Mystic Yin, an Internal Retreat.

Mystic Yin, an Internal Retreat.

There are two integral parts of a Mystic Yin class: rest and story.

Both of these elements aim to draw us more deeply into our Yin nature. All of us, and all of the natural world for that matter, exist as a delicate balance of the masculine and feminine; of order and chaos, and of action and ease. This balance, though inherent, can be disrupted. Modern society, that often values work over rest, can tip the scales in the direction of Yang, the masculine-- full of fire, movement, and logical thought. With too much yang, we become depleted, and feel burnt out. We suffer from a sense of disconnection. Our thoughts, actions, and bodies become rigid. 

To reclaim our intuition, to reestablish our creativity, and to restore our entire being (body, mind, and spirit), we may choose to invite the magic of yin into our lives. 

Yin yoga is a style of movement that celebrates stillness. In Mystic Yin, students will use props in restorative postures to allow the muscles to release effort, encouraging the body's vital energy to travel to the deeper layers of the joints and connective tissue. It has numerous health benefits, including stress relief, increased flexibility, and joint mobility.

This kind of yoga can feel like an assisted nap-- I will help you set up your props, like blankets and bolsters, to make you feel as held and comfortable as possible.

Some poses will allow you to explore your "stretch edge," letting stillness encourage the tighter parts of the body to gradually release and open.

Some poses will counter negative postural patterns, like chest openers to work against the hunched over stance we often unconsciously adopt during the day.

Some poses will just feel so good you might find it difficult to stay awake.

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Along with the restful postures, each week I will read a different mythical or mystical story from a variety of traditions and authors.

There are a few reasons why I find this part of the class so important-- and enjoyable. For one, it just feels good to be read to. I have many fond memories of being snuggled up in bed, drifting off to the sound of my mom's voice reading to me. I have equally as fond memories of reading to the small children I've nannied over the years, watching as the nap that they were fighting so hard to avoid, suddenly seems welcome after one (or five) stories. I don't think there are enough opportunities to be read to as an adult, and I'm sure that it has the same relaxing effect on adults as it does on children.

Often when we go to a restorative or yin yoga class, it can be difficult to quiet the mind-- the stillness and silence can evoke more feelings of stress or anxiety. Being read to allows the student to first let the mind focus on the story and then, like a child being guided into a nap, give up the resistance and rest.  

Storytelling also taps into our intuition-- an essential yin quality.

Carl Jung wrote, "Myth is the primordial language natural to these psychic processes, and no intellectual formulation comes anywhere near the richness and expressiveness of mythical imagery." 

Storytelling is an essential part of our humanity; we all come from traditions who, at one point, sat around a fire and told stories. The most potent of these stories evolved as myths, each tapping into different aspects of the great mysteries:

Who are we? Why are we here? 

Stories invite us to look at our own unique lives from a different perspective-- seeing the universal threads that tie all of us together.

 

I hope to see you soon and often!

~ Devon 


Mystic Yin classes are held Tuesday nights 6:00-7:00pm at Yoga in the Hood in Boise, ID. Registration can be done either online or in person before class. See here for more info: http://www.yogainthehoodboise.com/boise-yoga-classes

What is Supported Alignment?

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What is Supported Alignment?

I am often asked what the style of yoga that I teach is, why I use so many props, and how I believe its benefits differ from other styles of yoga.

With a name like Supported Alignment on the schedule, that may be confusing (or intimidating?) to unfamiliar students, I wanted to address all of these questions long-form so that curious students can get an idea before they try it out, and students who have already experienced my classes can (hopefully) relate their own experiences to my personal thoughts about the class.

To discuss Support Alignment, I have to pay homage to a few people. First, BKS Iyengar, from whom this style largely derives its influence. Iyengar was intensely interested in anatomy and the healing benefits of yoga on all layers of the body (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual). He developed a system of modern yoga that sought to address the unique pains of each individual student. He is perhaps most known for his revolutionary use of yoga props, and was one of the original "yoga therapists," who used specific yoga poses and sequences to address specific ailments in body and mind. 

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My teacher, Eddie Modestini, spent many years traveling to India to learn directly from Iyengar. And now continues to study with his students H.S. Arun, and Manouso Manos-- both world renowned Iyengar yoga teachers. Most students in vinyasa studios (the majority of yoga studios in the West) do not experience traditional Iyengar yoga, as those teachers generally group together in Iyengar-only spaces. What I admire about Eddie, and his partner Kristin, is that they recognized that all students could benefit from an Iyengar-inspired practice, so their work has been in bringing these teachings to the masses. 

I began studying with Eddie after having a strong ashtanga vinyasa practice for about 7 years, and being in quite a bit of both physical and emotional pain. He reminded me that yoga is meant to be a healing practice, and if I wasn't experiencing healing I owed it to myself to seek out a practice that would feed, rather than deplete, me. 

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Finally, Jo Chipi from Zen Den Yoga in York, Maine (also a student of Eddie's), gave this style a name that so beautifully encompasses its teachings.

Okay. Let's get back to the what, why, and how

Supported Alignment classes focus on targeting and releasing congestion in the body.

Eddie says often that yoga is a self-reliant healing system. It works best when we know exactly where the pain in our body resides, and which poses are most helpful at addressing those pains. Classes give us the knowledge we need to continue practicing at home, and the tools we need to heal ourselves.

