Use Your Glutes… or Stop Hiding Your Strength

Your body is like a Porsche: the engine is in the trunk. Your glutes are the largest and strongest muscles in the body, but how do you harness their power? The magic of Bowspring is in using your glutes.

After creating a Radiant Heart by filling the ribcage, the second instruction of the Bowspring is to mound and lift the base glutes. By engaging the lower fibers of the gluteus maximus, the pelvis goes into anterior tilt (the top of the hips move forward and down, the tail and sit bones moving back and up).

The primary results: a toned, lifted tush; a soft sway in the low back; a long, full, curved belly; and lots and lots of sweat.

[Sidenote: This action cured my hamstring attachment overuse injury in 2 hours. After a year of pain in my hamstring attachment, I had no pain after Two. Hours. And it’s never come back.]

Growing up in the modern fitness industry – including years ballet and yoga – I was encouraged to hug in, pull back, and tighten. That always made intuitive sense: when you hug muscle to bone, it tones. Muscles shorten when they contract. So for years I tucked my “popo” (listening to a favorite ballet teacher), pulled my belly button back and up, and kept as many muscles toned as possible.

And generally, both on and off the mat, I tried to hide my guts and butt. This posture is now the picture of physical beauty: flat, compressed abs, and a tight butt.

Animal wisdom in the body helps unpack the symbol of this tucked tail. My dog only tucks his tail in two circumstances: when he sleeps curled in a ball and relaxed, and when he’s afraid – guarding his sensitive bits from bigger dogs and thunder. (Don’t ask me about the thunder thing.) As humans, we pull our belly back and tuck our tail to brace for impact — whether physical or emotional.

Let’s be clear: the cover of fitness magazines celebrates health and beauty in a tucked tail with a tense body.

Our culture’s picture of beauty is a picture of fear.

I dare you, right now (while sitting) to untuck your tail and let your belly be full, and then lengthen it along a curve from the base of your ribcage all the way down to the pubic bone and hip creases. Notice a few things:

1. How hard is that to do? How many sentences can you read before any habit of “belly back, tail down” sneaks back? (Don’t worry, me too.)

2. What part of your body lets go as you do that? What part hardens?

3. What happens to your breathing?

4. How does it feel? As you get used to the shape, what’s your emotional intuition?

I Want to be Seen.

As a woman who grew up just a little too large — this shape feels radical. In the beginning, it felt wrong. I was terrified someone would see me. For 30 years, I thought I was supposed to get rid of my belly — or at least hide it. Letting it be full and long was terrifying. What if someone saw?

And now I’ve realized, that is what I desperately long for: to be seen. My greatest hope is for someone to see me, exactly as I am, and accept me for that. I do not want to squeeze myself into someone else’s ideal, I don’t want to have to lose or gain or fix or change — but simply to be loved as who I am.

And that, my loves, is radical.

I have to do that for myself first. I have to be willing to use all the gifts of my body, without hiding, without shrinking, and to find the strength that’s already here. Bowspring helps me do just that.


This is the second in a series of posts about the Bowspring practice. Read more here.

If you’d like to experience Bowspring for yourself, join me in class or in Bowspring Immersion beginning August 29.


 

How To Stop Sitting Yourself To Death

The very first instruction of the Bowspring practice is to create a Radiant Heart. Sound a little “woo-woo?” It’s not. It’s practical and absolutely critical.

Our society sits. We sit when we eat, when we work, when we drive, when we binge on Netflix — we sit so much it affects our posture, our strength, and even our mood. The Harvard Business Review, New York Times, and Huffington Post have all declared: Sitting is the new smoking.

This sedentary lifestyle doesn’t just lead to poor fitness, heart weakness and obesity – if that wasn’t enough – it also hurts. It encourages upper back to round and collapse, shoulders to hunch and curl forward, and the head to hang heavy on top of the neck. Physically, this posture contributes to headaches, jaw clicking and soreness, neck and shoulder pain. The head exerts progressively more pressure on the spine (an extra 10 pound force for every inch forward) making back and shoulder pain worse — and tragically this shape impedes the muscles that support the head.

So if you have headaches, shoulder aches, neck pain, or TMJ, get serious about your sitting habit.

