Monthly Archives: November 2009

Do I need a password for yoga class?

Yesterday I got all worked up talking to the hubs about this article.  Basically, a Catholic bishop has requested that Patrick Kennedy stop receiving Holy Communion during Mass, based on his vocal support for abortion rights that conflict with the Church’s official teachings. This has caused a huge divide in the parish and among Catholics nationwide, with some believing that it’s up to an individual, not a religious official, to determine if someone is “Catholic” or not. Others, like Kay Willis (quoted in the article) are of the opinion that “If you’re going to be a Catholic, be a Catholic,” which apparently means that Kay is comfortable that every aspect of her life can hold up to the “Catholic” standard.

I was raised Catholic, so the Catholic church is a big part of the first 19 or so years of my life. And while On the Mat is not a political or religious space, I believe that the bishop is in the wrong here. I can see his point, but it’s my personal opinion that since he’s not God, he shouldn’t make God’s decisions for Him.

Anyway, I had all but forgotten about this issue, until I stumbled upon Sadie Nardini’s article on the Huffington Post today. Sadie writes about her support for, which strives to offer free yoga classes to veterans of war. After posting something about the organization on her facebook page, Sadie received a barrage of negative feedback:

“How do you reconcile this post with the fact that yogis are against ‘himsa’–or “violence”, as set forth by yogic scriptures, and your support of war is shockingly non-yogic”, one yoga practitioner wrote.

And there was more where that came from.

“Combat is inherently anti-Yoga”…
“Patanjali would never condone this…”
“War is wrong. How can you ask us to give yoga to those in alignment with it?”

Sadie offers a great defense to these attacks, and I encourage you to read her entire story.

I just have to wonder, when did our world become a grown-up version of an exclusive playground club? There is truth in the fact that the principles of yoga are founded on non-violence. But will I not be allowed in class tonight because I enjoy cheeseburgers? Is refusing a politician Communion going to make him vote pro-life? Is refusing a veteran a free yoga class going to erase what he or she did during combat?

As I learn more about myself and about the world, I realize that some decisions are deeply personal even when they might not seem so, and that what’s right for some people isn’t right for everyone. It might work for you to stay home when your children are young, it might work for your friend to balance duties as a mom with a demanding career. Neither is right and neither is wrong.

The best yoga classes I’ve been to had an atmosphere that was welcoming, friendly, light-hearted, and non-judgmental. If only I could find this environment in more places.



Sanskrit Saturday: “Asana” and “Pranayama”

The eight limbs of yoga named by the Yoga Sutras are: the yamas (restrictions), niyamas (observances), asanas (postures), pranayama (breath work), pratyahara (sense withdrawal or non-attachment), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (realization of the true Self or Atman, and unity with Brahman).

Asana and pranayama work together during a hatha yoga practice. One will never be quite complete without the other.

Any of the poses we do in class are considered asanas. Asanas should create dynamic tension in our bodies, be held in a place between ease and effort, and be held firmly without creating unnecessary tension in the body. This is a concept sometimes called “relaxed strength”. We want to find the expression of the posture that feels right to us, not worry about what we look like, but instead consider how we feel.

Pranayama is the counterpart of asana, and it involves controlling the breath. There are many types of breath used during yoga practice, but the most important thing is to maintain a deep, controlled breath at all times. We typically find this breath at the beginning of class and strive to carry it with us at all times.

The breath and the posture go hand in hand. As we find a deep breath in a balancing pose (like tree), we find that we can hold that pose a bit longer. We take deep breaths to stabilize ourselves during “work” poses (triangle, etc) and maintain that strength in the body.

Focusing on our breath has numerous health benefits, which you can read more about here.

If you don’t have time for a yoga class today, set aside five minutes and work on deep breathing, and see how much better you feel.


The attitude of gratitude: Happy Thanksgiving!

In my last post, I mentioned three things that “Namaste” means to me. When I re-read that post today, I realized that all three of those things focused on thankfulness or gratitude. In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought it was appropriate to spend a little more time talking about this gratitude thing. There are a lot of different ways to talk about gratitude, but tonight I’m thinking mainly of the approach that Sonja Lyubomirsky takes in “The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want”.