Supported Alignment classes draw upon many Iyengar yoga teachings, such as:

Creative use of props (such as backless yoga chairs, blankets, bolsters, straps, blocks, and more). This is not to make anything easier but to aid in allowing students of all levels, and of all different shapes and sizes, to experience the poses more fully, and truly receive the healing benefits by requiring less muscular effort/flexibility to maintain the postures and therefore being able to stay much longer. This is invaluable in helping to open the tighter areas of the body. The body likes to protect itself-- if it does not feel safe, it will not release its holding. Props allow the body to feel safe enough to release. Note that the props meet you where you're at-- so as the body gradually opens, props can little by little be taken away until it is comfortable to remain in a pose without them. Comfort is an important part of yoga.

Attention to detail and alignment, made possible by the use of props. Without overloading the student, I aim to give both verbal cues and, when appropriate, physical assists to help students experience the freedom of a fully aligned pose. This has little to do with what the pose looks like, and much more with how it feels to the practitioner. BKS Iyengar says, "It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence." Students who are extremely flexible might find this to be the most difficult part of the practice. When students are used to "flopping" into poses because of hyper-mobility, Iyengar yoga teaches them to move mindfully and strongly into each pose, which both strengthens the body and increases concentration and awareness. 

Time for stillness. I believe this is the most valuable part of Supported Alignment classes. By using props to assist the body in holding each pose, students are able to first set the body's alignment, and then experience total stillness for extended periods of time. This has a profound effect on the practitioner, both physically and mentally.

Physically, holding poses for longer amounts of time allows tight muscles to release, and weak muscles to work. Every pose has numerous mental and physical health benefits (of which you can read about in Iyengar's iconic book Light on Yoga). To maximize the benefits of these poses, it is vital to maintain the position for some time. 

Mentally, finding stillness in the postures has a myriad of benefits. In restful poses, the mind is able to deeply relax, and the parasympathetic nervous response is activated-- reducing stress hormone levels in the body. In a world where we are constantly being bombarded with information, media, and movement, it can be deeply healing to cease all external input and truly dive into the internal landscape. 

In more active poses, the student is able to bring his or her awareness to the internal sensations; the way the breath moves through the body, the direction of the flow of vital energy, the emotional response that the pose is evoking. Emotions are held deep in the body, and are often released because of a yoga practice. In my experience, it is not uncommon for a student to leave a yoga class and have an emotional outburst, because they were moving so fast through the class they did not have time or space to work through what was coming up for them. Supported Alignment classes aim to give students space to fully experience and work through these emotional sensations. 

A teacher recently told me that yoga helps us to widen our "window of resiliency." Each person has this window already, some wider than others. Some people "lose their cool" at small things, like being cut off in traffic or arguing with a friend. Some people are able to remain exceedingly calm even during major life changes, like a change in career or losing a loved one. I believe that Iyengar yoga helps us to widen this window of resiliency because we stay in the pose even when we want to come out-- especially when we want to come out. Along with an inexhaustible list of qualities, this style of yoga teaches me patience, awareness and strength of mind, body, and spirit. 

One last note about stillness, 

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, compiled prior to 400 C.E, he outlines what is needed for practice, or abhyasa, to bring success. He says, 

"When practice is done for a long time, without a break, and with sincere devotion, then the practice becomes a firmly rooted, stable and strong foundation." 

It is very easy to start a yoga practice. It is equally as easy to leave a yoga practice.

It is very easy to come into a yoga pose. It is equally as easy to leave a yoga pose.

It is hard to stay. It is hard to maintain a practice, it is hard to maintain a pose. We grow and evolve when we do what is hard, when we commit to our own healing, and all the work that comes along with it. 

I love this practice. I teach it because I practice it, and because I have seen the difference it has made in my own body, mind, and spirit.

I would love to share it with you.

If you made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read my long-winded thoughts.

I truly believe all lovingly-taught yoga is great yoga. It is not for me to say which style is better than any other style. I can only say what works for me, and I invite you to see if this style works for you. If you would like to experience it for yourself, I would love to see you in either a private or public class

May you be well,

Devon

 

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Finding and Following Your Teacher

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Finding and Following Your Teacher

It's been a while since I've written a blog post, so there were many ideas vying for my attention when I sat down this morning and decided to write. But this one has been nagging at me for some time now, especially when I look back at my past posts and read about my first experience with my teacher, Eddie Modestini. So that is what I'm going to write about today, and in the future I will be making more of an effort to consistently write, so my ideas don't pile up and get pushed off like they have recently. 

Last spring I wrote about a workshop I took with Eddie Modestini, a teacher who I had heard about in a podcast while in India, and had been excited to learn from when I found out he was offering a workshop in Portland. The workshop had exceeded my expectations. In his 60s, Eddie is a vision of health. He is the epitome of aging gracefully. I couldn't believe the individualized attention Eddie gave to every student, and was captivated by his obvious mastery of the physical practice of yoga, which he learned from his masterful teachers B.K.S Iyenger and S.K Pattabhi Jois. He also taught a style of yoga that was completely foreign to me. Mainly based on his studies with Iyengar, Eddie directed us through long holds of asanas with tons of props, tackled individually instead of strung together in a vinyasa flow.

