’s the point? Makes me giggle just to imagine it.

But Judaism does weigh in on the benefit of silence. Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) has a teaching: I have been raised among the wise and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. Interesting that silence is good for the body.  I would have thought soul; another commentator explains, In matters which concern the soul, such as learning Torah (Bible) and praying, speech is very beneficial.  So how does silence benefit the body?

I hadn’t planned on getting so philosophical when I began, but I’ll take a stab at it. We are so busy walking and talking, shopping and talking, eating and talking. And in my case, sleeping and talking as well. Perhaps silence is good for the body because it offers us an opportunity to acknowledge this miraculous creation for what it truly is. Perhaps in silence we  remember how incredible our bodies are, going about their business silently (most of the time) distributing blood, oxygen, nourishment, carrying away garbage, fighting disease, transmitting instantaneous electrical impulses from one end to the other. Yes, there are times, way too many times it is beginning to seem, that these internal communications break down. Maybe silence is simply good for the body because in silence a usually active part of us is at rest.

As for a day of silence. I just might give it a whirl. I’ll tell you all about it.

Time Flies When You’re in Eagle Pose








Come May, I will have been practicing yoga for seven years. Astonishing. No exercise regimen has ever held my attention for even half as long. Perhaps because yoga is so much more than exercise. Or perhaps because yoga exercises so much more than the body. Yoga challenges you mind, patience, spirit. It invites flexibility not only of the muscles but of the mind. No, yoga is no longer exercise for me; over these seven years, my yoga practice has become an inseparable part of who I am, who I’ve become and who I hope to be.

The first class I attended at Karma Yoga, did not go so well. The teacher had us do some sort of hip opener that immediately sent me into an emotional tailspin. There I was in a class full of strangers, on the verge of tears, terrified and shaking to my core, wondering what the heck was going on and why did my friend bring me there. The teacher came over, covered me with a blanket and said, “You’re OK.  I saw it when you came in. Just rest and we’ll talk later.” She saw what when I came in? And rest? How was I supposed to do that when everyone around me was rotating through an entire zoo of poses: eagle, pigeon, camel, fish? After class, quite a few women came up to me, sharing hugs and simpatico looks.  A few even shared their own stories of being overcome by a host of emotions in one pose or another. The teacher and I did talk after class; she described what she saw in my hip as a “huge metal cube.”

Over time, and a good deal of inner work, that cube began to disintegrate. As it did, my balance improved. Flexibility, too. I grew calmer, stronger. A couple of years in, someone said that my whole manner was different. My yoga practice is no longer exercise; it has become an indispensable part of my life, for which I am eternally grateful. Namaste.