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Every breath you take

foggy bubble in grass

From inside the foggy bubble it's hard to tell where you are.

If you are a fan of heavy-metal clothing brand Affliction – admittedly not really likely if you’ve found yourself on this page – then you might believe that affliction is “the passion that drives us to reach for greatness,” or something that “makes you build when others buy.”

Well no.

Since at least Roman times, an affliction has been understood as a cause of mental or bodily pain. It comes from the Latin afflictus, meaning distressed, or cast down.

In fact, the purpose of yoga practice is to reduce afflictions so that we can reach deep states of meditation that will lead to Samadhi, or integration.

Yoga philosophy counts five afflictions, or kleshas (say clay-sha) – ignorance, egoism, passion, hatred and the will to live, or clinging to life.

When Patanjali provides a list, the most important item comes first. There’s no saving the best for last.

That means the most important klesha of all is ignorance. In fact, the literal meaning of the next sutra is that ignorance is the field in which the other afflictions grow.

This makes sense because what’s meant by ignorance, literally “not seeing,” is a permanently operating fog machine that keeps us from perceiving reality.
And by definition, if you’re ignorant, you “can’t know,” as a little boy I met used to say in response to almost any question.

So if the kleshas rise from ignorance, and you can’t know your own ignorance, how can you possibly work with the kleshas?

In theory, you could always go to the bottom, and least important part of the list and try to work your way up. But fear of death, clinging to life, and the will to live, is, as Iyengar writes in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “the subtlest of all afflictions . . . . found even in wise men.”

I have a small suggestion.

It comes from my September commitment to 10 minutes of conscious breathing a day, first thing in the morning.

Lie down, prop your chest up, set a timer, and become passive in the presence of the breath. Most especially, allow a natural pause at the end of your exhalation, and let the inhalation breath come by itself.

You will be led, every morning, into a meditation on breathing.
First there are bare facts that you don’t own your breath, didn’t start it, and aren’t in control of when it stops – although it will, inevitably, stop.

Perhaps your breath will merge back into the universal breath bringing some part of your experience with it. Perhaps not. But it will definitely end. Breathing is both fragile and impermanent.

Happily, it’s also universal. Every in and out cycle connects you to the big breath of everything that lives, from whales to lichen. (It seems even bacteria breathe, or at least respire, although viruses don’t.)

We inhale the knowledge of our interdependence and exhale a long, slow breath that clears away, at least temporarily, the small corner of ignorance where we forget our mortality and suppose that we are separate from all else that lives.

Doesn’t sitting meditation do the same thing?

For some people I’m sure it does.

For about 25 years of my life I either meditated in the morning, or beat myself up for not meditating in the morning. When I sat, I was quieter and happier. But I was capable of staying caught up in my thoughts the whole time, and rising as deeply mired in my ignorance as when I sat down. (I still sit, I just don’t make it my first thing in the morning practice.)

Breath observation is more physical – shockingly physical, in fact.

I’m beginning to understand that it’s as necessary as active work in asana for improving posture and creating a broad, upright and expanded upper body.

If you prop your chest up and breathe for 10 minutes every day, you’re setting your ribcage, without tension, in the shape that every yoga pose demands. Active work gives you the strength to hold the shape.

Long slow breath calms the nervous system. It releases deep levels of anxiety that we all have – at some level we are all concerned with survival, and the will to live.

In calmness we react less to desire and aversion, and cling less tightly to the ego’s idea of ourselves.
And in calmness, it’s possible we might someday find the off-switch for the fog machine.

Image courtesy of Mysserli, via Flickr.
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Smack in the middle of the mandala: it’s a good place to sit.


When you come back up, even a dark, gray day looks brighter.

Here on the wet West Coast, where winter closes in with endless clouds, rain, and steadily diminishing daylight, we take seasonal depression seriously.
I have a “happy light” glowing on my desk as I write this.
So there’s nothing I’d like to recommend more than doing a backbend over a chair, (more properly two-footed inverted staff pose in a chair), whenever the weather turns your mood sombre.

There are other poses that can help with depression, it’s true.
Vigorous standing poses and handstands can lift your mood, especially if dark winter days leave you feeling like staying in bed, with the covers pulled over your head.

