Category Archives: yoga practice

Pranayama Intensive: Sama Vritti

For the past five weeks (concluding last weekend) I was engaged in the Pranayama Intensive online class with Judith Hanson Lasater and Lizzie Lasater. Last summer I was a student in their Experiential Anatomy online class led by the highly talented teaching team of Judith, Lizzie, and Mary Richards. When the opportunity arose to participate in another class with them, I immediately jumped in. The class was intentionally offered at this time, when so many of us are sequestered in our homes as a result of the pandemic, making it for me an auspicious time to study the breath. When breathing is slowed and exhalations become longer, the slower, deeper breath calms the nervous system. 

Judith noted that Pranayama and Breathing are NOT the same thing. Pranayama is intentional control of one’s breath. Prana refers to energy, and yama is restraint. Taken together, pranayama is “working with the physics and energetics of breathing.” Within the yogic umbrella there are several types of controlled breathing patterns; the first one we explored was Sama Vritti.

But before we could practice, we had to set up the yoga mat with props to enhance the sensation of the practice. The photo just below is the suggested setup. I have tried this and did not find it sufficiently conducive to my practice so have made subtle changes. Pranayama ProppingIn place of the stair-stepped stacked blankets I used a soft bolster with a sweatshirt rolled at the front to fill in the space between my low back and the bolster. In place of a rounded bolster under the back of my knees I used a squishy bed pillow. And I prefer a small, soft pillow under my neck and head. Delightedly, the first time I practiced was on a lovely warm, sunny Saturday afternoon when our back deck beckoned. Propped next to my head was my iPad for playing the guided pranayama audio file. my setupSama means same, which appropriately is what the spell checker usually tries to change “sama” to each time the word is typed. Vritti refers to busyness and activity. Sama Vritti Pranayama is a balanced breath pattern, each inhale and each exhale being of equal duration, like a balanced seesaw. In this manner, the breath balances the busy mind. 

I have seen this breath referred to as Box or Square Breathing, though I prefer the Sanskrit flow of the words on my tongue, like the flow of my breath. I enjoyed 22 luscious minutes listening to Judith guide me in to the setup and practice, listening to the quiet as I breathed, listening to the silence in my mind, returning at the sound of the chimes and listening to Judith guide me out of the practice. 

I would like to write that my practice has been in earnest, taking the time every day to practice, be it five minutes or twenty. Alas, that has not been the case. Twice. That’s the total number of times I have practiced. Partially this is because I lead yoga practices online three times a week, and partially because I still have a day job. However, the day job concludes next week and it marks not only the end of a school year but my retirement from the world of school teaching and transitioning more fully to the world of yoga teaching, something for which I have been preparing for the past four years!

Gentle Edge

with PaulaReprinted from the original on my professional yoga site.


Starting Out – January 2016

That’s me on the first session of my 2016 Yoga Teacher Training (YTT). I registered for the six month training with the thought of improving my practice and had only a tiny thought that the training would become the groundwork for my teaching. At that time the very thought of teaching quite unnerved me – maybe you know that sensation – butterflies that do not settle, a digestive system that does not calm.

In the photo Paula, one of our three YTT teachers, is handing me a glass container with a candle inside and my name hand-written on the outside. The candle was a gift of welcome to light my way, a similar candle given to each student.

My entire training was an exercise in taking my practice and my journey to my gentle edge.

Take it to your gentle edge of expression – where any more would be too much, and any less would be too little.

This is a sentiment I have heard numerous times from various yoga teachers, and it always brings to mind Lev Vygotsky and his idea of ZPD, Zone of Proximal Development. In yoga the edge is “a place of neither too much nor too little stretch” and “unless you find your edge, there is no growth, no learning, and no change.” (Michael Lee, from Kripalu Yoga, A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat, chapter 4.)

Vygotsky believed that children could learn from watching and following adults, with the adult assisting the child to go beyond what the child was able to do on their own. This place, where the child has gone as far as possible on their own – their gentle edge – and was ready to go beyond, was the zone of proximal development. He felt that optimal learning experiences should take place in each child’s ZPD, with that zone being specific to each learner.