Until that point I had been a somewhat dedicated ashtangi. While I won't pretend I was waking up before the sun everyday but Saturday to practice, I was certified as a teacher in Ashtanga Vinyasa and regularly went to Mysore style classes with my amazing teacher Casey in Portland. Which, as you may know, is pretty much the opposite of Iyengar yoga. Although the father of Ashtanga yoga was taught by the same teacher as B.K.S Iyenger, Ashtanga is all flow and no props. But, like I've explained in past posts, Ashtanga was wearing me out. Energetically my nervous system was shot, and physically my body was in pain. I had chronic lower back pain, that I just figured would go away eventually, but really had only increased after years of daily practice. And my elbow, which I had broken as a child, would ache and lock up after every practice from all of the Suryanamaskars. 

After Eddie's workshop, I went up to him to ask his opinion of my lower back. He took one look at me and said "Your SI joint out. You're exacerbating the problem with all the forward folds in your practice. Come to my training this summer, it'll be fixed in two weeks." I smiled, thanked him, and left. His training was a month long, expensive, and in Hawaii in a little over a month, I didn't think there was any way I could go. But I couldn't get it out of my mind. One day a couple weeks later I mentioned it (again) in the car with my boyfriend. I had just gotten back from my trip to India, so I expected him to be wary of me going off again, but instead he said, "it sounds like you really want to go. What can we do to get you there?" Now that's what you call supportive. 

Suddenly I felt as if the winds of change were literally blowing me off my feet to go to Hawaii and learn from Eddie. It felt like fate had brought me to that workshop, and I knew I had to make it happen. So I quit my jobs, sold my car, bought a plane ticket, and contacted a friend I had met years ago to see if I could stay on his property for the duration of the training. A few weeks later and I had landed in Maui, about to take part in a 200 hour training that would completely change my relationship with my body and with yoga forever. It sounds crazy now, but then it had been so clear. He was my teacher, I just knew I had to learn everything I could from him. 

My living accommodations were pretty idyllic. I stayed in a tiny, beautiful, hut on a massive property in the jungle of Maui, overlooking the ocean. I had met Jeremy, the owner, years ago, when I volunteered on his farm for a halloween festival he puts on every year, and he generously offered me a place to stay for the month of the training in exchange for helping out around the farm when and where I could. 

My living accommodations were pretty idyllic. I stayed in a tiny, beautiful, hut on a massive property in the jungle of Maui, overlooking the ocean. I had met Jeremy, the owner, years ago, when I volunteered on his farm for a halloween festival he puts on every year, and he generously offered me a place to stay for the month of the training in exchange for helping out around the farm when and where I could. 

Along with Jeremy, the farm is home to a myriad of mythical creatures: an alpaca named Paco, two giant tortoises, a peacock named Clarence, chickens, horses, goats, dogs, and cats.

Along with Jeremy, the farm is home to a myriad of mythical creatures: an alpaca named Paco, two giant tortoises, a peacock named Clarence, chickens, horses, goats, dogs, and cats.

The only "bad" part of where I was staying was the location. While all of the other students either lived on island and had cars, or were housing together in a rental close to Eddie's studio, I was way out in the Upcountry jungle, without a car. Luckily one of the students who lived somewhat close by, offered to drive me if I could meet him at a gas station about a mile and a half away from Jeremy's property. He was my saving grace. Without him, I'm not sure how I would have been able to make it work. But getting off of Jeremy's property was itself a mile long, very hilly and often muddy, hike. So in order to make it to class by 7am, I was up every morning before 6, using my phone as a flashlight to hike through the property, and then walking with the sunrise on the side of the road to the gas station, where I'd meet my new friend. After a full day of classes, he would drop me off at the gas station, and I'd make the same trip by foot back up the hill to the property. I won't pretend that this was always an enjoyable experience. Some days it rained and I showed up to practice covered in mud. Some days I was so exhausted I had to force myself to take each step. But most of the time I really enjoyed the time spent walking alone. The silence that greeted me every morning, the smell of plumeria flowers and ocean air, the soft pinks and oranges of the sunrise illuminating the lush green. And, even more than the external pleasures, I felt like the miles that I put in everyday were, in a way, an expression of my gratitude. A recognition that sacrifice and effort must be made in order to reap any reward. As time went on, I felt both my body and my mind get stronger with each mile. 

And everyday, when we arrived at Maya Yoga Studio to study with Eddie, I felt blessed in every sense of the word. 

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This post is already getting long, so I'll leave the details of the training for another day, and get to the point of this one: it is impossible to understate the importance of finding, and sticking with, a teacher in this practice.

Because of the explosion of yoga studios, and mass availability of teacher trainings, it seems like everyone you meet either is or knows a yoga teacher these days. This has led to a culture of casualty, where it's certainly common, if not encouraged, for the student to hop from studio to studio, class to class, teacher to teacher, and style to style. While this perhaps has its benefits, by introducing students to a wide range of options from which to choose, I believe it's detrimental to the essential student-teacher relationship that, traditionally, is so important for the student's growth in yoga. A teacher is a gift of wisdom. They are able to share with you what they learned in their years of practice and study, giving you glimpses of what you can look forward to as your own practice ages. They are also able to see your patterns, often before you can see them yourself. As they get to know you, they will help you to see what is holding you back, where you are congested, where you need to focus your attention. They keep you grounded and humble, reminding you that you are a student. They keep you dedicated, expecting to see you often and inquiring about you if they don't. Like digging many shallow wells and never finding water, it has been my experience that staying with one teacher is like finally digging deep enough to get to the truth. This isn't to say you must stay with one teacher forever, but at least long enough to really be able to decide if they, and their practice, is the one that is going to have the greatest positive effect on your body and mind, which is the reason we all practice, anyways, right? 