And it gets worse.

The physical pain and soreness are a problem. The health impact is an epidemic. The emotional and spiritual impact are devastating.

This is a dejected posture of depression and sadness. Our head hangs down, our heart heavy. These phrases are idiomatic for a reason — ours is a posture of rejection. It’s the shape we make when our boss yells at us in the staff meeting. It’s the protection our body takes when we finally muster the courage to ask that cute guy out… and he says no. It’s a primal posture that says “Don’t mind me — I’m trying to disappear.”

The tragic irony of this should not be lost on us: our sedentary lifestyle reinforces the creeping feeling that we don’t matter. We could just disappear, and maybe we should.

Just as that feeling creates this posture, the posture reinforces the feelings of rejection, collapse, worthlessness. And to avoid the pain of those feelings, we eat (sitting at a table), drink (sitting at a bar), and scarf down 13 hours of Orange is the New Black — stuffed as far back into our sofas as we can possibly get.

What if creating a feeling of worthiness was as simple as changing the way you stand?

Bowspring teaches us to fill ourselves up from the inside – not from the outside. We learn to fill up from the center of us – from the place in us that’s always there, the place yogis have called on for millennia. You may have heard “namaste” translated as “The light in me sees the light in you.” That’s a poetic translation, but the message is clear: don’t forget the light that lives inside you. I don’t forget it. And in remembering your lightness, I remember my own.

That light radiates into the Radiant Heart. When you fill your ribcage, you remind yourself physically and experientially: I’m bigger than this. I have enough. I’m brave enough to take up space.

I’m full enough to share, to help, and make new space.

You take a stand and say: I am worthy.


Come learn Bowspring with me in five playful mornings starting August 29 at Wild Lotus Yoga.

Coffee and Change

The heat of the summer brings madness. Heat so heavy it seems inescapable. Pressure so intense it’s suffocating.

This summer is no different. The world is a little upside down lately. The political situation in the US is the most watched reality show in history. The Brexit vote signaled a dismantling of the European Union, based entirely on ignorance and xenophobia. And truly unfathomable acts of violence have torn spirits from Orlando to Minneapolis, Turkey to Taipei, Bangladesh to South Sudan.


 

I love coffee.

Iced, drip, cappuccino, latte, mocha, cortado. I’ll drink it brewed with dishwater, tamped into espresso machines that cost more than fine cars, or cold brewed overnight. I love coffee so much that even when I give up caffeine, I still drink decaf. There’s something about the warm, nutty flavor of coffee, subtle bitterness, coating of crema, slight buzz — it makes me feel like myself again.

Coffee beans are seeds that grow inside a cherry-like berry. They grow on the sides of mountains in subtropical climates. The berries are hand-picked, seeds separated and soaked, then dried. The beans are roasted, rested, ground, tamped, heated, soaked, steamed, brewed.

It takes a lot of hot, hard work to make me feel like myself again.


Perhaps the heat of summer is bringing us to a boiling point. Perhaps this steam is whistling to us as shouts of “Black Lives Matter,” “Obama can’t take my guns,” and “No Bigots, No Borders.” Perhaps the pressure of violence is pushing us closer to each other. Perhaps we’re about to be transformed into ourselves again.

Compassion and empathy ask us to see ourselves in others. It asks us to see ourselves in young men so angry they take the innocent lives of 48. To feel the overflowing frustration of an Army vet whom snipers men in blue. To feel the fear of men in uniform, facing violence every day, make assumptions based on the color of someone’s skin. To witness the ill-advised votes of people so afraid of someone encroaching on our homes.

We are all angry. We all make assumptions. We are all afraid.

Until we see our own anger, until we humble our assumptions, until we can sit with our own fear, nothing will change. If we can’t see ourselves in the faces of others, hear our voices in their shouts for justice, feel their hearts breaking inside our own chests: we will never be transformed.

The heat of this summer is bringing us to a boiling point: heat rises, bringing everything to the surface. Under the right heat and the right pressure, we transform simple green seeds into rich coffee beans, tiny beans to grounds rich like soil, add heat and pressure: coffee.


The heat of this summer – the pressure in our system – has the potential to transform us. With wisdom, with patience, and with artistry — let’s use the heat of this summer to make something beautiful. Let’s become ourselves again.


