Meditations from the Mat

“The real payoff of a yoga practice, I came to see, is not a perfect handstand or a deeper forward bend—it is the newly born self that each day steps off the yoga mat and back into life.” 
Rolf Gates

Last fall, I began attending a small weekly yoga class, run by a wonderfully kind and experienced yogini who converted her home into a working yoga studio. After about an hour long class (which ranges from yin to ashtanga style, and always includes laughter and helpful assistance), we settle in for savasana. Once our instructor Chris ensures that we are all comfortable and relaxed (she provides all props, including cozy blankets and hot massage rocks to lay on for sore muscles), she typically reads us an excerpt from an article or book. While completely surrendered in savasana, I felt the words met no resistance and poured directly into my soul. By what I am convinced is some sort of yogini mind-reading magic, she would somehow choose passages that spoke directly to my current situations. I recall one day that the passage was so timely and encouraged me to release my fear, and I found myself needing a few moments extra to wipe away a few tears as well. On the days that I was particularly moved, I would ask where the passage came from. Her answer: Meditations from the Mat.

Meditations from the Mat is a book by Rolf Gates, and I recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in yoga. Divided into 365 passages for daily reading, each chapter studies all of the aspects of the 8 limbs of yoga in a very approachable manner, with tips and insights along the way.

I like to have it close to my yoga mat each day, so that once I finish savasana, I can sit with my tea and read a passage. Here is a quote I came across today that I absolutely love:

“Love is not a thought, it is an action. And each loving action that we take infuses us with more energy for loving action in the future.” 

Do you have a favorite yoga book right now? 

Why We Say "Namaste"

"I honor the place in your where the entire universe resides... a place of light, of love, of truth, of peace, of wisdom. I honor the place in you where when you are in that place and I am in that place there is only one of us."
Mohandas K. Gandhi

If you've been to a yoga class (or probably even if you haven't), you've heard the term: "Namaste."

What does it mean?

In Sanskrit, the word ‘namah' means bow, ‘as’ means I, and ‘te’ means you, translating into “I bow to you.” Due to a varying language translations, there are many additional interpretations, but every translation contains the same essential intention:

The Divine light in me honors the Divine light in you.

Used by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and other religions, it is commonly said with a slight bow and hands in prayer position either at the heart or raised to the forehead. It can be a greeting or a closing, or simply a way to acknowledge someone's blessed spirit.

So namaste, my beautiful friends, and may the light, love, beauty, power, gratitude, spirit, and strength in me honor that within you.

Simple Trick for Tight Hamstrings and Sore Feet

"Body is not stiff, mind is stiff." 
Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois

I have ridiculously tight hamstrings. Like, "can barely touch my toes on a good day" tight. I dream of one day having my heels touch the mat during downward dog. However, until that day, I am doing what I can to increase my flexibility and softly stretch my tight muscles.

Thankfully, one of my favorite tricks can be easily done at home for a few minutes everyday with some amazing results! All you need? A tennis ball!

Before beginning, I like to stretch down to see how far I can reach so I can compare afterwards and to measure my progress over time. I've found that even after only one session, I can gain a few inches of reach.

Standing up tall, start by rolling the tennis ball under your feet with moderate pressure. If you have trouble keeping your balance, stand close to a wall so you can use it as a prop. Make sure to massage from the front to the back of your foot, including under your toes. After you have done one foot for a minimum of 2 minutes, switch to the other foot. It is as easy as that!

This technique is wonderful for people who are on their feet all day. Do this when you get home after a long day and feel all that tension melt away! (It seems to work faster than attempting to subtly imply to your significant other that you would appreciate a foot massage. I may be known to attempt this technique with varying success: *cough... cough... foot sneaks onto lap... "Whoops... well since it is there, do you mind getting me a foot rub, please?"*)

Try using this technique once a day. I usually do it every morning along with my usual yoga routine. See where it fits best into your schedule. You could even keep a tennis ball under your desk to do this at work!

Make sure to listen to your body. It is possible to hurt yourself by overdoing it, so pay attention to pressure and time.

A little tip from personal experience: keep your tennis ball in a drawer so it doesn't get covered in dog slobber! Yuck!

Do you have tight hamstrings too? Have you used this trick before? Happy stretching!

Coastal Sun Salutation Flow

"Sun salutations can energize and warm you, even on the darkest, coldest winter day."
Carol Krucoff

Known in Sanskrit as Surya Namaskara, sun salutations are a common core set of yoga asanas that are great way to warm up your body, stretch it out, and give it a little work out before your day. Additionally, many yogis like to begin their longer yoga practice with sun salutations as well. I have found that even on especially sleepy morning, my initial morning sun salutes quickly help me awaken and center, so I often like to prolong my time on the mat and transition into a more in-depth practice.

Sun salutations are a great way to honor the brilliant sun, the earth, and the life that they forms, so this practice is a time to be mindful and radiate gratitude. During my most recent trip to the coast, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for Mother Earth that I found it necessary to "stop, drop, and yoga"!