And if it is true that it is better to stay, at least for some extended period of time, with one teacher, choosing the right one is of the utmost importance. This can seem daunting, with the seemingly endless supply of teachers, so my advice is this: seek expertise. If you or a loved one has a serious illness, you will seek out the most expert doctor, right? I advise you to use the same discrimination when you look for your yoga teacher. How long have they been practicing? Who were their teachers? These are important questions to ask. But perhaps even more important is the feeling you get when they are teaching you. It is not the teacher's job to bolster your ego, but to challenge you with compassion, and open the door for you to reach your highest potential. 

This is why I dropped everything to go to Eddie's training. This is why walking all those miles was well worth the effort. While I loved the relationship I had fostered with my Ashtanga teacher, I realized that after years of the same practice, my body was needing something different. I knew right away that Eddie was an expert. That he had studied with the fathers of modern yoga. But even more importantly, I knew that Eddie would show me how to change my body and mind in the ways that I was seeking. That he would push me, lovingly, towards the greatest version of myself. 

While I no longer get to study with him everyday, I was able to take the practice that I learned from him during that month, and apply it to my personal practice. To teach myself while hearing his voice in my head. And when he travels for workshops, I will meet him there. And someday I will make it back to Hawaii to study extensively with him again. While this may seem like a strange way to "do yoga," compared to today's norm of class hopping, this is the way it was done for many, many years. When Westerners were first learning yoga, many students traveled to India to learn from the masters for a month or two at a time, and then took that practice back with them to the States. Eddie went to India once a year for 15 years to learn from his teachers. This dedication to his teachers and personal practice has led him to be the incredibly accomplished, humble, and intelligent teacher that he is today. I am grateful beyond words to have learned, and continue to learn, from him. 

I encourage you to find your teacher. Dig a deep well. And remember,

when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. 

 

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Wall Yin

All of us have days where we could use a little extra support.

On those days, a yin flow using your closest wall might be just what you need. Last week I taught the following flow, full of strong hip openers and restful supported inversions. 

As always, begin your practice with a few minutes of mindful breathing. Sit tall with your eyes closed, watch the sensations in your body as you become aware of your inhales and exhales. Begin to quiet the mind by releasing attachment to any thought that enters your mind, always bringing your attention back to the breath. 

Wall Butterfly. Sit sideways against the wall, swivel your legs up the wall and lie down. Bring your buttocks as close to the corner of the wall and floor as you can. Bring the soles of your feet together and let your heels come down as low as they can, your knees opening wide. Breathe here for 3 minutes. 

Wall Caterpillar. Straighten your legs up the wall, let your arms come over your head. Breathe here for 5 minutes.

Wall Happy Baby. Bend both knees and slide your feet down the wall, about hip-width distance apart. 

Wall Eye of the Needle. Straighten your legs. Place your right ankle just below your left knee and flex your right foot. Slowly bend the straight leg, sliding the foot down the wall, until you feel a comfortable amount of sensation in your hip. Breathe here for 3 minutes. Repeat on the other side. 

Reclining Twist: Drop both your knees to the right, open your arms wide, look over your left hand. Breathe here for 3 minutes. Repeat on other side. 

 

Wall Sphinx: Roll onto your belly. Bend your knees and move back until your shins are against the wall and your knees are at the corner of the wall and the floor. Clasp your elbows with opposite hands. Breathe here for 3 minutes. If you'd like, you can then move into a deeper expression of the pose by extending the arms. Breathe here for 2 minutes. 

Savasana: Lie on your back with a blanket or cushion under your knees to take the pressure off of your lower back. Fully relax every part of your body and breathe here for 5 minutes. 

Namaste! 

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Merge into the Totality of Your Being Workshop with Eddie Modestini

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Last weekend I had the incredible opportunity to take a workshop with a master teacher who I have long admired, Eddie Modestini. Eddie was a student of BKS Iyengar for many years before he became one of the first Westerners to study with Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga. I first heard of Eddie on the Yoga Revealed Podcast, when I was traveling in India. 

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I remember sitting in a hammock in Gokarna, a small coastal holy town, listening to Eddie talk about how he came to yoga and his experiences with Pattabhi Jois. This was the week after I had finished my Ashtanga teacher training in Mysore, and I felt immediately drawn to Eddie. When I got back to Portland, I was so excited to see that he was going to be teaching a workshop in the city. 

I heard somewhere that a good teacher is one who reminds you who you are. Immediately when you are in their presence you think, "oh, right, this is who I am." Eddie is that kind of teacher. Because of his own journey healing himself through his practice, he is intensely passionate about yoga's ability to physically heal the body, and he has extensive knowledge of anatomy. He also has an exceptional eye. Throughout the weekend I watched as he connected with each student on an individual level, aware of the specific places in their body that were open, or blocked, or injured, or ignored-- before them saying anything.