Lyubomirsky begins her book by explaining the 40% solution to happiness. It’s easy to fall into that trap of if I could just ___ I’ll be happy. The blank is different for everyone: get that job, get married, buy a new car, etc. Lyubomirsky tells us that, scientifically, this is completely untrue. Instead, everyone has a happiness “set point” – a disposition for happiness. Some people are incredibly optimistic and happy by nature, others are not. This “set point” makes up 50% of a person’s happiness. Their circumstances in the moment (the stuff we always wish to change) make up 10% of their happiness quotient.

The good news? A stunning 40% of a person’s happiness is completely in their own control, and is determined by “intentional activity”. And suggestions for those intentional activities are what constitute Lyubomirsky’s book.

Which brings me (finally!) to my point: #4 in the book is Practicing Gratitude and Positive Thinking. Lyubomirsky shares one particularly revealing study:  participants who expressed gratitude once a week for ten weeks were more satisfied with their lives, spent more time exercising, and had fewer headaches, acne, nausea and coughing than the control group.

I know this makes sense for me. The run-of-the-mill bad day can be greatly improved when I just spend a few moments reflecting on the good things in my life. It sounds cheesy but it’s true – taking a moment to feel grateful for what you have helps to diminish the feeling of wanting something more.

Lyubomirsky says it best here: “Gratitude is many things to many people. It is wonder; it is appreciation; it is looking at the bright side of a setback; it is fathoming abundance; it is thanking someone in your life; it is thanking God; it is ‘counting blessings.’ It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is coping; it is present-oriented. Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry, and irritation.”

I know that at the end of every yoga class, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the time I spent in the company of others, practicing yoga and creating positive energy. I am thankful for yoga, and I am also thankful for my husband, my family, my dogs, and my many inspiring friends.

But these are generic things to be thankful for. Every day there are a million tiny things I’m thankful for that I don’t always stop to think about. Today, for example, I was thankful that Andy walked the dogs so I could sleep in 15 extra minutes. I was thankful for my delicious lunch (leftovers a la Andy). I was thankful that Ellen was playing at the dentist’s office tonight so I could watch it while I got my filling. The more times every day that I feel true gratitude, the happier I am, and I know that’s a fact.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sanskrit Saturday: “Namaste”

Namaste is a vital Sanskrit word to yogis worldwide. It comes from two words: namas (I bow), and te (you), so the most literal translation is “I bow to you”.

When we say Namaste, we bow our heads slightly forward, with our hands pressed together in front of the heart chakra, or the breastbone. We align fingers to fingers, palm to palm, with elbows extended directly out, in prayer position. This gesture alone means Namaste, but the verbalization of the word often accompanies it.

In the southern regions of Asia, Namaste can be a casual social greeting. Used as such, it has a wide variety of implications related to social status and level of respect shown to the person you are greeting. It can also acquire a more formal tone as the setting dictates.

In my yoga experiences, we have always spoken Namaste at the end of class, while bowing forward, seated at the front of our mats. Some teachers open their class with Namaste, as well. In addition to “I bow to you”, there have been other, more poetic and longer translations offered, such as:

  • We are one.
  • We are equal.
  • Your spirit and my spirit are one.
  • I greet that place where you and I are one.
  • I honor the Spirit in you which is also in me.
  • The light within me honors the light within you.
  • The deep space of joy within me honors the deep space of joy within you.
  • All that is best and highest within me salutes all that is best and highest within you.

and finally…

  • I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, light, peace and joy. When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are one.

When I say Namaste, the meaning doesn’t stop at any of these things. Both as a teacher and as a student, I am also saying “thank you for coming to class today”, “thank you for allowing me the opportunity to practice with you”, and “I am grateful for yoga and all it has to offer, and I am blessed to have shared an hour of it with you”. We already know that yoga means union, and Namaste is a beautiful way to seal our union before leaving class.

If you’d like to do more reading on Namaste, I found the following sites interesting:
Yoga Journal Beginner’s Q&A, I love India, and The Holistic Shop.

Most importantly — what does Namaste mean to you?


Yoga: the newest olympic sport?

Is the spirit of competition in the soul of yoga?

Ouch. This is a popular topic these days, and I have to say that the idea of yoga as competition makes me cringe. It seems counterintuitive to so much of what yoga stands for – that it’s about what happens when you’re striving towards a goal, not what happens when you reach it. As I say in my classes: we fit the pose to our body, not our body to the pose. We need to do what’s right for us in the present moment, not what we think we’re supposed to be doing. We don’t need to look like the cover of an issue of Yoga Journal to have a life-changing practice. Right?