Mind you, if that’s your kind of depression, standing poses and handstands are probably the last things you feel like doing. And if you’re not a strong practitioner, a few wobbly warrior poses or failed kick-ups into arm balance could leave you feeling worse than when you started.

It doesn’t take much energy to drape your upper back over the edge of a chair. And you don’t need to be strong, or even experienced. If you have an existing back or neck injury, you might need the help of a teacher, but fixes can be found.

And best of all, given the right support and a bit of practice, almost anyone can hold the pose for a long time – say three to 10 minutes – which is long enough for it to have a profound and lasting effect.

Need more convincing? Here’s an outline of the benefits from Lois Steinberg’s indispensable book, Geeta S. Iyengar’s Guide to a Woman’s Yoga Practice, Vol. 1: (link)

“While in this pose, tensions are completely rolled away by the lengthening and releasing that occurs. The abdominal and pelvic organs are decompressed, and toxins are expunged. The diaphragm releases its grip on the abdomen. The front body rests to the back body. The chest remains fully opened and benefits the heart, liver, stomach, spleen, gall bladder, and pancreas. Optimal breathing also occurs with the opening of the chest. Toxins expelled through the respiratory system are exchanged for fresh nutrition to the lungs. This pose is excellent for those suffering from depression, especially when the head is back.”

But here’s the issue: you can’t just go to a store and buy a yoga chair – a metal chair with the back cut out – although there are some solutions available.

And even if you could, metal chairs are, as we say, “one size fits some.” If you’re petite, you could probably do this pose in a chair with the back left in. If you’re large, you might not be able to do it with the back cut out.

Set up your two chairs seat-to-seat, with a sticky mat folded in four to cover the gap – and pad the chair

The simple solution – use two chairs, seat to seat – is almost as good as using a yoga chair.

You can, of course, use just about any two matching chairs.
I think it’s worth buying a couple of metal chairs: they’re inexpensive; they have the hard surface you need; and the way they’re built makes them suitable props, even with the back left in, for most yoga poses, including, most importantly, chair shoulder stand.
Besides, they fold, so they don’t take up much space, and with the backs left in, they’re more comfortable when they’re pressed into service as extra chairs.

Start with your head in line with your spine, then, as you become comfortable, gradually reduce the height.

Here’s how to set up the pose:
Unless your floor is carpeted, roll out a sticky mat with its long side toward the wall. Put the chairs, seat to seat, as close as you can get them, on the sticky mat.
Fold a second sticky mat in four, and place it across the gap between the two chair seats.
Stand two wood bricks on their tall sides at the wall.
Then do a test run.
Lie down on the chair with the bottom edges of your shoulder blades hooked over the side that’s away from the wall, and straighten your legs.
You want your legs to be completely straight with your heels both touching the bricks and pressing into the wall.

Make whatever adjustments you need, then sit on the edge of the chair that’s closest to the wall.
Supporting yourself with your hands, take your buttocks over the edge of the chair on the wall side.
Lie back, then move toward your head until the bottom edges of your shoulder blades hook over the edge of the chair.

To come back up, wiggle your buttocks back toward the middle of the chairs, and hold onto the chair backs.

If this is new work for you, have a stack of bricks or other height available for your head. As you settle into the pose, you can gradually remove some or all of the support.

You won’t be able to reach under the chair to hold the legs as you might when you’re using just one chair.
Instead, experiment with holding your elbows, or holding the back of your head in your hands, as though you were doing headstand. Be sure to change the cross of your hands.
Then, as in the photo above, extend your arms long, either with or without support under the back of your head.

Sit up chest first, head back.

Set a timer, at first for just one minute. If that’s enough, come up, rest, and then repeat the pose. Gradually increase your time in the pose. Five minutes would be a good goal.

To come out, wiggle your buttocks back toward the middle of the chairs. Hold the back rungs of the chairs, and pull down as you swing out, leading with your chest.

If your lower back feels tight or pinched, come out and put more height under your feet.
If that doesn’t make the pinching go away, bend your knees and put your feet on the floor.
If you have tight shoulders, your arms might begin to tingle as you hold the pose. If this happens, clasp your hands and rest them on your belly.

Do you have a favorite yoga technique for weathering dark days? Do tell.