The following video illustrates my current favorite sun salutation variation. Given the loose sand, my practice is a little faster and less exact than usual (thus the slipping and sliding). However, when you are given the opportunity to stick your toes in the sand and connect with the natural world around you, you take it! Remember: it is a yoga practice, not a yoga perfect!

Note: Basic sun salutes do not include all of the asanas I have incorporated in this practice, such as three-legged downward dog, warrior 1+2, or triangle pose. I currently am working on a post that will give a breakdown of a common sun salutation, so stay tuned!

This was such a lovely experience, because what better way to remind yourself to maintain your "ocean yoga breath" than listening to the waves beside you?!

PS: If you look closely, you can see the dingo exploring the beach in the background!

Do you do daily sun salutations? Do you have a favorite variation?

Sleep Better with Bedtime Yoga

I am a big believer in nighttime yoga. I fall asleep faster, sleep deeper, and feel more relaxed the next morning. My only issue? I get so relaxed afterwards that the journey from my yoga mat to the bed seems a million miles away! My solution? Yoga in bed! Once you are done, close your eyes and drift off... perfect!

Unlike the typical, fast-paced yoga class you may have attended at your yoga studio or gym, this practice is very yin based: slow, relaxing, and deep. Spend a little while in each pose to enjoy all of the lovely benefits.

This is a short and sweet version of my nightly routine... aka: no excuses not to do it! Some nights I spend more time and add in additional poses, but at the very least, I do this routine nightly to release any stress and tension (and recommend you do the same).

Begin by sitting cross legged in the center of your bed. With your back straight, center yourself by focusing on your breath. Hands can either rest on your knees or held in front of your chest in prayer. Using Ujjayi breathing (yoga breathing where your breath sounds similar to ocean waves), take the first few moments of your practice to let go of the day's events and stress.

Place your right hand on your left knee and your left hand behind your back. Exhale while gently twist your torso to the left, and allow your gaze to follow. Breathe in deeply and allow the breath to fill the empty space being created by your stretch. Slowly release, and repeat on the right side.

Turn to face a wall (or your headboard). Laying flat on your back, scoot your butt a few inches away from the wall, and place your legs straight up against it. Relax into the pose, and make sure not to lock your knees. If the stretch is too much, back away slightly from the wall. Remember to breathe in deeply, and feel the breath filling your belly as you sink heavier into the bed.  Remain here for a full minute or two.

Next, lie on your back with your knees bent. With an exhale, bend both legs back towards your belly. Inhale and grip the outsides of your feet with your hands. Bring your knees towards your armpits by opening your knees slightly wider than your torso. Make sure your ankles are stacked over your knees so your shins are perpendicular with the bed. Breathe deeply, and slowly pull your hands down to increase the stretch to a point you feel comfortable with.

When you are ready, return to laying flat on your back with your arms and legs stretched out slightly away from your body. The goal is total relaxation, so if need be, place a pillow to support under your legs. Remain here for at least five minutes. If you're like me, however, you will snoring pretty quickly!

Enjoy the restful sleep, and namaste!

Center Yourself with Alternate Nostril Breathing

For thousands of years, yogis have believed in the power of breath. To this day, yoga instructors even go as far as to say that if you lose track of your breathing during your yoga practice, you basically void the benefits of your asanas. Long story short: breathing is a crucial part of yoga!

Pranayama, or yoga breathing, makes you more connected to your breath. Although it is important to practice during your yoga practice, it can be beneficial to practice before meditation, right before you go to bed, right before you wake up, or when you just need to recharge. I have found that returning to my yoga breath can really help when I am stressed and need to reset my brain, like when I am hanging off of a mountain on a hard rock climbing route.

A technique that I love and have been using everyday is alternate nostril breathing (also known as Anulom Vilom). It is a great beginning pranayama practice, and can be done by everybody!

Alternate nostril breathing can be an extremely therapeutic and calming ritual. It cleanses your lungs and your mind, calms your emotions and your nervous system, encourages the flow of prana (energy), and can relax a restless brain and body. Doesn't that sound wonderful? Lets get to it!

Begin by getting into a comfortable seated position on your yoga mat. Sit up straight, with your neck, back, and tailbone stacked. Using your right hand, place your pointer and middle finger on your third eye (in the middle of your forehead just above your eyebrows). Take a few relaxed breaths until you feel centered and ready to begin.

Using your thumb, close off your right nostril. Slowly breathe in through your left nostril for a count of four. Hold breathe for a count of four.

Close off left nostril with your ring finger, and release your right nostril. Slowly breathe out for a count of four. Inhale though the right nostril for a count of four. Hold for four, then release through your left side as before. Repeat a few rounds of this alternate breathing and feel how your body responds to this gentle and nourishing practice.

Never be forceful with your pranayama practice. If holding four counts is too much, try shorter increments until you can work your way up to it.
Health conditions, such as high blood pressure, might mean that you shouldn't participate or hold your breath. (Translation: Talk to your doctor.)
If possible, try to practice on an empty stomach or if has been a few hours since eating.

Do you practice pranayama? How do you use yoga breathing techniques in your everyday life?