I have a difficult time engaging my pelvis in my yoga practice. This is extremely important because uddiyana bandha, this engagement of the pelvic floor, protects the lower back. Because I have a hard time doing it, I tend to have a very tight sacrum and sore lower back, especially after doing the primary series, which has a ton of forward bending postures-- where it is important to protect the lumbar spine. He worked with me on my feet-- they pronate, one more than the other, creating an imbalance in my hips. He taught me to lift my toes in standing postures, to build an arch in the foot. He also gave me insight into how my flexibility is causing my pelvis to go overlooked. He showed me that because my back and legs are naturally flexible, what is in between them, my pelvis, doesn't have to work because I am relying on my flexibility to drop into the poses. He told me that in my body, it isn't about creating more flexibility, but instead creating and maintaining boundaries so my flexibility isn't the cause of injury. 

He told us that yoga is not about flexible hamstrings. Yoga is about integration. Moving and being in your body while being constantly aware of what each part of the body is doing. And integrating what you learn during your yoga practice into your daily life.

This requires concentration. It requires you to be fully present in your body, in every moment. And it was something I have often forgotten to do. Especially for Ashtanga yoga students, who do a lot of repetitive movements everyday for years, it is so important to pay attention so we don't develop harmful patterns that will lead to injury. My lower back has been speaking to me for years, louder the morning after a primary series practice, trying to tell me that I was moving in harmful patterns. But I ignored it. Eddie reminded me that it was time to pay attention.

"If your body is still hurting after years of a yoga practice," he said, "you're doing something wrong. Yoga is meant to heal the body." 

This is the part of my body that needs to be paid attention to, but the antidote is the same for any part of your body that has pain. 

Move into every pose as if it comes from that part of your body. 

For me, this means moving through my practice with my awareness always on my pelvis and feet. Making sure they are never ignored. This attention manifests as more integrated movements, training my pelvis, hips, and feet to work. It also manifests as higher concentration in general during my practice, which is really at the heart of why I do yoga in the first place-- developing ekagra mindstate, single pointed concentration, free from the fluctuations of a distracted mind. 

One of the ways that Eddie teaches this is by using a yoga chair. I had never used one before, and now I'm hoping to buy one, because they really are an incredible way to develop a more intimate relationship with your anatomy. 

This pose in particular was so eye opening for me. For you Ashtangis, how often do you do supta padangusthasana B, and let your leg flop over to the side, struggling to keep the other side of your pelvis rooted on the mat? For me, it was almost every time. That's because I was falling into the pose, relying on the flexibility of my legs, without being aware of my pelvis and fully integrating the different parts of my body as I opened my leg to the side. This was creating pressure on my sacrum, and really cheating myself out of the opportunity to feel the full effects of the pose. Eddie showed us how to use the chair and strap to explore the external rotation of the foot and hip of the extended leg. When I came back to the ground after using the chair I went into supta padangusthasana B-- keeping my awareness on the rotation of my hip, and bringing my toes to the ground at a smaller angle, I found my pelvis never came off the floor, my foot no longer even reached the floor, and I felt the pose much stronger in my hamstring. It was surprisingly more difficult, and shocked me that I had been cheating myself out of experiencing the fully integrated pose for so long. 

You will find that this awareness will stay with you after you leave the mat. 

I have found myself concentrating on my pelvis more when I walk, sit,and stand. And really this is how we heal the body. It is through yoga that we are made aware of the places in our body that have been affected by harmful patterns or injury. During yoga that we learn how to move our bodies in more healthful patterns. And after yoga that we apply this knowledge to really create lasting change. 

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I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to learn from such an amazing teacher and practitioner, and know my practice has been changed for the better. 

If you're interested in studying with Eddie, you can see his schedule at eddiemodestini.com

Listen to his episode on The Yoga Revealed Podcast here.

Pictures of Eddie in this post taken by Padraic O'Meara

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Despair

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Despair

Today was one of those days where I came to my yoga mat reluctantly. The constant activity and work over the last few weeks has left me exhausted, and today that exhaustion manifested as tears. It's a beautiful summer day in Portland and I spent most of the morning crying, unsure why I was upset, just feeling the weight of my thoughts and physical tiredness like bricks on my chest. These are the moments that make it hard to get to the mat. The overwhelming voice in my head is telling me to sit down and cry, that nothing I do is going to fix this feeling. And then there's a smaller voice, the voice that is observing the louder voice, and it's silently reminding me that this is the perfect time to practice. That, in fact, times like this are the very reason I practice at all. 

So, with slow steps I come to my mat. With shaking hands I hold my singing bowl and listen to it ring, over and over. With a trembling voice I quietly sing the mantra I have been working with lately, the Buddhist mantra for compassion, om mani padme hum. And then I lie on my back, shimmy my legs up the wall, and come into my practice.

This Wednesday I taught a yin class where we used the wall for the majority of the postures. It's an even more restorative way to practice Yin, and it was exactly what I needed today. There's something incredibly calming about having your feet higher than your head. It's a similar feeling to being in more yang inversions, like headstand, only you're able to stay for much longer and really allow yourself to sink into the feeling. 

Within a few minutes I realize the ocean that has been roaring negativity into my mind all morning has subsided. I am left with quietness and, finally, peace. I feel the sun on my face for the first time all day, I can hear the birds and the soft hum of cars going by. I am being rocked by the slow, even breathes that have returned to my body. I feel grounded again. Strong and safe. 

To close my practice, I often read from the book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte. This morning I read the chapter Despair. This is an excerpt from that chapter: 

We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here. We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again. In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do, from the beginning. Despair is a difficult, beautiful necessary, a binding understanding between human beings caught in a fierce and difficult world where half of our experience is mediated by loss, but it is a season, a waveform passing through the body, not a prison surrounding us. A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.