Photos by Mary Balomenos
If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
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Why Yoga Builds Your Inner Strength
What’s Locked in Your Ribcage?


Forget about the Borg: resistance is utile

arms in Iyengar standing poses

Yes, those triceps could be even more assimilated. Give me time.

The Borg is quite possibly the most thought-provoking alien species ever to populate science fiction.

“Born into a collective consciousness, they are collectively aware, but not aware of themselves as individuals,” as the article on the StarTrek.com database tells us.   They’re never alone, always in the company of thousands of voices; deep in a hive mind that encompasses the knowledge of every species they have assimilated in their search for technological perfection.

And their message, once heard, is indelible: “We are the Borg. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”

Happily, yoga is not science fiction. Resistance in yoga is not only utile – if you’ll excuse the obsolete word for useful – it’s necessary.

Here’s a case in point.

One of the prevailing mysteries of Iyengar yoga, for me at least, is: “how do other people hold their arms up for so long?”

I’ve been led any number of times through a long preparation for, say triangle pose, legs turned and working, arms out to the side, chest lifted, waiting for the cue to hinge at the hip and take the pose – and waiting, and waiting.

I understand the use of a long preparatory holding. We’re learning to maintain the actions in a neutral position, so they’ll be set when we move into the full pose.

Sometimes of course, teachers just get caught up in talking through the pose, and forget that the students are holding it.

In either case, I’m the one discreetly bringing my arms down, relaxing my shoulders and bringing my arms back up again. 

It’s not so much that my arms get tired. I’d stick with that, as much as I could, knowing it was strengthening.

But the sensation in my upper back and neck doesn’t feel healthy. It’s not the slightly pleasant pain of working a little past your previous limit. It’s a contracting, buzzing, disconcerting grip at the base of my neck.

 Lately I’ve stumbled upon a partial answer: resistance.

 With my arms horizontal, I press my palms down into an imagined hard surface.

I use that resistance to help me lift my triceps. In Borgian terms, I assimilate my triceps into my upper arm bones.

Those two actions trigger a third: I exhale and lengthen down the sides of my neck, and out my shoulders and upper arms, while simultaneously releasing my shoulder blades.

The grip is gone, and my arms feel stronger.

It doesn’t last, of course. A few breaths later, the grip at the back of my neck sets in, and I have to do it all over again.

Still, it’s an improvement.

But if you’ve never felt resistance under your hands with your arms spread, how do you find an imaginary hard surface?
One option is to ask a willing helper to stand behind you, put their hands under yours, and resist when you press down.

An inanimate object will work too.

If you have a sofa of the right dimensions for your body, you can sit tall, spread your arms on the back of the sofa, press down and lift your triceps.

No right-sized sofa?

Try kneeling in thunderbolt pose between two chairs. Put a wood brick on each chair, turned to the side that will support your hands with your arms horizontal at shoulder height.

Once you have the memory of real resistance in your hands, you’ll be able to take that sensation into your standing poses.
Just remember: We are yogis. Our triceps will be assimilated. Resistance is utile.
Photo by Mary Balomenos

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Why is yoga so hard to do?

Well it's certainly something to think about, isn't it?

I was idly checking Google analytics on Tuesday morning, and on a whim decided to look at the “organic” search terms. Those are the words that people type into the vast waves of the Internet hoping for answers from just about any source.

So what do people type in that casts them up on these shores?

Apart from a number of variations on “five,” “minute,” and “yoga,” they were all over the map, from “headstand preparation” to “back strap shoulders” to “how to step forward from downward dog.”

What caught my eye, down towards the bottom, was the plaintive question: “Why is yoga so hard to do?”

My first response was to smile and think: “Damned if I know, but it sure is hard, isn’t it?”

Later that evening, I used the story to lighten the mood at the 7:30 class. Everyone laughed, and if we can believe the latest research by evolutionary psychologists at Oxford University, their endorphin levels rose, and so did their pain thresholds. That ought to mean that the next pose wasn’t quite so hard to do.

Later I started thinking about the person who landed here by typing in that question, and didn’t find a good answer, or at least a direct one.

So I’d like to fix that.