I have learned yoga through a combination of observing my teachers, following their cues, giving my teachers permission to make subtle changes in my postures, and practicing regularly. My teachers, especially in my 200-hour training, have taken me beyond what I could do on my own. They have helped me get to my gentle edge of expression and over time, with their assistance and my practice, the placement of that gentle edge has shifted. They have met me in my ZPD and guided me beyond.

Yoga and psychology, a gentle meshing of both.

graduation

 

Yoga Nidra

WORKSHOP OVERVIEW
This past weekend I was at a 3-hour workshop hosted by the Yoga Teachers Association (YTA) of the Hudson Valley. The workshop, Yoga Nidra & Restorative Yoga, was led by Mona Anand, someone with whom I was already familiar having been introduced to her by a yoga colleague who extolled Mona’s training and online Yoga Nidras. I was eager to learn more and purchased Yoga Nidra to Lift Your Spirits on iTunes; it did not disappoint!

As with her iTunes album, the in-person experience did not disappoint either. During the  first 15 or 20 minutes Mona shared a bit about her background and provided an overview of what the remainder of the workshop would entail. From there she guided us through Restorative yoga followed by a 35-45 minute Yoga Nidra. The final 30 minutes consisted of elaboration and discussion based on a summary handout she provided. For more about Yoga Nidra in her own words, read Mona’s Introduction to Yoga Nidra. Be sure to scroll the page because the section about the Benefits of Yoga Nidra comes after the email slot for subscribing.

WHAT IS YOGA NIDRA?
The quick answer is that it is an experience somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, and you are led into that place by someone who continually speaks as they guide your attention (not your movement) to various parts of the body. This is different from Savasana, which is the final resting pose after any yoga practice and is a quiet practice. At the end of the practice Mona added that Yoga Nidra is designed to release thoughts and feelings, but not to analyze those thoughts or feelings.

THE HANDOUT
Mona’s approach to Yoga Nidra consists of nine steps and was developed by her and Alan Finger. The Yoga Nidra that I have experienced in the past has usually consisted only of what is Step 4 in this approach. The steps below, with some commentary by me, are from the handout shared at the conclusion of the workshop, copyrighted by Mona Anand and Alan Finger, 2008-2018.

1. Ekagrata – planting an image on the screen of the mind
Begin lying on the back with any support necessary to provide warmth and comfort. In this step you are guided to check in with your inner state as you draw your senses inward. Mona used the imagery of visualizing a flame at the third eye, that space between the brows.

2. Asana with nyasa – pre-yoga nidra asanas
The physical practice of yoga consists of poses (also called asanas). In looking up the meaning of “nyasa” I learned it is a series of touches on specific locations on the body. In the case of Yoga Nidra, these are not physical touches but visualized touches (more on this in Step 4.) As Mona guided us through asana she moved the flame down the body through the chakras. Typically chakras move from the bottom to the top, but she intentionally guided top-down to help draw us inward. She especially wanted us to focus on places where the body holds tension at the back of the neck and in the hips.

3. Pratyahara (antar mouna) – letting the mind move from sound to sound
Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of the senses. During this phase Mona first guided us to listen to sounds around the room as we become aware of “antar mouna,” the practice of becoming aware of external sensory perceptions. From there she led us to draw our senses inward, pratyahara.

4. Rotation of Awareness – moving the mind through the body
This is the portion of Yoga Nidra with which I was familiar, having been led through it multiple times over the years. The guided travel through the body is intentional in its sequencing. The rotation is designed to clear the conscious mind, relax the physical body and increase body awareness, neurologically creating a circuit of energy in the brain, thus letting you go to the hypnogogic state. This is the state immediately before falling asleep. I have usually experienced this as a slow flow through the body where my attention was guided first fully to one side of the body, starting with a pinky finger and wending its way to the same side little toe, and then traveling the same route on the other side, leading to deep relaxation. When Mona guided this she “pinged” the body parts, thus pinging the brain, and had us travel from the feet upwards.

5. Nirodha – counting the breath backward
Starting with the number 11, count each breath going backwards. Since self-counting can tend to put people to sleep, Mona’s voice was intentional here in order to help people remain awake. Nirodha deprograms the mind and brings it to the present moment.

