Monday, August 31, 2009

Restorative yoga sequence

Start out in a seated meditation position. Find a position that works for you. It is ok to lean against the wall. Hands come to knees, either face down or face up. Put them face-down if you need to ground out or face up if you need to receive energy. Find a nice straight spine, reaching through the crown of the head. Close your eyes and focus on your breath for about five minutes. Slow everything down and clear your mind. This entire sequence can be done by almost anyone. If you are in a wheelchair, have a caregiver assist you into the postures while on a bed or the floor. Enjoy your practice!

Inhale arms high, gazing up and taking a mini-back-bend.

Take a gentle foward fold, only working at your level. With each inhale, lengthen, with each exhale fold deeper. Work your way down after this to lay on your back with legs up the wall.

Slide your legs down the wall into suptabadakanasana. Hands come to inner thighs to increase the stretch.

Draw your knees into your chest and give them a big hug.

Inhale slowly to a comfortable, fetal position. Let the earth hold you.

Inhale up to a comfortable seated meditation position, hands come to heart center.

Inhale thumbs to third eye center.

Bowing forward, Namaste.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

From the Ashes

I started firebird yoga because when I think of my life over the last year and a half, it has been composed of a series of ego decimations. Each time my ego has been destroyed I have found a way to scrap together the remaining pieces of myself and to find a way to go on. In my mind I am the mythical Pheonix, continually obliterated and then reborn from the ashes. I was raised on Russian folklore so when I think of the phoenix, an image of the firebird always comes to my mind. With yoga, this seems apt. While the firebird looks much like the Phoenix, the tale of the firebird as one involving a quest. In yoga, we continually quest.

In yoga, our quest is the search for Atman, the divine within. I spent most of the last year kicking and screeching along my quest. I kept asking, "Since I am a yoga teacher, why is this so hard?" I beat myself up, each time letting the ego take the front seat. I kept fighting to restore order to my life. I kept beating myself up for failing to do so.

At a certain point, the disparity between my quest and my reality became apparent. The harder I fought to maintain a facade, the harder I struggled to remain the person I had created in my mind. it was only when I stepped back and finally asked, "Is this really me?" that I found I had long been denying my true self, rather than finding it.

It was with relief that I realized that I could part with the self I had fabricated. Nowdays, people often don't know quite what to make of me. I am continually singing and dancing. I act on the fringe and some folks look at me like I am crazy. That no longer matters. At last, I am my authentic self.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reprint of Yoga and MS

Many of you may have already seen this info on my other site as a series of different posts. Here it is again all compiled for your reading pleasure.

Yoga and MS

Part 1
Since I first started blogging, readers have been asking me periodically if yoga helps my MS. In a word, "Yes." Recently I bought a book called Yoga and Multiple Sclerosis: A Journey to Health and Healing by Loren M. Fishman and Eric L. Small. According to this book, "Gentle, low-impact yoga is the perfect exercise for people living with multiple sclerosis." Luckily for me, I already sensed this and have been relying on yoga for health and sanity since my diagnosis. I am excited to read and study this book so I can write and do more to help others with MS access yoga. The great news is that there is a video available from the NMSS, Southern California Chapter. The video is entitled Yoga with Eric Small: Adapted for People with Multiple Sclerosis and Other Disabilities. At this juncture, I have little further information to offer except my own experiences and those I begin to detail below.

I first started yoga almost four years ago during my first year as a classroom teacher. Several things brought me to the mat the first time. Work was stressful and I needed an outlet. I wanted to renew my flexibility. I was out of shape and above my ideal weight and I wanted to feel better about my body. Deep down, I think I was also hungering for a place where I could slow my mind and calm my anxieties.