 

 

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Yin Flow for the Hips

Before I started nannying a toddler, I hadn't realized how little time I was spending sitting on the ground.

I was standing at work, sitting in chairs and on couches at home, and spending a good amount of time each day sitting in my car. Because of this, my hips were extremely tight. And in my body tight hips led to low back and knee pain, as well as decreased flexibility in my yoga practice. When I started nannying, I was captivated watching this little toddler casually doing hip opening yoga poses as part of her natural groove. She would go in malasana, squat pose, while playing with blocks; and ananda balasana, happy baby, after I'd change her diaper. I imitated her for fun, but realized that even just by crawling on the ground and sitting crosslegged with her instead of sitting in a chair in a fixed tight position, my hips were much happier.

Part of the reason I love Yin yoga so much is that it gets us back to sitting and lying on the ground. This flow in particular is very grounding and a great way to deeply open the hip flexors. As with all yin flows, the poses should be held for around 5 minutes each with eyes closed so that deep relaxation of the muscles can take place and space can be created in the deeper tissues of the body; the joints, ligaments, and bones. 

Start by sitting in quiet meditation, becoming mindful of your breath and the stillness in your body. 

Start by sitting in quiet meditation, becoming mindful of your breath and the stillness in your body. 

BUTTERFLY . Bring the soles of your feet together and, allowing your back to round, fold forward letting your head hang, if your body allows letting it rest on your feet.  Benefits: stretches the lower back and hamstrings, releases hip adductors, targets the gall bladder and urinary bladder meridian lines

BUTTERFLY. Bring the soles of your feet together and, allowing your back to round, fold forward letting your head hang, if your body allows letting it rest on your feet.

Benefits: stretches the lower back and hamstrings, releases hip adductors, targets the gall bladder and urinary bladder meridian lines

BUTTERFLY VARIATION . You can also place pillows underneath your knees and stay sitting upright if you feel any discomfort in your hips.    *If you have sciatica, elevate the hips by sitting on a pillow. If you have any lower back disorders that are aggravated by forward bending, do not allow the spine to round: keep the back as straight as possible or do the reclining version by keeping your legs where they are and lying on your back.    Coming out: slowly roll up, lean back on your hands and straighten each leg. 

BUTTERFLY VARIATION. You can also place pillows underneath your knees and stay sitting upright if you feel any discomfort in your hips. 

*If you have sciatica, elevate the hips by sitting on a pillow. If you have any lower back disorders that are aggravated by forward bending, do not allow the spine to round: keep the back as straight as possible or do the reclining version by keeping your legs where they are and lying on your back. 

Coming out: slowly roll up, lean back on your hands and straighten each leg. 

SQUARE.  Start by sitting with legs crossed. Move your feet forward until your shins are parallel to the front edge of your mat. If your hips and knees allow, place one ankle over the opposite knee and the other ankle under its opposite knee. If you find the top knee is very high in the air when you do this, bring that food to the floor in front of its opposite knee. Once comfortable, either remain upright or fold forward.   Benefits: Strong external rotation of the hips, decompresses the lower back   *If you're tight or experience any discomfort in the knees, place blankets under knees.    Coming out: lean back onto hands, straighten legs one by one, and lightly bounce out the legs and tighten/release the knees. Repeat on other side. 

SQUARE. Start by sitting with legs crossed. Move your feet forward until your shins are parallel to the front edge of your mat. If your hips and knees allow, place one ankle over the opposite knee and the other ankle under its opposite knee. If you find the top knee is very high in the air when you do this, bring that food to the floor in front of its opposite knee. Once comfortable, either remain upright or fold forward. 

Benefits: Strong external rotation of the hips, decompresses the lower back

*If you're tight or experience any discomfort in the knees, place blankets under knees. 

Coming out: lean back onto hands, straighten legs one by one, and lightly bounce out the legs and tighten/release the knees. Repeat on other side. 

DEER . Start by sitting in Butterfly. Swing your right leg back behind you, bringing the foot behind the hip. Try to make a right angle with the front knee, moving the foot away from you. Move the back foot away from the hip until you feel a comfortable amount of sensation in the hip. Try to keep both sitting bones firmly planted on the ground.   Benefits: Strong internal rotation of the hip   *If you feel any discomfort in the knees, bring the front knee closer in to the groin or support with a folded blanket.    Coming out: lean back on elbows, place soles of feet on the mat with bent knees, slowly make windshield wiper movements, dropping knees from left to right to release the hips. Repeat on other side. 

DEER. Start by sitting in Butterfly. Swing your right leg back behind you, bringing the foot behind the hip. Try to make a right angle with the front knee, moving the foot away from you. Move the back foot away from the hip until you feel a comfortable amount of sensation in the hip. Try to keep both sitting bones firmly planted on the ground. 

Benefits: Strong internal rotation of the hip

*If you feel any discomfort in the knees, bring the front knee closer in to the groin or support with a folded blanket. 

Coming out: lean back on elbows, place soles of feet on the mat with bent knees, slowly make windshield wiper movements, dropping knees from left to right to release the hips. Repeat on other side. 

CATERPILLAR . Sitting with both legs straight out in front of you, fold forward over the legs, allowing your back to round. 