I’m assuming, by the way, that by “yoga” we can agree we’re discussing a form that includes challenging poses, but doesn’t position itself as a brutal workout. (See Diamond Dallas Page’s “Not Your Momma’s Yoga,” with the 6-minute hold in plank pose.) Those forms are hard to do, but for reasons that have nothing to do with yoga.

I can think of many reasons why yoga is so hard to do, but here are three big ones:

The poses are physically demanding. They just are.

Humankind has been assuming the shapes of yoga poses for thousands of years. But before the 1960s, only a few exceptionally physical people in each generation – gymnasts, acrobats, dancers and yogis – did anything like the yoga we aspire to.

Our grandparents may have been less sedentary than we are, but they didn’t expect to touch their toes, much less put their hands flat on the floor in a straight-leg forward bend.

Doctors didn’t stand on their heads. School teachers didn’t attempt elbow balance. Hairdressers didn’t push up off the floor into a backbend. Accountants didn’t aspire to full lotus – that was a pretzel position to be gaped at in a circus, not something you might be shown how to do on a Thursday night at the community centre.

Yes, practicing poses can lead to flexibility, strength and balance, as well as a quiet mind and a peaceful heart. But the poses have always been difficult. What’s changed is that now we believe everyone can benefit from them.

Yoga is a transformational practice.

To bring intelligence into every cell – another way of saying yoga – means waking up areas of the body that have never been in conscious awareness.

In my experience, cells wake up more like groggy adolescents than like cheerful babies. Sometimes the waking up is unpleasant. Sometimes it hurts. It should, of course, only hurt in the sense of joy pain, but the practice of yoga includes a lot of time spent learning to stay just this side of too much sensation.

So does this look hard?

That doesn’t mean all yoga is hard to do, or that all transformation requires working your edge. Practicing lying down bound angle pose, for example, is like settling into a cosmic lazy-boy recliner: quiet, open and supported all at the same time.

Still, if you want your body and mind to change by practicing the poses, then the work is going to be hard, much of the time.

Once you have a sustained practice, you’re going to be dealing not just with the difficulty of the poses, but with the reality of physical aging.

After the age of 25, we lose muscle mass at the rate of a half to one per cent a year. And as we age, the process accelerates. It even has a name, sarcopenia, from the Greek, meaning “poverty of flesh.”

At the same time, both age and inactivity make us stiff. The fibres of the fascial network that surrounds and interpenetrates our muscles lose their elasticity. Instead of gliding against one another they become stuck together. If you played a lot of sports as a child and followed that by several years of mostly sitting at a desk, then yes, yoga is hard to do.

And that said, there isn’t a better practice than yoga to counteract the effects of aging. Every practice brings weight bearing to help preserve muscle mass, and stretching, to slow or reverse our increasing tightness.

Yoga doesn’t make me feel like “I never got past age 16,” as 75-year-old yoga teacher Lily Anne Hillis told the San Francisco Chronicle.

I’m stronger and more flexible than I was at 16, but I can tell I’m aging, just by looking in the mirror. Besides, I can no longer go without glasses for distance, as well as for reading. And I have aches from time to time, like everyone else.

But so far, my physical challenges are largely self-imposed.

Usually it’s the continuing battle to push up from the floor in Chatturanga Dandasana, the yoga push up – now that’s hard to do – or to increase my time in headstand.

So hard as it is, I’ll keep practicing.

Because guess what?

Not doing yoga is harder.

Image courtesy of Lululemon, via Flickr.

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Bathtub yoga for tight, sore hips

yoga prop bathtub

Yoga props: they're everywhere.

I’d hate to suggest that there’s really such a thing as bathtub yoga.
We already have Broga, Doga, paddleboard yoga, karaoke yoga and Star Wars yoga; the last thing we need is another yoga gimmick.

But the truth is, practicing hip openers while you soak in a hot tub can ease sore hips – even more if there’s a cup of Epsom salts in the water, and quality bubble bath never hurts.

Instead, let’s just consider the bathtub to be a prop, especially useful for the category of poses known as yoga for tight hips.

If your house came with one the right size for your body, then it’s free. If you have to remodel the bathroom to accommodate a yoga-friendly tub, then it’s the most expensive yoga prop you’ll ever buy.