6. Pairing of Opposites – creating opposite sensations and emotions
The purpose of this step is to clear the subconscious mind and release emotional tension. The opposites are meant to induce a feeling of heaviness as muscles relax. Mona noted that the pairing of opposites is useful for people with PTSD to help them experience the range of what they miss when blocking out sensations. As she explained, you “cannot feel one side of the coin unless you can feel the other.” Examples of opposites include:

  • hot-cold
  • heavy-light
  • pleasure-pain

7. Rapid Visualization – fast moving images
In this step the unconscious mind is cleared, relaxing it so it can purge itself of painful memories. It is meant to be quick and consists of reference points to release what is in the subconscious so that it can “take out the garbage.” I enjoyed listening to the items but did not retain them and in the discussion that followed was tickled to hear one person list almost all of the items:

  • best childhood friend
  • Tinkerbell
  • hot cocoa
  • rainbow
  • warm sand
  • roses
  • white petals
  • smell of lavender
  • mother’s eyes
  • bonfire

8. Long Visualization – guided imagery
I have been guided through visualizations before and every time, including this one, I get lost somewhere along the line. It’s not that I do not know where I am, rather I simply tune out any speaking and eventually come back “online” usually towards the latter part of the visualization. This portion of Yoga Nidra frees one from being trapped by the boundaries of time and form, which is known as “maya.” It is a safe bubble.

9. Sankalpa – order from the conscious mind to the subconscious 
This is done seated and invites each person to set an intention before leaving. It is more productive to give instructions to the subconscious mind. Mona notes that in more advanced Yoga Nidra a seated meditation may be added between Steps 8 and 9.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Mona shared a way to think about how our brains deal with negatives and positives. She said negative emotions stick like velcro, whereas positive emotions slide off like teflon because we are wired to remember the one negative event (or comment) rather than the twenty positives. This comes from very early human history, when remembering the location of the one hungry lion (who might want to eat you) was more important than thinking about the twenty smaller animals you killed that day for food.

If you ponder those thoughts, you may perhaps see a similar pattern in yourself, noticing how the single slight can overtake the many positive interactions in a given day. This is likely why practices such as keeping a gratitude journal or doing the “Three Good Things” practice can be so beneficial.

That’s Mona in the left photo, leading the discussion after the experience. The workshop was packed and the room was quite chilly. We had been forewarned about the temperature so I dressed in layers (yellow arrows in second photo are pointing to me). Nothing like a mirrored wall to make the room seem larger and some of us seem to be in two places at once. 😉 I had the delight of sitting next to Paula, one of my three 200-hour Yoga Teacher Trainers (she is in the red top to my left.) Photos are from Mona’s Instagram feed.

 

My Mom’s Email Sign-Off: Metta

Periodically I will be reposting here, often with a few minor changes (or in this case, several additions), posts that I crafted for my professional yoga site, as some of those posts may have relevance for readers of this blog. This is one of those posts.


All blessings bright and beautiful

That is how my Mom would sign her emails to me, followed by Love.

When I began leading yoga practices my Mom’s sign off became my closing words along with an added sentiment – 

May all blessings bright and beautiful be yours, may you shine them inward to nourish and reflect them outward to share with those you meet.

My additional words change with each practice, as the moment takes hold, but always they reflect inner self-nourishment, and outward kindness and consideration for others.

Over the years the Buddhist tradition of a Metta practice has found its way to my awareness, either from reading books or having my yoga teachers explain and then guide such a practice. A little over a year ago, while reading Frank Ostaseski’s thought provoking “The Five Invitations,” I was struck by his mention of the first Sanskrit chant I ever learned: Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. (My review of this book is here and my reflection about the book is here.)

In English it translates to “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” Ostaseski describes Metta as “a practice in which we consciously evoke a boundless warm-hearted feeling” and that by reciting this chant, or similar chants, “we gradually establish benevolence, friendliness, and love in our own hearts, and then we extend the wish for well-being and happiness to all beings in every direction.”