I took my first class with one of the owners of a local studio called Core Power (now the largest yoga franchise around). The yoga at Core Power is not for the faint-hearted. Most of the people who attend the studio where I took my first class have rock hard bodies and little fat. I imagine that for most of these people, yoga is not their sole form of excercise. The classes generally involve a brisk vinyasa workout(flowing from pose to pose)and the majority of the classes are heated. My first class fit this model and I was terrified of the heat. At the time, I had yet to be diagnosed with MS but I had always struggled when I was hot. Despite the heat, I made it through my first class. Near the end of the practice we did a pose called "Camel", made by standing on the knees and arching your upper torso backward while your hands rest on your lower back or reach for your feet. This pose exposes our heart and soft underbelly and it can bring up a lot of emotion and intense physical sensations. When I did my first camel, I had no idea about the potential e/affects of the pose. As I arched back I felt like I was going to vomit. When I pulled out of the pose and sat down (light-headed and dizzy) I knew I was going to keep coming back to yoga for a long time. A week later I brought my husband and he also became hooked.

I was initially drawn to yoga because of the physical challenge. I liked the feeling of power and strength I got in the tough, Core Power classes. Within about a month, I shed 10 pounds. I liked the way I looked and the way I felt. As I practiced more, I found something else too-- The way we were encouraged to breath in yoga calmed me. I also found that I was able to meditate as I moved through the asana (physical) practice. It was easier to stay centered and focused on the present when I was immersed in the yoga. This was especially true during a hard practice but over time, I found I could do it during the mellower moments in class as well. Yoga became my sanity. I knew within about three months of starting to practice that I wanted to become a yoga teacher.

I spent 3-5 days a week at the yoga studio for about 3 years. We even went on our honeymoon to a place called "Yoga Oasis" in Hawaii. The whole time I sensed that yoga was improving my life. I felt calmer, happier and a little more slowed down. It was not until I got really sick that I fully experienced the benefit of my yoga practice.

Yoga and MS: Part 2
I remember the day I was diagnosed in rather a blur. Two days before, I had been hospitalized after spending hours vomiting blood because of a Mallory Weiss Tear in my esophagus. Fortunately, much of that event still remains a blur. I do know that I spent the night in the ER and that I was released the next day once they determined that my internal bleeding had stopped. The night of my release I got my first brain MRI. The next day at 2:00 p.m. my doctor called to give me my diagnoses. His news barely registered but I remember thinking, “Will I still be able to walk?”

After several moments, my husband actually articulated the real question on my mind. “Can she still become a yoga teacher?” My doctor assured us that I could. While I reeled with the news of my diagnoses and tried to process what my doctor was saying, I reassured myself by thinking that I still had about six weeks to get healthy for yoga teacher training. Ironically, when we left for Kaiser to have tests run, I could not even walk without support. At the office, I gratefully allowed myself to be wheeled in.

Even after four days on 500mg of Prednisone a day, I could barely walk. I staggered from couch and bed to bathroom and back to couch and bed, clinging to the walls for support or crawling along the floor. I had never been so sick but still I dreamed about doing yoga. It was several weeks before I could get into any poses.

Asana (physical poses) have always come easily to me. Try as I might, I never could master the yogic breath though. It was only when I began to deal with the pain locking my entire body that the breath began to come. One night, I went to bed and found my body so tight and my vertigo so intense that I wanted to scream. Rather than screaming, I started breathing deeply through my nose like I had practiced in yoga. As I breathed, the pain began to lessen and my muscles relaxed slightly. Each breath brought more relief. I kept breathing, keeping my eyes open to orient myself in space. Finally, I forced myself to move around in bed and breathe into the vertigo.

For hours I breathed, moved and prayed, rubbing my aching limbs at every turn. At the end of two hours the vertigo was gone and most of the pain. During the night I healed. It was probably the steroids that finally brought me back towards health, but it was the yoga that brought me into the light.

Part 3: Yoga and MS
“Good morning sun it’s good to be alive,” intoned Hayward, our yoga guide at Hawaii’s Yoga Oasis. Every day for years he has faced the sun and said this. I found myself repeating these words shortly after my diagnoses. I think I started welcoming the sun once I could stand on my own two feet again. The longer and better I could stand, the greater my joy. I think that once I could balance on one foot again that I knew I was going to be ok.

It was actual light that brought me toward healing from my first exacerbation. I remember that when I first was diagnosed, many people kept telling me about the candles they had lit for me. During the night I wrote about in part 2, I used those candles as a guide.