Pursued regularly, a bathtub hip-opening practice can significantly increase your flexibility. That’s especially true if you’re in the tight hips camp, and find it hard to locate a beginning place in any of the classic poses. If you’re already in over your head, your hips won’t move.

The big advantage of the bathtub is that it supports your back. This eases the tightest of hips and allows them to stretch, even if just a little.

You can get something of the same feeling by putting two bolsters at the wall, one vertical and one horizontal, and leaning against it. But the bathtub has two huge advantages over propping yourself up. You’ll get a therapeutic benefit from the hot water, and, if your bathtub is the right size, you’ll be able to ground through your feet.

One easy pose to inaugurate your bathtub yoga practice is the happily named joint-freeing pose.

First, with both legs straight, establish the legs of mountain pose.

Press the back of your heels into the bottom of the tub, and the bottom of your heels into the side, as if you were lying on your back with your feet at the wall.

Press the tops of your thighs down. Extend your outer thighs down toward the floor of the tub. Then roll your inner thighs in, and extend down your inner leg from your thighs to your inner heels.

Pause and take a couple of breaths.

Then, keeping everything working in your left leg, draw your right knee towards your chest.

As often happens in yoga, the most fruitful strategy is to focus on the opposite side to the one that appears to be “doing the pose.” In this case, when you’re drawing your right knee towards your chest, you’ll get more opening in your right hip by focusing on your straight left leg.

faucets as toe spreaders

You can always use the faucets as toe spreaders.

So make the straight leg actions even stronger.
At the same time, take your outer right hip crease toward your inner left heel. Hold for at least 90 seconds, and then change legs.

Bathtub yoga doesn’t end there, of course. You can add hydrotherapy to almost any supine hip opening you learn in class. I know someone who swears by the bathtub for learning seated twists, although this works best with an old-fashioned tub that’s not set into the wall, so you can use your hands on the sides for leverage.

Do you have a bathtub yoga practice? Do tell.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Seven Yoga Strategies to Loosen Tight Hips

Step Forward from Downward Dog

Yoga Bear in Finland, but what does it mean?


Gaileee in tree pose in Mongolia

Two weeks ago, in honor of reaching a milestone of 1,000 Five-Minute Yoga apps sold everywhere from Peru to Saudi Arabia, I proposed a contest: tell me the most exotic place you’ve ever practiced yoga, and you might win one of three pairs of massage balls, generously donated by Halfmoon Yoga Products.

lmagine my surprise to learn how much the readers of this blog travel and how likely you are to break out a pose on the road.  Among the 40 entries:

  • Jen practiced overlooking Denali (Mt. McKinley) “in the midsummer midnight light of Alaska. The legions of mosquitoes detracted only a smidge from the beauty!”
  • Jason pumped gas in half-moon pose.
  • Barbara did sun salutations on the beach with penguins, at the very tip of South Africa, where the seas meet.
  • Theresa practiced in Pacific Rim National Park, by the open Pacific Ocean.
  • Gil did a headstand on Dionisio Point on Galiano Island.
  • Lynn practiced on an uninhabited barrier island off the coast of Georgia.
  • Sarah backpacked for a year, and had plenty of exotic places to practice. The most exotic? The Perhentian Islands, 10 miles off the coast of Malaysia, near the border with Thailand.
  • Mary practiced at the Napo Wildlife Reserve, in Ecuador.
  • Beverly took a brave Warrior 3 in Death Valley.
  • Janet practiced in Joshua Tree National Park. I can testify that the extraordinary sight of a Joshua tree is enough to inspire an asana session.
  • And Gaileee not only practiced, she also taught in Mongolia.

Deciding which three people would win was not easy.

In the end, I settled on: Gailee, because Mongolia pretty much defines exotic – and I liked the picture; Barbara, because anything done with penguins present is in another realm of human experience; and Beverly, because the only time I’ve been to Death Valley was in August, where the weather was like a blast furnace, and I’m pleased to think of someone being inclined to strike a pose in such a barren landscape.

Thank you to everyone who entered.






Perhaps it's time to pitch that chair. . . . .

This just in: sitting in chairs is lethal.

Yogis already know that sitting leads to tight hips and shortened psoas muscles. Now, a comprehensive new study shows that prolonged sitting doubles your chances of diabetes, heart disease and death.