There are two interesting aspects of chanting that resonate with me. The first is that it is much easier to remember something if it is set to a melody, particularly if there is a repeatable rhythm. The second is that chanting can help to clear the mind and prepare it for relaxation or meditation. I wrote a bit about chanting in early 2011, and find it interesting that almost ten years later very few of my yoga teachers incorporate chanting into their classes. After typing that sentence a smile spread across my face with the realization that I, too, do not include chanting in the classes I teach!

EileenAndLaurieMy Mom was practicing Metta long before I ever understood that it was something, a practice, a way of being and thinking. Her closing words always resonated with me as a powerful and beautiful expression of love – love for self and love for others. I wonder if she was consciously practicing Metta or if the words just simply resonated with her, as well. Thanks Mom. 🙂

It’s Alwayz Now!

Circling back to a post from 2010, in December of 2018 I crafted my first blog post on my newly created professional yoga site. Since then, having written several more posts, I’ve opted to include them here as they are relevant to our always firing neurons.


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NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… It’s ALWAYZ now!

These accurate words were categorically stated in the December 14, 1986 Boston Sunday Globe comic strip, Rose is Rose. A young ice pop munching child asks for “Nudder ize bop pleez!” and his mother replies “No, you may not have another ice pop!” You might think the discussion is over, but being a typically concrete (and ice pop loving) child, her son asks, “Not EFFER?” and his mom comes back with “I don’t mean not EVER… I mean not NOW!” Of course, as you can see in the comic, the child has a reply.

Mom’s conclusion, as she and her son sit down to more ice pops: Your philosophy better not be rusty when you’re in charge of the ice pops!

This comic has graced our refrigerator, and more recently a wall, since 1986, when my father-in-law cut it out of the paper and sent it to us to commemorate our then two year old’s absolute love of ice pops.

It is always now. That is what yoga celebrates, to focus on the moment at hand. It is the only moment there is. Take a respite from what happened the moment before, and take a break from imagining the future. Breathe in a soothing inhale, breathe out a calm, slow exhale. Now be present in this moment and breathe again.

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Plums & Discs, Plumb Lines & Posture

PLUMS & DISCS
A really juicy plum is sweet and full. Prod it with your fingers (palpating it!) and you can  feel the give-and-take within the body of the fruit. With that image in mind, imagine your plumvertebral column, the curvy, almost “slinky-like” chain beginning at the base of the skull and continuing down to your pelvis where the lumbar spine meets the sacrum.

The vertebral column is made up of vertebral bodies, and between each vertebral body is an intervertebral disc (IVD). Think back to that juicy plum, the give-and-take as you gently prod it. The IVD works in a similar fashion by providing cushioning to the vertebrae and acting as a shock absorber. During the day the intervertebral discs  sustain the pushing and prodding of the spine as it moves in all directions. As a result of gravity, by day’s end the IVDs have become compressed. There is maximum pressure on the discs when sitting, medium when standing, and the least amount of pressure when lying down. Indeed, after a sound night’s sleep you are a tad taller in the morning because the intervertebral discs have become plump with water and are less compressed.

As for that sweet juicy plum, once you have bitten into it the plum no longer responds the way it did beforehand. Perhaps the flesh of the fruit comes spilling out via drips and small chunks, and maybe you even round your back, jutting your head forward so the yummy mess doesn’t wind up on the front of your shirt! While puncturing the plum is good for your palette, this equivalent action in an intervertebral disc would be counter productive for your spine. Protruded, herniated or prolapsed discs occur when the nucleus of the disc breaks through the area surrounding it, much like your bite into the plum lets the center break through the area surrounding it.

PLUMB LINE (or What are the normal curves of the vertebral column?)
Place a book on your head and try walking without having the book fall off. The walking rhythm with the book staying put is the neutral position of your head in relation to the vertebral column.

To sit or stand with your vertebral column in its normal curvature you first need a sense of what that is within your body. In construction a plumb line is used to determine that something is vertical. In the body a plumb line is a vertical line that you can visualize on the outer side of the body. “It passes through the external auditory meatus of the ear (outer ear), the center of the shoulder joint, the hip joint, the center of the knee joint, and finally the lateral malleolus of the ankle (outer side of the ankle joint).” (From the online course Experiential Anatomy.) The plumb line touches upon body parts that, if vertically aligned, give rise to the normal curvature of the spine.