CATERPILLAR. Sitting with both legs straight out in front of you, fold forward over the legs, allowing your back to round. 

If the head feels heavy, rest it on a block in between your legs.   Benefits: Stresses ligaments along the back of the spine, compresses stomach organs, stimulates the kidneys   *If your hamstrings are very tight, bend your knees and support them with a bolster, letting your spine round; If you have sciatica, sit on a cushion; if you have a lower back disorder that is aggravated by folding forward, come to a wall and lie on your back, allowing your legs to rest straight up the wall so your body is making a right angle.    Coming out: Use your hands to push the floor away and slowly roll up. Lean back on your hands and shake out legs. 

If the head feels heavy, rest it on a block in between your legs. 

Benefits: Stresses ligaments along the back of the spine, compresses stomach organs, stimulates the kidneys

*If your hamstrings are very tight, bend your knees and support them with a bolster, letting your spine round; If you have sciatica, sit on a cushion; if you have a lower back disorder that is aggravated by folding forward, come to a wall and lie on your back, allowing your legs to rest straight up the wall so your body is making a right angle. 

Coming out: Use your hands to push the floor away and slowly roll up. Lean back on your hands and shake out legs. 

BANANASANA.  Lying on your back with your hands cradling your head, keep your buttocks firmly rooted to your mat and move your upper body and feet to the right, created an arch like the shape of a banana. Deepen this arch as your body allows while you rest in this pose.  Benefits: Stretches the side body fascia   *Be mindful of how your lower back feels. If you feel any discomfort, make your arch less deep.    Coming out: Move your body back to a straight line, and hug knees into chest. Repeat on other side.

BANANASANA. Lying on your back with your hands cradling your head, keep your buttocks firmly rooted to your mat and move your upper body and feet to the right, created an arch like the shape of a banana. Deepen this arch as your body allows while you rest in this pose.

Benefits: Stretches the side body fascia

*Be mindful of how your lower back feels. If you feel any discomfort, make your arch less deep. 

Coming out: Move your body back to a straight line, and hug knees into chest. Repeat on other side.

RECLINING TWIST.  Draw both knees into chest, open your arms to the side, and drop knees to the right, looking over your left hand. If the knees are higher, the twist will be directed to the upper back; lowering the knees moves the twist to the lumbar/sacrum area.   Benefits: Twisting at the end of the practice helps to restore equilibrium in the nervous system and release tension in the spine.   Coming out: slowly roll onto your back and hug the knees into the chest, making small circles with your knees to massage the lower back. Repeat on other side. 

RECLINING TWIST. Draw both knees into chest, open your arms to the side, and drop knees to the right, looking over your left hand. If the knees are higher, the twist will be directed to the upper back; lowering the knees moves the twist to the lumbar/sacrum area. 

Benefits: Twisting at the end of the practice helps to restore equilibrium in the nervous system and release tension in the spine. 

Coming out: slowly roll onto your back and hug the knees into the chest, making small circles with your knees to massage the lower back. Repeat on other side. 

SAVASANA.  Lie flat on your back, letting your feet part and arms rest by your sides. Scan your body from your toes to your head, allowing every muscle and joint to deeply release and relax.   Benefits: Savasana symbolizes the end of your practice. Time to rest and become aware of the energy that is moving in and out of the areas you worked in the previous postures. This is the most important part of your practice, so stay here for a few extra minutes.   Coming out: slowly roll onto your right side. Use your left hand to press up to a seated position. Rest in a meditative posture for a few minutes, eyes still closed. 

SAVASANA. Lie flat on your back, letting your feet part and arms rest by your sides. Scan your body from your toes to your head, allowing every muscle and joint to deeply release and relax. 

Benefits: Savasana symbolizes the end of your practice. Time to rest and become aware of the energy that is moving in and out of the areas you worked in the previous postures. This is the most important part of your practice, so stay here for a few extra minutes. 

Coming out: slowly roll onto your right side. Use your left hand to press up to a seated position. Rest in a meditative posture for a few minutes, eyes still closed. 

When you're ready, open your eyes, and close your practice. Move into the rest of your day carrying this restful sensation with you. 

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Yin/Yang

I want to tell you a story...

It was the last day of my 200 hour yoga teacher training. 30 days of waking up at 5:00am, watching the sun rise towards the end of sweating through the primary series, and a full schedule of anatomy, philosophy, and theory classes. For one of our final exams, our teacher, Ramesh, called each of us up one by one to perform certain postures or recite their sanskrit names. As my classmates each went to the front of the class, I realized that he knew our weaknesses, and he was calling them out. For those who had trouble memorizing the names, he asked them to recite the sanskrit names of every pose in the series. By the time it was my turn, I knew what he was going to say. "Sirsasana." Headstand. 

At my strongest, about a year ago, headstand was my friend. More than a friend, really-- overcoming my fear of being upside down had been one of the most incredible moments for me in my practice yet. But during my teacher training, for some reason I would always find myself falling after a few breaths, and having to move so I could practice against the wall. Thinking I was fearing the pose again, my teacher insisted that I practice extra everyday. And I did, and it didn't really help. 