 

Yoga and the Twelve Steps: We’re Powerless Over Our Monkey Mind

I teach yoga to recovering alcoholics and addicts at a residential treatment facility. I also owe my happiness — if not my sanity and my life — to the Twelve Steps. I’ve learned as much in 12-step meetings about yoga as I have in the studio, and vice versa.

This is the first in a series of my personal* insights about the parallel and complementary practices of yoga and the twelve steps.

*I am in no way representing any of the 12-step conferences, their literature, or their traditions. I am not advocating you join a 12-step fellowship. These are my personal thoughts; and I’m curious about yours.

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

Step One: We admitted we were powerless…and that our lives had become unmanageable.

For most of us, our mind has spun in a thousand directions for so long that we take the spinning for granted. We’ve accepted the “monkey mind” or “hamster wheel” as a fact of life. We may already believe we’re powerless over this constant insanity… and yet, we try anything and everything we can to distract ourselves, to ease the discomfort of the laundry list of to-dos, resentments, annoyances and shame triggers that we live with on a day-to-day basis.

We eat. We drink. We tweet. We Facebook. We judge other people. We judge ourselves. We buy. We collect pins of things we might want to buy one day on an imaginary internet pinboard. We diet. We work. We get so busy — unassailably, unforgivably busy — so busy that even if we WANTED to slow down and look at this stuff (which we don’t), we wouldn’t be able to.

We’re trying to escape the constant spin of our mind by making it spin faster. We run away so fast that the running just fuels the spin.

And if someone suggests we slow down? Do less? HA! Fuck that guy. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner to believe that we don’t have another choice. When someone tells us “Happiness is a choice,” we resist the urge to punch them in the face. We think they just don’t understand. This isn’t a choice, this is just the way it is.

The addicts and alcoholics I work with are the lucky ones. Their brains got so twisted up that they no longer had a choice — they were forced to stop, drop everything, and slow down. They leave their homes, their jobs, their families, their phones, their email. For 24 days (fingers crossed), their days are scheduled from 6am to 10pm, right down to six cigarette breaks a day. And they begin to learn a new way to live.

For many of us, life never gets so bad that we fall off the hamster wheel. We keep accruing frequent flier miles, credit card points, and transferring our debt to the next 0% APR credit card. We binge on king cake, crawfish bread, and Popeye’s, and then spend all of Lent on Whole30, avoiding sugar, caffeine, alcohol, flour, and food. (In places that aren’t New Orleans, we drink quad-breve extra-pump cinnaspice lattes, deep-fried cheese, half-pound burgers, egg rolls, and Frozen margaritas, and then get on the wagon on New Year’s Day.) We leave CNN/Fox News/CNBC/ESPN/NPR on in the background, follow mass shootings live on twitter, read as much as possible about ISIL, Syria, Obamacare, gun control, and the 2016 Presidential election, and still somehow manage to stay one step ahead of a nervous breakdown. We’re secretly afraid that someone will realize we have no idea what we’re doing and revoke our Adult Card. And we’re also secretly hopeful that someone might do exactly that.

*                 *                 *                 *                 *

The second line of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (a fourth century yoga text often quoted in modern yoga studios) defines yoga as the “stilling of the mind into silence.” I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t want that. I have yet to meet someone who has achieved it. Go ahead, try it. Right now, stop thinking. No reasoning, no feelings, no memories, no plans, no judging, no stories, no evaluation of sensory perception.

No?

Even if we could, I think we’re terrified of what might happen if we were to stop distracting ourselves and actually look at what’s inside that never-ending whirlwind of thoughts, feelings, judgments, fears, anxieties and regrets.

A 2014 University of Virginia study suggests we’d rather receive electric shock therapy than be alone with our thoughts. Two-thirds of men and a quarter of women. Let me say that again: a significant percentage of adults self-administered electric shocks instead of being alone with their thoughts for fifteen minutes.

So maybe we take that first step, as yogis or friends in recovery. We admit we’re powerless over that spinning mind, and that it’s making our lives unmanageable. That admission gives us permission to separate ourselves from the mind, to see the mind as not us, and to get some perspective about what’s happening. It’s the tiniest shift, the very beginning of the practice. Paradoxically, this admission of powerlessness gives us the power to do it differently. The power to change.