To find your plumb line ask someone to take a look at you from the side. Stand with your eyes slightly lower than the top of your ears, relax your shoulders, arms loose at your sides, feet and legs supporting your body. If you tend to tuck your tailbone, untuck it. According to Judith Hansen Lasater and Mary Richards in Experiential Anatomy, tucking the tail takes the body out of joint and inhibits the functional muscle patterns that support the core.

Ask your plumb line assistant to tell you what they see. If they note that your head is forward of the plumb line, and if this is not due to a structural issue, it is likely that the jutting of the head is due to sitting with a rounded back. Why might someone have a rounded back while seated? Think: driving, sitting hunched over a computer, looking down at a cell phone…

Sitting with a rounded back impacts the cervical spine and produces a forward jutting head (the head comes forward of the plumb line). When this happens, the weight is no longer being efficiently borne through the vertebral bodies. The result is flexion in the lower cervical (lower part of the neck) and back bending in the upper cervical, neither of which is beneficial to the spine.

POSTURE (adapted from Experiential Anatomy)
Come to your normal standing position. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes a moment and sense your body in vertical space. Reach the crown of your head towards the sky. Sense your normal curves within your vertebral column. If your eyes are closed, open them. These curves are what bear the weight of your body as it responds to gravity. Has anyone ever asked you to “sit up straight” or “stand up straight”? Physiologically it is impossible to straighten your spine because it just isn’t built that way; it is curved, not straight. The only “straight line” in the vertebral column is the line of force – the way gravity is carried through the column.

seated postureNow find a chair and sit on it. Not sure of the way to sit for optimal posture? The key to sitting is all in the pelvis! Once seated, roll slightly forward onto the pubic bone, feet comfortable on the floor or on a small stool if the chair seat is too high. The pelvis should be elevated above the level of the thigh bones, creating an approximately 120° angle between the torso and the thighs. (Not only did I learn this in Experiential Anatomy but also from Mary Bond’s Google Talk: The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand and Walk in the Modern World, where she suggests perching rather than sitting.)

To enjoy your posture as much as you (perhaps) enjoy your plums, work on keeping your posture in synch with your plumb lines, honoring your pelvis (pubic bone tilts forward in sitting, tail bone untucked in standing). And maybe take a yoga class!

Tom Myers explaining Fascia

YogaUOnline provides “online yoga education for every body” and recently I listened to a free interview of Tom Myers discussing “Fascia and the Power of Movement in Mind-Body Transformation.” Myers is the explainer and proselytizer of anatomy trains, a way of studying human anatomy via the connective tissue that wraps, supports, separates, and attaches individual muscles and organs. I have listened to Myers in the past and was not always swayed by his style of talking; however, this time round I found his comments compelling.

This change in my reception of what Myers has to say is perhaps because I have recently begun a deep dive into the study of anatomy, which fascinates me, and because, as a yoga teacher going into my fourth year teaching, my anatomy knowledge feels woefully limited. So it was that this statement by Myers completely grabbed my attention, followed by his description of the physicality of muscle and fascia.

There isn’t any muscle attaching to any bone anywhere at anytime in any body!

Muscle is like hamburger, it can’t attach to a bone. It needs to be organized by the net of the fascia. So there’s fascia going around the muscle, there’s fascia going through the muscle, and when the muscle runs out, that fascia from the outside and the middle of the muscle spins into a tendon, just like yarn. And then that tendon blends not even with the bone at the other end but with the saran wrap coating around the bone, so the muscle is actually pulling on the fascia, which is pulling on the saran wrap, which is around the bone.

Myers went on to say that most injuries happen to the fascia, which also intrigued me because most internal “ouch” sensations in my body I have described as a pulled or sprained or strained muscle. Those are the vocabulary words and body parts that have always simply been in use. Do I now think “oh, that must be a fascia strain?” Something to contemplate…

In explaining why the injury tends to happen to the fascia, Myers said that muscle is usually trained before the fascia, with people overbuilding the muscle and under training the fascia. The question becomes: how do you train the fascia? And the answer is to train long kinetic chains rather than individual muscles. Yoga does just that, it moves, trains and works on long kinetic chains of fascia. Myers stated that it is important in yoga to vary poses so the entire body is being trained and not the same parts over and over.

