Holidays are a time for family, friends and — let’s not kid ourselves — food. I love to go away for a few days and eat things I normally don’t in amounts that would shock a Sumo wrestler. Hence, it may be the season to be jolly, but it’s also a time when it’s all too easy to pack on the pounds along with the cheer.
The yoga practice is a glorious dance of the physical possibilities in the human body. An advanced practice can take your breath away as easily as it can expand your ujjayi. It can twist and turn in directions that make an artist quiver with creative jealousy and inspire even the heaviest of sloths to entertain a change of mind.
That being said — it can also be intimidating as hell.
I learned, trained, teach and practice in Santa Monica, California. It is the mecca of yoga these days and the cream of the crop when it comes to beautiful practices. It’s hard to find a level 2-3 class that doesn’t have at least one yogi soaring through the air in-between asanas or adding what appears to be a level-X variation to every pose. It can often be inspiring and mind-blowing but it can also be, in a word, daunting.
A yoga teacher’s suggestion to invert has the power to illicit a range of emotions from students: bewilderment, fear, anxiety, aversion, rejection, excitement, butterflies — you fill in the blank.
Purposely turning ourselves upside-down is contrary to our physical nature, and yet the benefits of upending ourselves are many. Just as yoga gently encourages us to move away from any unconscious habitual patterns, the invitation to invert is simply another way to shake things up, step out of a rut.
Any yoga pose can be done in an inspired way. In fact, the more inspiration you put into it, the better the pose. (This goes for Savasana too, yo.) Be present, breathe, look inward, breathe … be inspired. This is yoga!
Nevertheless, most of us yogis aspire toward the more advanced asanas, and one that usually comes right to mind is Handstand: Adho Mukha Vrksasana. Downward-Facing Tree. In which your hands and fingers are the branches reaching down into the ground, and your feet and toes the roots reaching for the sky. There’s nothing like it for a new perspective — on yourself and on life in general.
Morning practice in the Gaiam TV tent. Photo © Jeff Pistana
It’s been a couple of weeks since the Hanuman Festival, and the afterglow is still radiating. Hanuman is the first yoga conference I’ve ever attended, so I had no idea what to expect. I anticipated feeling part of a larger yoga community and being pushed out of my yogic comfort zone (in a good way). What I actually received was exponentially more than that.
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”~Lao Tzu
Although all mothers know this, no one can truly warn you before it happens: Your body is never the same after you have a baby as it was before you got pregnant.
Sure, we see images of movie stars who bounce back from having babies more toned and fit than they were before pregnancy, but the reality for most women is much less seamless. Having a baby affects you inside and out: You stretch and move differently, and your anatomy changes — permanently — from that growing being inside your body. That pair of skinny jeans, your high school dress and your once stretch-mark-free body often become just a distant memory. This change can make women feel imperfect or less attractive than they remember themselves to be.
When I walked into the room for my first “official yoga class” (read: not with a DVD at home, which had been my practice for years) I felt weak. I was mom to a two-year-old and a four-year-old and I was out of shape. My stomach was flabby from cesarean sections, my leg muscles shaky and my self-image less than ideal. Feeling neither powerful nor like a rock star, I just hoped that yoga would help me get back the body I once had.
It wasn’t until the day that I held Plank Pose in yoga class that I finally got it: I still had an amazing body.
I don’t like being upside down and backwards. This makes Handstand a challenge for me. I don’t trust that my fellow students can hold me steady while I substitute my hands for feet. It’s a reflection of my own limited thinking, not an accurate assessment of their competence.
Still, I try. I go to class and work gradually. First, I achieved Headstand, which I couldn’t do a year ago. It’s a stepping-stone to the loftier goal of Handstand.
Yoga is always putting new challenges in our paths. Just when we think we have achieved a difficult asana, we discover that it was the modified version. It taught me to give up hope.
Student: Jill, what do you actually do for your personal yoga practice?
Me: I practice what I teach.
Student: You mean you don’t do anything else? Spinning? Or running? Or Zumba? I mean, how do you get your arms to look like that?
Me: I don’t mean to sound cryptic … but I practice what I teach.
It’s true. I have been practicing yoga and multiple movement arts since I was 11 years old, and the yoga practice I teach in the classroom (I began teaching part-time at age 19 at The Omega Institute) has evolved and changed with me through the past two decades. The work I share in my classes, workshops, conferences and videos all resonates with my own discoveries in my personal “jungle gym” of a practice.
INVERSIONS are coveted among yogis. Yoga is one of the few systems of health that suggest you regularly turn yourself upside down for extended periods of time. The health claims are astonishing: it reverses aging, increases blood flow to the brain, regulates pituitary and pineal glands, relieves constipation, tranquilizes and mellows the nervous system, and the list goes on. Responses vary from person to person, but a regular practice of turning upside down to one degree or another is soothing and balancing, and it can be a necessary step for many to stop their chattering minds prior to meditation.
What are your resolutions this year? If you’re like many people, you’ve got a goal in mind: lose weight, make a change in your job or relationships, treat yourself better, or otherwise embark on an Operation: Transformation!