To come up with this finding, Dr Emma Wilmot, a research fellow in the Diabetes Research Group at the University of Leicester, combined the results of 18 studies, with a total of 794,577 participants.

If you don’t think this applies to you, because you stand on your head every day, or run marathons, here’s the scary part:

 “The associations [between sitting and disease] were independent of the amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity undertaken, suggesting that even if an individual meets typical physical activity guidelines, their health may still be compromised if they sit for long periods of time throughout the day.”

No wonder, as Andre Picard wrote in the Globe and Mail: “Sitting is the new smoking.”

So how do we butt out if our jobs require us to sit?

Happily, it doesn’t take much.

“Prolonged sitting sharply reduces glucose and insulin secretion, key factors in developing diabetes,” Picard writes. “But these changes can be offset by standing up and walking two minutes for every 20 minutes of sitting.”

(Alert readers of this blog will note that medical science has officially caught up with the Pomodoro technique, invented by computer programmer Francesco Cirillo. He prescribes standing up and moving around for five minutes after every 25 minutes of focused deskwork.)

If you’re going to stand up and move around anyway, why not take a yoga break?

Click on the Five-Minute Yoga Challenge category, or enter Five-Minute Yoga Challenge in the search box at the top right hand corner of the page, and you’ll find 42 suggestions – 43 if you count today’s.

This one is simple, and office friendly – at least if you’re in an office that’s friendly towards taking your shoes off.

It’s also brief. You can easily do two repetitions, go get a glass of water, and be back at your desk in five minutes.

And it takes care of your feet, which is essential if you plan to keep on moving.

Check that the brick connects with the bottom edge of your toe mounds. Alan James photo.

Here’s how to stretch your feet on a wood brick:

Set a pair of wood bricks up at the wall, short ends facing out.

Place the sole of your foot, just below the line of the metatarsals, on the edge of the brick and stand on your heels.

You’ll feel an intense stretch in your calves and the backs of your ankles.

At first you’ll need to lean into the wall to keep your balance.

As you become accustomed to the sensation, begin to roll your buttock flesh down towards your heels, and bring your upper body away from the wall.

Look forward, rather than down.

Hold the stretch for 90 seconds, rest, and repeat.

I would never pretend that this is a comfortable stretch. It gets better with practice, but it’s always bracing.

The payoff, however, is huge. You’ll feel it in your first few steps ­– a light, open, energized feeling that comes from stretching the fascia on the soles of your feet, your Achilles tendons, and your calf muscles.

Besides, coming to terms with the intense stretch also gives you a safe, easily curtailed chance to practice managing discomfort.

Can you be there with your face soft and your breath easy? What’s it like to voluntarily move out of your comfort zone and stay there?

And that said, if it’s excruciating, try stretching one foot at a time. You might find that after the initial stretch, alternating feet, you’re able to move on to stretching both at the same time.

And when you sit down again, remember to set your timer.

Photo courtesy of Nicki Varkevisser, via Flickr


Mongolia? Death Valley? The southern tip of South Africa? Yup, those are exotic places to do yoga.

If you’d like to enter the contest to win a set of massage balls, there are still five days left. If you already entered, but the program wouldn’t let you put in the fill in the details, I apologize.  This is the first time I’ve used Rafflecopter, and I left a box un-ticked that I should have ticked. It’s fixed now, so please do enter again.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Okay, fireworks would be overkill. But massage balls? Nice.

Have you ever let a benchmark slip by unnoticed? If so, I think you’ll know how I feel.

Some time late in August, I noticed that we were bearing down on a thousand sales of the My Five Minute Yoga Practice iPhone app.

I was excited. One thousand of anything seems like a significant benchmark.

The background, for those who don’t know:

In the summer of 2011, with the help of my student, friend and technical wizard Dom Brecher, I launched a yoga app.

In 11 audio segments, with detailed photos synched to the words, it offers to help you put yoga into your day, in five-minute segments at first, but then, as your time and desire to practice expand, in longer sequences.

Every day I’d check the figures and watch them rise toward the dramatic number.

Then, early in September, when classes started up again, I mentioned the coming benchmark to Jen, who is married to Dom.

“Oh,” she said, “that happened a while ago.”