One of the ways Myers describes fascia is as the body wide extracellular net that holds us together; the fascial system is a regulatory system, our “shape shifter” and the “organ of form.” In describing the development of a new baby and the growth of fascia, it turns out the “fascial bag develops first and then the organ’s cells grow within the bag.” Again, this is a completely new piece of my learning about anatomy. Over life it turns out that:

Fascia reorganizes itself based on activity (yields more organized
fascia) or
 non-activity (yields more random organization).

Living Your Yoga

Last night I finished reading Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga – Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life. I found this book while doing research to satisfy my curiosity about her, as Lasater is teaching an online class (Experiential Anatomy) that interests me. I was hooked by the book and last night wrote this brief review on Goodreads:

While I rarely understood the translations of any given chapter’s opening Yoga Sutra or verse from the Bhagavad Gita, I completely understood Judith Hanson Lasater’s explanations. By illustrating each with a personal story she makes the teachings accessible and relatable.

I found myself wrapped up in the short chapters and Lasater’s writing, the combination which caused me to pause for introspection in a way that other, similar type books have rarely managed to do. I paused several times in the reading to jot down a quote or a thought that sprang to mind. Those notes, and my response to the book, are going to wind up in a blog post in the near future!

And THIS is the blog post. 🙂

THE FIRST POP
The first piece that struck a chord was from Spiritual Seeking, the first chapter. Lasater writes that “Suffering is caused by the emotional reaction we lay on top of our pain. By becoming aware of our emotions and thoughts about pain, their hold on us can be released and our suffering can be lessened.” This approach resonated partially because I have a high tolerance for physical pain, and also because I can recall numerous times either I or my children counted backwards while getting a shot.

Taking my mind off the thought of the pain that might come from the shot, and switching my concentration to counting backwards, proved to be a perfect antidote to the “getting” of the shot. It is now not unusual to be completely unaware of when the shot is actually given.

THE SECOND POP
In the third chapter, Letting Go, I immediately thought of when my Dad was living in a nursing home and dealing with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Lasater talks about shifting perspective and opening yourself to seeing things the way they really are. With the help of yoga (I began my practice while caring for my Dad) I learned to truly appreciate the moments spent together without letting the sadness interfere with our visits. While yoga did not resolve or negate my sadness, yoga did help me make space for my sadness and at the same time hold space for spending positive time with my Dad in smiles and joy.

THE THIRD POP
During my 200 hour yoga teacher training Paula, one of our three teachers, shared this pithy approach to life: A good “no” is better than a bad “yes.” Imagine my head nodding in agreement upon reading Lasater’s words in Service, chapter sixteen: You can say no if that is more truthful than a resentful yes.

The idea here is that being of service, giving service, is all well and good and important, but not at the expense of the person giving. The caregiver needs to take care of themself in order to be truly able to care for another. So, too, with being of service as a volunteer. It is okay, indeed necessary, to sometimes say “no” or to take a break so as to recharge and not forget the joy in and reason for volunteering in the first place. Sometimes you need to relax and renew in order to sustain.

THE FOURTH POP
Early on, in chapter two on Discipline, Lasater provided thoughts related to practice. All those years of piano practicing as a child in order to “get better” and here are words of wisdom stating that while practicing can improve skills, the heart of practicing isn’t to “get better” but rather what you put into the practice in heart and soul.

Do what you can and do it fully.

Practice is not about what you get, it is about what you give.

thoughts

I do not utter any mantra with regularity or even occasionally. However, I do have these two sentiments on slips of paper, provided during two special yoga classes. I just happened to randomly chose each slip, and both sentiments were spot on for what I needed then and continue to need. These slips sit on the shelf above my bed; they are my welcome reminder to practice what they state.

They are reminders to be here now. While some of my musings on Lasater’s book may seem disjointed, the items that popped out serve as continued reminders to make space for what is and be in the moment.