Apparently not. Apparently yoga, for some people, can be just like gymnastics: a set of criteria and a scoring system, and BOOM…suddenly you have a “score” for your yoga “performance”.

Sigh. What do you think?


PS: Watch that video of the New York Regional Yoga Championship. In the name of all that is holy – WHAT are those people doing to their bodies??

Danville Area Yoga Retreat – recap

I thought I would spend some time tonight discussing a recent yoga experience I had that left me truly inspired.

I grew up in Danville, IL. It was a great place to be a kid and I knew a lot of really incredible people there. It afforded me many opportunities as a high schooler. But it also has some pronounced disadvantages. I knew that once college ended and I stopped having long breaks to return home, I would only visit a day or so at a time to see family. I knew my social life in Danville would end abruptly.

Danville isn’t a bad place, but it also isn’t exactly on the cutting-edge or trendy side of things. So I was shocked when I found out that they were having a yoga retreat this year, in October. It happened to be the weekend before I was scheduled to attend my Level 1 YogaFit training, and I thought it would be a great warm-up to a weekend of training. It was that, and so much more!

The retreat was hosted by Gordon Alexander, who became interested in the martial arts while serving in the Army in the 1960s. His background is in Tai Chi, which inevitably led him to yoga. The day was from 8:30-5 and included six one-hour sessions. We broke for lunch and we were treated to a martial arts demonstration by some of Gordon’s yoga students. Lunch was great — soup and bread — and just the right sort of light meal to accompany a day of yoga.

The best part? The entire day was $20. TWENTY DOLLARS! For six hours of yoga with really amazing instructors, lunch, and networking with fellow yogis. I couldn’t really afford not to go.

I started the day with Kripalu yoga with Gordon. His flexibility really impressed me, and I can only hope to maintain that sort of strength when I’m his age.

Next, I went to a Yoga for Strength and Endurance class with Chuck Crosby from Indianapolis, IN. Chuck blew my mind. It was with his help that I came into the best tree pose of my life. He makes teaching look so easy, and I have to say I have borrowed some of my favorite cues from him. He kept an excellent flow going through class while still making me sweat.

My last class before lunch was Iyengar with Thom Adams from The Shanti Center in Terre Haute, IN. I know that this is the class that made me sore the next day! I had never experienced Iyengar before, but I was very impressed. Simply put, Iyengar focuses on just a few poses during one class, and you hold the poses for much longer and spend a lot of time focusing on your alignment in each pose. We did Warrior I, Warrior II, Triangle, and Side Angle/Extended Side Angle. I think a Vinyasa (flow) style class is more my style than Iyengar is, but learned a lot from Thom. If you read his bio at The Shanti Center, you’ll find out that he’s also a bodybuilder and a professor of mechanical engineering. So long stereotypes!!! He also has a tattoo of a unicorn on his shoulder…which was adorable, if distracting. ; )

After lunch, I took a Vinyasa class with Amy Luke of Heart Wisdom Yoga. It was the most standard class for me, a lot like the practice I get at my fitness class. I can’t find a website for Amy, or else I would share it with you.

I couldn’t resist – I went to Chuck’s class again next. He is just outstanding!

The last class I went to was Restorative with Rachel Burge. Let me tell you – after 5 hours of yoga (two of them being Yoga for Strength and Endurance!), I needed the restoration. Rachel did not disappoint. The last 30 minutes or so of her class we practiced something called wakeful sleeping, basically putting your body to sleep while keeping your mind engaged. Rachel led us through a stunning guided meditation.

All in all, I was so incredibly thankful for the opportunity of the Danville area yoga retreat. It was really unbelievable to spend the day with other yoga folks and get to experience so many different approaches to something I love. I left feeling so inspired by the people I met and so enthusiastic about my YogaFit training the following weekend. The Saturday I spent in Danville injected my practice with a dose of energy I really needed. I can only hope Gordon will organize the retreat again next year!


First Time Yoga Class Tips from Associated Content

While doing some googling, I came across this article from Associated Content. It has ten helpful tips for students who are going to their first yoga class and have some common questions.

You’ll have to read the article for details, but the ten tips are:

1. Remove your shoes
2. Introduce yourself to the instructor
3. Discuss any health concerns
4.  Sit in the front of the class
5. Follow the teacher not the students
6. Do not compare yourself to other students
7. Ignore the mirror during balance poses
8. Pain is not gain
9. Take the whole class
10. Do not skip the meditation