But I took a deep breath, clasped my hands behind my head, walked my hips forward, and went up. And I could immediately feel my body start to tremble. I felt like I was going to collapse the whole time. My legs and arms were visibly shaking. "Come down." He said, and I did. "You're weak," he said. "I know," I responded. "You need rest. You need to stay in savasana for a long time. You have worked too hard and have taken no rest. You see, the farmer works his ox very hard. He asks the ox to use all of his strength when he needs it, and then he lets the ox rest. The ox eats, and sleeps, and his muscles stay strong because he doesn't deplete his energy. He's able to work the next day. If he worked nonstop everyday, his body would become weak, and he would not be able to work. You are weak, but to get stronger you do not need more exercises, you need rest." 

I knew he was right. Ashtanga is incredibly physically demanding. In order to have a sustainable practice, a long and deep savasana is not only recommended, it's required. And I hadn't been taking mine. The siren call of breakfast and getting back in bed for a nap before the next class had pulled me out of savasana everyday after only 4 or 5 minutes. Because of that, my body hadn't been able to handle what I was asking of it every morning. And this lack of rest didn't start at the teacher training, I had been practicing Ashtanga for years without realizing that I was wearing myself out. I would go to a restorative class occasionally, and always enjoyed it, but never thought it was necessary to implement a more passive style into my daily practice. 

Enter Yin Yoga. 

When I got home, I knew that I wasn't ready to jump back into my usual Ashtanga practice. I wanted, and needed, to take heed of my teacher's advice. And although it went against my usual desire for an intense, sweaty, practice, I decided to try Yin yoga. If you haven't had the fortune of trying Yin Yoga yet, it is a method of yoga where the student does only a few poses, usually seated or lying down, and holds each for a long time, anywhere from 5-10 minutes. It is meant to deeply relax the muscles, so that the body's vital energy is able to flow to the deeper tissues of the joints, ligaments, and bones. It is practiced with the eyes closed, and relies heavily on a mindful breathing practice throughout. It is a true moving meditation. It is rest. And from my first experience of yin, I knew that it had been the missing piece in my practice.

Yin Yoga teacher Sarah Powers writes, "In the West, true understanding of yin and yang is uncommon. We don't think in these terms; our lifestyles rarely reflect the need for balance. We seek it only when the universe forces us to pay attention, when we suffer the breakdown that avoiding our dark side creates. Only then do we seek help to regain balance. Only when we become exhausted or sick do we take time off. Only when we injure or bodies do we slow down and look for gentler ways to exercise. We can be yang-like only do long before crashing...We need balance in all things." 

I had been practicing yang yoga for so long I hadn't considered it necessary to have a daily yin practice until I physically needed one. After practicing only Yin for the last month, I am ready to integrate the two and I am excited to see how my body will respond to a more balanced practice. I wish it hadn't taken an exhaustion beyond which I had felt before to bring me here, but as Sarah points out, sometimes that's what it takes. 

I am grateful for my teacher for giving me insight into what my body had been trying to tell me all along. Sometimes I find myself forgetting that time spent doing doesn't always mean time well spent. I need to remember to take time just being

I now recommend Yin yoga to everyone, whether you have an active yang yoga or exercise practice, or not. It's an incredible way to give our bodies space to recover from its daily stresses and check in with the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that arise when we are simply still enough to hear them. We all deserve rest. Trust me, when you're quiet enough to hear, your body will thank you. 

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Finding Balance

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Finding Balance

Balance never came easy to me.

During gymnastics practice when I was 10, I fell off the balance beam after a wobbly turn and broke my arm. In my teens and into my college years, my emotions followed suit-- quick to change and always extreme. When it came to my ever changing interests, I would pour all of my energy into one project-- usually burning myself out before I could ever finish it completely. And I'm not surprised this was my experience-- our consumerist society is built upon this way of living and thinking. We work too much, drink too much, eat too much, stare at our screens too much. We pause, breathe, and actually connect with each other (and ourselves) too little. 

Balance seemed like the eye of the hurricane. I didn’t really know what it would look or feel like. But I wanted it. I searched for it.

I tried therapy and day planners and weight lifting. I tried anti anxiety drugs and juice fasts and self help books. And I don’t think I was alone on this search-- it seemed like everything being advertised was another miracle cure for our deeply imbalanced modern lives. 

Finally, I tried yoga. Balance didn’t come immediately-- I still fell out of tree pose more often than not, I still found myself binging on my practice and then leaving it behind for weeks at a time. But little by little, I found myself in the comfort of the eye of the hurricane with a system that offered itself as a map to find my way back any time, and every time, I wanted.

In our asana practice, we’re always, consciously or unconsciously, seeking balance. We perform specific balancing postures, we always make sure to do both sides, we do a counterpose after a series of backbends, and our flows usually include a mixture of both standing and seated poses.

We also strive to find a balance between holding and letting go. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, this duality is written as “sthira sukham asanam,” sthira meaning steadiness and sukham meaning ease. Each posture requires a delicate balance of the rigidity needed to maintain a shape, and the fluidity needed to remain comfortable.

In our meditative practice, we hold samadhi as our goal-- a place of mountain-like unshakeability in the face of any obstacle. A way of controlling our ever distracting senses. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “Be steadfast in yoga, O Arjuna. Perform your duty and abandon all attachment to success or failure. Such evenness of mind is called yoga.”

This “evenness of mind” is expressed as samatva, coming from the root sama. Sama means equal, like in samasthiti, equal standing pose.

While balance is inherent in the practice, there are ways to cultivate this quality so that it grows even stronger. My next post will highlight one of these methods, and how I came to recognize it. 

 

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