Book Review – The Vital Psoas Muscle

from my Goodreads Review:

psoas coverI quite enjoyed reading this book but have to giggle because upon falling asleep last night I mentally began composing this review and thought the title was “The Little Psoas Book” – not because the muscle is little, but because the book is smaller-sized, short and sweet.

Staugaard-Jones has compiled a concise book that highlights the psoas muscle. I especially liked the diagrams, which made it quite easy to understand the location not only of this important muscle but of other muscles and systems, and their interrelationships and interdependencies. The book’s physical size and paper, as well as colors and font helped make it a handy, legible guide that is comfortable to consult as well as mark-up with my additional notes.

As a fairly new yoga teacher of a little over two years, I appreciated the way Staugaard-Jones organized poses and stretches (some yogic and some pilates) complete with explanations of how the movement impacts the psoas and related muscles. I am considering purchasing The Concise Book of Yoga Anatomy, by this same author, as her style of writing and book design appeals to my sense of organization. While I have multiple books on yoga anatomy, many of them either have diagrams that are overly complex or explanations that are more technical than my needs or interest warrants.

You can learn more about Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones at Move To Live.

Yoga for People in Prison

campusA little over two weeks ago I attended an orientation at the Westchester Correctional Facility. The sign in the photo is at the entrance to the campus, which also houses a recycling center, medical center and medical college. (Photo taken  from my car while waiting for a traffic light on my way home, as I was uncertain about the photo policy prior to arrival. Turns out the only place pictures are not permitted is inside the correction facility.)

ARRIVING
The plan was to meet my wonderful friend and yoga-teacher-training-colleague in the coleaderparking lot 20 minutes prior to yoga so we could follow-up in person to our telephone preparation. This was her fourth or fifth session so she was also able to answer any of my lingering questions, though by this point the preparation at home caused more butterflies than any other part of the practice. Sleeveless, form fitting, low cut, hoodies, anything orange, all were not permitted. Post earrings and wedding bands are the only allowed jewelry. No headbands or metal hair barrettes. I was acutely conscious of how I dressed, changing tops three times, switching bras, and realizing that once an outfit was settled upon it could be worn for every session to come, no more having to figure it out! (Picture taken when we were back in the parking lot ready to head home.)badge&container

We are not permitted to bring any bags into the facility and it was recommended that we use clear plastic containers to hold keys, license and any other “pocketbook” items. These would be locked in a locker upon arrival, before being given access to the rest of the facility. Our id cards had to be worn on lanyards around our neck while in the building.

In addition to the butterflies related to getting dressed, I was also a tad uneasy about the prospect of being buzzed into small holding spaces between two doors – buzzed in, wait for the door behind to be closed, then buzzed out into a hall – a process we had to go through twice. Perhaps because I was with a friend, it turned out to be no big deal. After the first set of doors we went to the Administrative Office to pick up the sign-in sheet though it turned out there were none and we wound up using a blank sheet of paper. From there it was down the hall to an elevator to the 4th floor, down another hall where we said a cheery hello to a correctional officer, then down another short hall where we were buzzed through another set of two doors before finally arriving in what my friend had told me was the mental health wing.

CELL BLOCK
I looked up a definition of “cell block” and found that “dormitory” was used to explain the layout. Dormitory makes me think of college or the YMCA, yet it does provide a sense of how the space is organized. We had been buzzed through to a side room with phones on the short end of the room,  a windowed and locked (to the chagrin of one of the men) half basketball court across from our entry, and to our left the hall to the larger area. At the end of the hall was a slightly larger congregating area where a corrections officer had a small desk overlooking the actual cell block area, which is at a right angle to where we entered – imagine the entire layout as a letter L and we were buzzed through at the base of the L.

Egads, the cell block is just like every movie portrayal. There are two floors on each side of a rectangular space, the top floor has screening to prevent jumping down to the first floor. There is an open “plaza” on the first floor between the two sides, and this is where we practice yoga. The men set up the space by bringing out the mats, including mats for us. They are required to keep their socks on, though my friend and I went barefoot.