For the next week, when your own mind starts to spin off its axle, practice this thought: “I am powerless over this spinning mind, this monkey mind, this mental hamster wheel. The brain is just doing what it does.” Find a phrase to describe your own whirling mind that makes sense to you. And if saying you’re powerless troubles you, phrase it as a question: “What if I’m powerless over this spinning mind? What if the brain is just doing what it does?”

See what happens and let me know how it goes.

xo,v

A Short History of Yoga, or How The Hell Did We Get Here?

When you look at the cover of Yoga Journal and see a skinny white lady in $100 yoga pants doing acrobatics, you are looking at a very modern, very American version of yoga. Which is not to say that asana (postures) aren’t yoga.

Instagram yoga is yoga. Ashtanga yoga is yoga. Iyengar yoga is yoga. Chanting is yoga. Reading and studying sacred texts is yoga. Writing poetry is yoga. Meditation is yoga.

Sometimes I think that my definition of yoga looks a little like the congressional definition of pornography: I can’t exactly define it, but I know it when I see it.

I do think it’s useful to know a little about the very beginning, because sometimes that helps us understand where we are now.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive, exact, academic history of the timeline of yoga. I will get things wrong, but this gives us a through-line of the practice right until today on your mat.

   *     *     *     *    *      *     *     *     *    *

So, let’s do it this way:

Why Do Yoga Every Damn Day

I’ll be honest, I didn’t intend to become a yoga teacher. I enrolled in teacher training very selfishly because I loved yoga, and I wanted to do more of it, and more deeply. I had no interest in sharing that with any of you, thank you very much.

Then, much to my surprise, it turns out that nothing makes me happier than teaching yoga.

I teach yoga because it changed me. It changed my body, but it also changed my perspective, my worldview, my understanding of myself, my concept of God, and my general opinion of wearing tights in public. With very, very few exceptions, my yoga practice has vastly changed my life for the better.

Now, let me clear: I don’t believe that I can change you, your perspective, or your worldview. In fact, I try to live and work under the assumption that I can’t do any of those things. But I do feel a great privilege of sharing the practice that has been shared with me, exploring and explaining it in a way that I hope is useful to you.

Because I do believe that yoga will change you.

   *     *     *     *    *      *     *     *     *    *

In January 2014 — after I quit my “real” job — I knew I needed structure so I signed up for an Iyengar Yoga Intensive at Yoga Bywater. All my favorite yoga friends raved about Heide, her teaching, and the practice. They also warned me how much it sucked. How much they hated waking up that early, and how hard it was.

I’ve come to believe that often the best things are also the worst things – so that seemingly mixed endorsement was exactly what I needed to be sold.

For nearly eight months, I woke up to practice from 7:30-9:30 am, five days a week. Ten hours a week of yoga changed my body, and quickly. I knelt with wooden wedges pushed into my knee creases, did backbends over wooden blocks, through metal folding chairs, and in ropes tied to a wall. I did handstands every single morning. I held downward facing dog for five straight minutes (eventually). I did 153,000 leg lifts. I did most of it without complaining, griping, or whining. Mostly.

The level of precision required in Iyengar practice is immense and impressive. After ten years of vinyasa yoga, and two years of teaching, I thought I knew some things about my body and alignment. In those eight months, my alignment was fine tuned — it was like before I was only spinning the Big Radio Dial to get into the general vicinity. Now I was spinning the Little Dial, getting clearer and clearer and clearer.

“My right hip is tight,” became “My anterior inner left groin is restricted, my posterior inner right groin is stuck, my right sacrum pulls to the left, and my piriformis is hypertonic.”  I can differentiate between the heads of all three hamstrings, and know which one is being pulled by my hyper-lordotic pelvis, and which one makes my knee hurt. I became acutely aware of which ribs were moving and which weren’t. I can now feel exactly where my 7th rib pulls away from my spine. My body awareness skyrocketed.

I learned the first four lines of the yoga sutras by heart. I chanted the invocation to Patanjali. I began to understand the value of this text by putting it into practice in my body.