I hadn’t slept in days. Days without sleep and large doses of steroids do strange things to people. The night before my healing began, I stayed up almost all night surfing the net and reading strange stories about the Nadja who is my namesake. In my heightened state it was as though we connected across time. When I closed my lap top to sleep, I began to drift off for the first time in a while and then I felt her beside me. My heart raced as for a minute, I thought I beheld her ghost. Then I startled fully awake to find this specter an image of my overactive imagination. That night as I struggled with the pain in my body, she visited again briefly. It was a dark and stormy night (literally) but I banished her from my room and set to healing myself with breathe.

I breathed, moving in circles through my vertigo but when I closed my eyes I felt as though I was tumbling. At this point, I focused on my breath, deepening it through the pain. The breath alone was not enough to stop my tumble so I began to imagine the candle my mother had lit for me at the Notre Dame cathedral. I followed the light of that candle in the dark place behind my eyes and for the first time in a long time, I was not afraid. I breathed and breathed. All the candles people had lit for me surrounded me and I was reassured by the voices of every teacher I ever knew. Perhaps everything that happened that night was the result of sleep deprivation and steroid psychosis, but whatever actually occurred, like Hayward, I came to embrace the sun.

I awoke with the feeling that I had just experienced months of yoga teacher training in one night. I had more clarity than ever before. Things are murkier now but in yoga we take about a “practice”, so I guess these days I do a lot of practicing. I still practice breath, patience, meditation and compassion for myself and when I teach, I try to practice karma yoga (giving). My desire as a teacher is to give some of what I have received, to share the joy and pleasure of yoga and to promote peace within myself and others. I truly receive more than I give but the practice itself brings me light.

“Enlighten Up”
Recently, I had the opportunity to go see the new yoga movie, "Enlighten Up" with one of my fellow yoga teachers. I think we both found the film very thought-provoking. Now I feel compelled to write out some of my own thoughts about both yoga and the movie.

The film was a documentary that focused on the yogic journey of a man named Nick. The filmmaker (Kate) wanted to see what would happen when a non-yogi immersed themselves in yoga so she followed Nick around the world as he met and practiced with various yoga teachers. It seemed that both Kate and Nick hoped he would have some deep, spiritual revelations and that he would also be led to some life-altering changes. During most of the film, both seemed frustrated that this was not happening. The ironic part is that Nick's journey lasted less than a year, although he traveled as far as India. I found this ironic because each of the teachers (gurus) he met along the way told him that yoga was a "practice." Each one questioned what he wanted from his yogic journey and each one said that for the most part, there is no quick path to enlightenment.

There were times during the film when I wanted to leap into the film to talk to both Nick and Kate. Nick's approach actually made more sense to me than Kate's at times. Nick wanted spiritual revelation, even though he maintained that he was not a believer and needed to experience things for himself. Kate seemed to insist that if Nick would just embrace the process, he would be transformed. In both cases, it often seemed they were missing the point and never fully observing the wisdom of the teachers they visited.

If I could boil down what each teacher in the film was saying, it seemed that they felt there was validity in Nick's idea that he must experience the divine himself before he could believe. It also seemed that each teacher was saying that there is no one, right path in yoga. They emphasized the importance of each individual, suggesting that every man or woman must find the yoga that is right for them.

I think that part of both Nick and Kate's trap was the idea that yoga is the practice of "asana" or physical posture. They seemed to think that by practicing with different masters, they would eventually find a form of asana that would lead to enlightenment. Interestingly, Nick did not really make any big spiritual or life breakthroughs until near the end of the film. At that point, he met a Bhakti yogi (one who practices the yoga of devotion that often involves chanting but no physical asana at all) and he asked this master about what yoga was "right" for him. The Bhakti master basically said that this was for Nick to decide. He said that Nick needed to find his true self and that self would know. Nick objected that he did not know how to find himself. In fact, it seemed that's what Nick's quest was really about. The master told him that it is not easy to know oneself but that it was a process that often meant sifting out who we are not, before we can really know who we are. After this encounter, Nick was left speechless. He dreamed about his mother. It suddenly became clear to him that he was conflicted about the yoga partly because of the dichotomy between her beliefs and those of his father. She is a Shamanic healer and his father is a lawyer. After meeting with the Bhakti guru, Nick realized that he now had much greater acceptance for his mother and that he was no longer ashamed of her beliefs. He also found he had greater compassion and tolerance for his fellow human beings.