I have no doubt that Dom keeps better sales records than I do, so I believed her. I’d been waiting for another 25 sales, and here we were, already at 1011.

I confess to a slightly deflated feeling. But it was also September, and very, very busy.

Now that the autumn recalibration of life has settled, and in Canada, at least, we’ve devoted a weekend to Thanksgiving, I’d like to celebrate, and give thanks at the same time.

It’s not going to be on the scale of the fireworks display above.

But, thanks to the generous people at Halfmoon Yoga Products, I have three pairs of massage balls to give away.

This is cool for two reasons: massage balls are an integral part of one of my favorite ways to start a practice session – click through to see a video on exactly how it goes.

And once you have them, you’ll find yourself trying out other ways to let those soft little spikes release your muscles: hips anyone? IT bands?

One of the things that delights me most about the five-minute yoga app is the extraordinary range of places it goes to.

I expected to see it used in Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand – all English speaking places where yoga is alive and thriving.

But imagine my delight to learn that it’s also being used by people in:  Switzerland, Russia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Santa Lucia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Austria, Italy, Japan, Peru, South Africa, Belgium, Portugal, Thailand, Sweden and Qatar. (The sales record shows the country for each app purchased.)

So in the spirit of yoga wherever in the world you practice, here’s what to do if you’d like to win a set of massage balls.

Answer this question: what’s the most exotic place you’ve ever struck a pose? Bonus points if you can provide a photo.

Let me know if you have any problems with entering – I’ve never tried Rafflecopter before, so I’m nervous.

a Rafflecopter giveaway
Fireworks courtesy of Nigel Howe via Flickr

cute petro glyph

Clearly this stick figure has just had a lovely practice.

You walk out the door after yoga class, soothed, settled, and mysteriously both more grounded and lighter at the same time. A day passes, or perhaps two, and you have time to practice.

So what was that preparation for reverse triangle that made the full pose so much more accessible? What sequence led up to headstand? What was that restorative pose that felt so good? If you’re like most of us, you won’t have a clue – unless you took notes.

Ever since I was given my first diary at age nine (pink, with a lock), I’ve been keeping intermittent notes on almost everything, including yoga. I have more partially filled yoga notebooks than I’d like to admit to, most of them containing lists of poses.

Lately I’ve converted to making yoga notes with stick figures, and I think I’m on to something.

Here are five good reasons to start drawing:

1. Stick figures will help you remember what you learned in class. 

This is especially useful if you’re a beginning student, and suffering from yoga amnesia: you know it made you feel good; you just can’t remember how.

As soon as you can after class, jot down some quick drawings. Even drawing just one pose will help. With stick figures, you won’t need to know the Sanskrit names for the poses, and later on you won’t be wondering what you meant by “butterfly” pose either.

2. You’ll create a record of actions, not just of poses.

Despite being simple, stick figures can be very expressive. The varied thickness of the lines alone will remind you of how your chest expanded, or how your front thighs pushed back. I like to add arrows for emphasis, and brief annotations. With stick figures, what used to take me three pages of laborious typing can be conveyed in one page, in much less time, and in a more easily readable form.

3. When you draw stick figures, you experience the poses through different channels. The combination of eye, hand and memory lets me experience the pose again and take my understanding deeper.

4. If you’re keeping a practice record, or planning classes, seeing the practice in stick figures will show you the flow of the work in a way that words can’t match. Enough said.

5. Drawing stick figures is fun, and it can help you beat back your perfectionism. Children draw for pleasure, adults, not so much, especially once we start comparing what we draw to the professionally rendered imagery that surrounds us. I’ve tried much harder than you’d imagine possible to draw a convincing handle on a mug, and I still can’t do it. My sticks are rough and ready, and that’s okay by me. Sometimes I give them smiles.

If you Google “stick figures for yoga” you’ll find a lot of places to spend money online. Most of them offer collections of figures already drawn. Some of them you can modify by dragging the cursor, some are just meant to be copied into sequences. Yoga Flavored Life has a downloadable collection of 108 pleasant sticks for $27.

There’s even a free yoga stick figures font.