But perhaps most important? Where I used to think I didn’t even enough “will power,” I now know my tendency is to work so hard that I injure myself. I never think what I’m doing is enough. I’m a show-off. And I hate how I look when I walk.

I learned that a teacher who sees me every morning learns what I can see about myself – and what I can’t see. She lovingly reminds me that “you think you’re doing it, but you’re not doing it.” She’s my accountability. She’s a balanced view of my practice. She shows me when to work harder and when to ease up.

And the difference between how she sees me and how I see myself is a direct measure of how much I still have to learn.

   *     *     *     *    *     *     *     *     *    *

A year ago, I started offering the same kind of short-form, intense practice in my own bhakti-infused vinyasa style. And I discovered how magical it is to watch people change in such a short period of time. To push people harder than they think they can be pushed, and also to empower them go easier on themselves. I do my best to see people lovingly yet honestly, and share what I see.

I cannot change you and I cannot make you see about yourself what you don’t see yet. But I can share what I see, lovingly and honestly. I can be a witness to your transformation. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I can offer useful feedback that will enable you to change yourself. And I will always learn from you, I will always be inspired when you show up every morning at 6:30am, and I will always be grateful that you let me share the beauty of this privilege of teaching you. Every. Single. Morning.


If you have questions about practicing this way, send me an email.  Or bite the bullet and try it. We start Monday, January 4th at 6:30am.

I dare you.

 

Does Practice Matter?

“You get good at what you show up for.”

My teacher Mitchel shared this with us in my teacher training, and it has stuck in my craw ever since. It’s not just my craw – I’ve shared it with my students, and my friend Tracey Duncan even wrote a great post about it.

It’s a gem almost so obvious that it hides in plain sight: you get good at what you show up for. So if you want to get good at something, show up for it. Again and again.

Perhaps the more painful realization is what we’re getting good at through repetition. For me, it’s watching Nurse Jackie and hitting snooze on my alarm 5 times every morning. But it’s also showing up to teach, voraciously researching music for practice, and studying the human body.

The hardest part about this is showing up — instead of being partially present, or half-invested, to commit yourself totally to one task. In our society this is almost impossible. Phone notifications, emails, texts binging, constant noise of TV or radio in the background — how could you be fully present with any one thing for even five minutes? It seems almost superhuman!

Showing up asks us for humility. It asks us to come to a task – whether it’s washing the dishes or sitting for meditation – with an open mind. It asks us to participate fully and receive all the information that we’re being given. To show up, we have to see our strengths and weaknesses with equal attention. We have to release our expectation of what might happen, surrender our demands of a particular task. Two days ago, you ran three miles effortlessly? Today, just one will be a slog and a struggle.

Showing up requires we surrender our evaluation, because we’ll never fully understand why balance comes so easily one day and is elusive the next. In fact, trying to “figure it out” is just another distraction — our sneaky brain’s way of short circuiting the power of focus.


Animals are great teachers of showing up. My dog Bodhi and my cats are fully committed to everything they do. Watch a dog focused on a squirrel — this is the guidepost for practice — total commitment, dedication, focus; the rest of the world fades away. In thousands of walks, my dog has never once caught a squirrel. But every time he sees one, he is just as committed, just as dedicated, just as focused. He doesn’t lose hope. He doesn’t lose sight of what he’s after. He’s simply showing up to get that damn squirrel.

I aspire to show up that way, even though it’s incredibly scary. All my notifications and distractions are there because I’m afraid I might miss something: the perfect text from the guy I like, the next big media disaster about a gun rampage, a storm coming. I am reinforcing my constant fear that I might miss something, and somehow be left out, left behind, or left for dead. I’m afraid I’ll be left.

I undermine my practice by questioning, constantly, “Do I really want to get good at this?” or “Does it matter?” I saw a great meme the other day: the greatest question every artist asks himself is not “will they like it” or “will they understand” but instead “Does it matter?”

Does practice matter?

In the end, what we practice is irrelevant [sidenote: pick something you like]. What we’re really practicing is showing up. Committing ourselves to something or someone, dedicating ourselves to something bigger, and staying focused even when the going gets tough or it seems hopeless. To keep at it, keep moving, even when it’s uncomfortable or frustrating, disappointing or even painful. To stay in a relationship even when we’re terrified. To keep writing even when we think the novel is shit. Keep working, keep practicing. Keep showing up.