Nick left the whole experience uncertain about what he had learned. He claimed that the experiment was a "failure" and yet after his experience, he restructured his entire life. He left his home in New York and moved to Colorado. He got a new job writing for climbing magazines ( a job I think is in tune with his nature). He reconnected with his mother. The film ended by stating that Nick no longer practices yoga but I found that claim a misnomer. Nick may no longer practice asana, but his experiences with yoga have fundamentally changed him. In my experience, one does not have to practice asana in order to practice yoga. Asana is how we often view yoga in the western world but asana is not "yoga."

One of the most important patterns I have found in the yogic literature and in the words of the masters is that yoga is a very individual practice. It is primarily about finding the "true self" or "Atman" (the divine within each of us). The Bhakti's may emphasize devotion to "God" but God is not necessarily defined in one way. It seems to me that the one thing all the yogic masters seem to have in common is the idea that in each of us is the spark of the divine. When we practice yoga (in whatever form) we are seeking to find that divinity within. In many ways, this may sound very selfish-- yoga is all about you. On the other hand, if each individual strives to find and be their best self, they may find happiness. If the world is full of complete, secure, happy people, it might be a better place. No one would feel jealousy. Many of the things that lead to conflict and war would be eliminated. We would not grasp for what others have. We would not compete for recognition or resources. Sharing and compassion might become the status quo. I am not positing a world where everyone can stand on their head but I am suggesting a world where we acknowledge the worth of each individual, a world where we acknowledge our own worth, without outside validation.

I find that yoga (not my asana practice alone) is changing me fundamentally. I myself have focused on the process of sorting out all the things that I am not, in order to find who I truly am. The more I engage in this process, the more I am finding who I am. The closer I get to my true self, the healthier and happier I feel. Almost all of my stress comes from trying to meet a set of expectations. Although I set many of these expectations, it is my ego that has created them. I imagine what others expect from me, what is the good and "virtuous" way to do things in this society and then I try to live up to this set of expectations that are based purely on perceptions rather than reality. When I stop worrying about all these false expectations and focus on what feels most right for me, I feel better.

Today I am grateful for the clarity given to me by my own mental interactions with this film.

Part 4: Yoga and MS
My attitude about exercise and stretching is deeply rooted in my philosophy as a yoga teacher and practitioner. I was raised as a competitive runner and gymnast but after a time, all the pressure of competing took its toll and those activities lost a great deal of their charm. In yoga we promote a non-competitive environment and I love that. Practicing yoga means being free of judgment about yourself and the others around you. It is ok to challenge yourself but first and foremost, in any exercise, you must listen to your body. You are your own best teacher.

I think it is important for people with MS to stay active and exercise regularly to detoxify the body and mind. Just moving can lift a lot of anxiety and depression. Even those in a wheelchair can do small amounts of exercise. Yoga is one of the ideal activities for MSers because it offers something for every level.

In yoga you should never feel real pain so if you are in pain or overheated you need to back off. The same is true for any exercise, especially for those with MS. Whatever stretches you do, it is important to work into them slowly and fill the pose with breath. Start easy and build as you go. I like a top to bottom approach. First, gentle folds, then neck, shoulders and torso. No matter what your condition, remember to give your feet some love. If you can't reach them, get a friend to work with you."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

For my yoga students

When I teach yoga I like to give freely of myself, to nurture my students and to help bring them closer to their true selves. Nevertheless, I get as much out of my teaching as they do. Teaching yoga gives me a home, a place of sanity to stand when all I want to do is howl at the moon. It reminds me to breath. It reminds me of my favorite prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi:

"Lord make me an instrument of thy peace
Where there is hatred, let there be love
Where there there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light.
Oh divine master--
Grant that I might not so much seek to be consoled, as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive,
And it is in death to self
That we are born to eternal life."

My heart is filled with gratitude for the things I receive from teaching yoga. I bow to my students. I bow to the teacher in all things. I prostrate myself to the divine with the faith that I will find a way no matter what.

Let yoga be your candle in the dark.
Let it lift you and fill you.
Let it in inspire you
Take what you discover on your mat into the world
And create peace, love and harmony.