You can download a collection of 237 stick figure poses for free – or at least in return for signing up to an email list – at Kula Yoga. It’s worth doing – these sticks can be a helpful guide to drawing complex poses. But they don’t have the feel of Iyengar poses, and it might take you longer to find the stick figures on the chart than to draw your own.

Mikelle Terson’s How to Draw Yoga Stick Figures ($29.95)  is the most useful resource I’ve found. I bought it, which is why I also know that it’s bulky and heavy, and to have it mailed outside the US will cost you more than the book itself. If it ever becomes available as a download, I’ll let you know.

Ustrasana from Marlene Mawhinney's 40 Day Sadhana Manual

One less obvious stick-figure resource is eminent Canadian Iyengar teacher Marlene Mawhinney’s 40 Day Sadhana Manual.

It has lovely stick figures, with a real Iyengar feel to them. (And, as a not inconsiderable bonus, you’ll receive an excellent practice plan, whether you use it for a 40-day sadhana or not.) To order a copy of the manual, call the Toronto Yoga Centre, at 416-482-1334, or email yoga@yogacentretoronto.ca. Cost is $25, plus HST and shipping and handling.

Google “how to draw stick figures” without specifying yoga, and you’ll find some useful short videos that are worth watching.

But really, it’s not that complicated. Time to embrace your inner pre-historic artist. Get a sketch pad, pick up your pen, and you’re good to go.

Do you have a favorite way of recording your practice, or the classes you take? Do tell. I’d love to hear about it.

Petro glyph photo courtesy of Paul and Jill  via Flickr. 

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

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Can you do flow yoga while you’re sitting still?

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Life, Happiness and the Pursuit of Liberty?

So what comes first – freedom or happiness?

I’ve been thinking lately of something B.K.S. Iyengar wrote in Light on Life, his summary of yoga wisdom at the age of 87.

A great boon of yoga, even for relative beginners, is the happiness it brings, a state of self-reliant contentment.

Happiness is good in itself and a basis for progress. An unquiet mind cannot meditate.

A happy and serene mind allows us to pursue our quest as well as live with artistry and skill.

Does not the American Declaration of Independence talk of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?

If a yogi had written that, he would have said Life, Happiness, and the Pursuit of Liberty.

You can read the full section at ofspirit.com, or better yet, buy the book and read the whole thing.

Guruji’s  words sprang to mind after I watched Shawn Achor’s TED lecture on The Happiness Advantage. The lecture is funny, smart and well worth the 12 minutes and 30 seconds – and it’s embedded below, so if you have time, do check it out.

Achor talks about our old model for happiness: “if I work harder, I’ll be more successful, and then I’ll be happier.”

But, in fact, as soon as we succeed in one area, we reset the goal posts.

B.K.S. Iyengar, laughing

B.K.S. Iyengar at 90: apparently yoga does make you happy.

The student who works long and hard to balance in headstand in the middle of the room will be happy, but only until the next challenge – a longer holding, some variations, perhaps full lotus in headstand – comes into view.

If happiness is always on the other side of success, and success always moves, then we can never be consistently happy.

The new model, supported by extensive research in positive psychology (the study of happy, high-functioning people), is that first we need to be happy, then we’ll work more effectively, and that will increase our levels of success.

When our brains are in a positive state, as opposed to being negative, neutral or stressed, they release more dopamine, and dopamine not only makes you happier, “it turns on all the learning centres in your brain, allowing you to adapt to the world in a different way,” Achor says.

Achor’s prescription for increasing happiness:

• noting three new things a day that you’re grateful for,

• writing about one positive experience a day,

• meditating, to still the multi-tasking mind,

• exercising, “to show that what you do matters,” and

•  practicing random acts of kindness.

 A full yoga practice includes exercise, meditation, and the conscious effort to act with kindness toward all beings – three out of five.

And in my experience, gratitude tends to rise spontaneously as we see what practice brings to our lives.

No wonder yoga has such power to make us happy.

Life, happiness and the pursuit of liberty?

It makes sense: unhappy people can never be free, because they are always bound by the need to change whatever they perceive is the cause of their unhappiness.

But, as Guruji writes, “if freedom comes from disciplined happiness, there is the possibility of true liberation.”

Here’s the TED lecture. Enjoy.

Statue of Liberty photo courtesy of Allie_Caulfield, via Flickr.