What we learn is that the JOY is in the practice. The fulfillment is in the commitment. We wake up in our focus. We transform in our attention. We show up.

What Hurricane Katrina taught me about yoga

“Purification, Refinement, Surrender. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga.”

– Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.1, (trans. by Alistair Shearer)

I’ve gone back to basics lately with my practice, my teaching, and even my thinking about yoga. With over 1,000 hours of teaching, I keep coming back to the same question in my writing and conversation with other teachers: What is yoga, anyway?

My recent study with Doug Keller only underlined that question in my mind. He has a lovely overview of the history of yoga in his book about yoga philosophy Heart of the Yogi. He traces the long history of yoga – philosophy, practice, posture – to reveal there are only a few things that tie them all together: mindfulness and action.

Yoga is sometimes defined as Skill in Action. I like that.

I stayed with my mom over the weekend that I studied with Doug. She doesn’t ‘do’ yoga, so in many ways she’s my best audience. How can I explain yoga to someone who doesn’t already know what it is? I said to her, “It’s kinda like what they say about pornography: you know it when you see it.”

“That is not a good answer,” mom replied.

And she’s right.

*        *       *       *       *

I have been avoiding the anniversary of The Thing this weekend. My teacher Mitchel is in town, and I’m looking forward to his Bowspring workshops and vinyasa classes. I would like very much to go on about my business, and not get sucked in to the ten-year anniversary. But yoga won’t let me.

Purification. That’s what fire does, and it’s why fire is often used as a metaphor to describe the yoga practice. Purification is not a pleasant process, and it usually requires tremendous hard work and a decent amount of discomfort – if not pain. Fire burns away everything that isn’t real.

Water also washes away everything that isn’t real. Water washed away everything that wasn’t permanent, that wasn’t deeply rooted, that wasn’t fully committed.

Refinement. Once the heat of the practice has built, then the true work begins. It’s in the tiny movements in our body that real change happens. We want to find a showy pincha mayurasana to post on Instagram, but we know that’s just the shell. The real work happens on the inside, when we feel those small adjustments starting to reveal huge change. Looking strong doesn’t hold a candle to feeling strong.

The last ten years have been a constant process of refinement. That has meant looking at the things we were doing – as individuals, community, leadership – thing things that were working, and the things that weren’t. Being brave and ruthless about our choices, doing our best to keep the heart of  our city along the way.

As my teacher Heide says: “You don’t learn perfectly. It’s not a straight line forward.”

Surrender. Everybody knows the best yoga pose is Savasana – after 60 or 90 minutes of working, you get to rest. Just rest. And no rest comes easier than the rest after hard, challenging work. Honestly, I MUST work that hard to truly surrender. Because surrender is the hardest part.

Surrender means accepting things as they are, even if they aren’t where you want them to be. Yet. It means yielding to the wisdom the pose has to offer you – letting the pose do you, instead of you doing the pose.

Surrender means being willing to let your life be molded by a power beyond your imagination. It’s a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow. That is my understanding of yoga.

Yoga is a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow.

*        *       *       *       *

I want to avoid the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The tenth anniversary of a 17 hour drive to Houston; the tenth anniversary of watching helplessly while my city flooded and idiots on CNN called Elysian Fields Avenue “Elephant Farms Road”; the tenth anniversary of sharing a twin bed in a stranger’s Baton Rouge apartment; the tenth anniversary of a six-week exile from my home; the tenth anniversary of One Dead In Attic; the tenth anniversary of Superdome rapes; the tenth anniversary of watching my city-family being abandoned by a government I had trusted until that moment; the tenth anniversary of deep sense of uncertainty, foreboding, and tremendous loss.

I am not interested in reliving it. It purified me, and for that I will be forever grateful, in a strange, perverted way.

Today, I’m working on eternal refinement – and most importantly, surrender.

*        *       *       *       *

I’ll be at K10 on the Levee on Saturday morning representing Wild Lotus, and the rest of the weekend I’ll be practicing with Mitchel. Come give me a hug. And do some yoga. It helps, I promise.