YOGIS
Anywhere from five to nine people practiced yoga with us. I knew in advance that at some point some of them would be called out for medicine, and they had the choice to join in or not, and to come and go as they wanted. The men ranged in age from what looked like in their twenties to mid- to late-sixties. Everyone was respectful and willing to give yoga a try. Indeed, many of the men have been attending the Friday and Saturday sessions since our program began in the summer.

This month’s theme for practice was self-compassion and self-kindness, and we repeated this two or three times during the session. Usually one of us would guide and the other would provide one-on-one assistance either verbally or, after asking if it was okay to touch someone, by firm but gentle touch. For instance, one man asked if I would help guide his leg during the “Figure 4” stretch (also known as a piriformis stretch or Supine Pigeon Pose.)

Ultimately, this was a yoga practice, plain and simple. Yes, there was a bit more energy in the space than typically found in a yoga studio or the community center where I guide practices. Yes, each yogi was wearing the same orange pants and shirts as everyone else. Yes, we were all initially there in that space for vastly differing reasons. But for that hour we were all in that space for one reason, to practice yoga. What brought any given person to practice was also varied and something we would never know. Something to do? To relieve boredom? Wanting to stretch? Hoping to calm and relax? Another reason? It didn’t matter to us. The men were there and so were we, all to practice yoga together.

Towards the end of practice I read a poem in reflection of the dual themes of self-compassion and self-kindness.

Born Again In Radiance
by Danna Faulds (from Go In and In)

Who can resist that first,
optimistic moment of dawn –
the dazzling sliver of light,
sun rising, rounding, making
the profound shift from
promise to presence.

Every possibility contained
in a single instant; light
linking us to vastness,
light reaching back to the
formation of stars, light that
will not let us forget that we
are daily born again in radiance.

The men clapped at the end of the poem, which was read prior to the final minutes of meditation and Savasana. Was it out of politeness or because it resonated or some other reason, I don’t know, but I like to believe that something in the poem meshed, even if it was just accepted as a performance.

The men thanked us at the conclusion of practice, we all signed in on the blank sheet, the men put the mats away, and just like that practice was over. One man asked if there would be yoga next week. Alas, there will be a brief hiatus as the person who organized our volunteering has submitted a proposal that would result in a small stipend for the volunteers. Most of us do not have any desire or need to be paid, we just want to be there sharing practice with the men. My colleague’s response was simply that October’s schedule has not yet been determined so she could not provide any further information. When I first learned of this hiatus my heart sunk though I am optimistic that I’ll be able to return with my friend in the near future. Our organizers understand that the sharing of yoga is more important than the exchanging of payment.

DEBRIEF
My friend and I spent ten minutes in the parking lot talking about our experience. Our hearts truly soar at being able to share yoga. We are able to come into contact with the men, unlike the experience they have if and when visitors come. We are agog at the physical conditions – the cells – in which the men live. We realize that they are incarcerated for a slew of reasons, most of which are intense, sometimes horrible acts. Yet we also know that circumstances have so much to do with why people commit crimes.

My friend and I were born into middle class families and our lives are considered middle class. We had opportunities that thousands of people do not have because of where they were born or the circumstances into which they were born. And in the United States more money is poured into creating jails and funding the military than into education and any number of programs for helping to build strong, healthy communities. There is a tremendous divide between Americans as to the hows and whys government should even be involved in trying to alleviate poverty.

My friend and I know we will not solve any of this by sharing yoga with the men. We simply hope that during the hour we share on the mat their psyches have a respite. And perhaps they begin to carry that respite off the mat and into their lives. It is what we hope for any yogi we guide through any yoga session.


LEARNING
Above is what I learned by doing. However, prior it was important to me to find answers to questions, primarily among them how to cue people living in prison and how to better understand people living with trauma.

At Liberation Prison Yoga there was this helpful article on The right use of commands. From Prison Yoga Project I found a description for a Typical Class for Prisoners. I also purchased their book A Path for Healing and Recovery, as well as donated a copy for a prisoner. In addition, the organization that provided this opportunity is looking into a one-day training for all volunteers so that we may have a better understanding of who we are practicing yoga with. Besides Liberation Prison Yoga, other possibilities for training include Exhale to Inhale and the Crossover Yoga Project.