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statue of Dr. Seuss character, in bronze

"Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!" Dr. Seuss

One of the conundrums we face as beginning yoga students is that we can’t know what the pose is supposed to feel like until we’re doing it.

But if you start with the standard issue collapsed chest and tight shoulders of a 21st century desk worker, how can you even begin to know how large and expansive your ribcage needs to be?

One answer: a fabulous, yet inexpensive prop, the imaginary sticky mat.

I found mine last week  in Louie’s Wednesday morning class, and I’ve been using it ever since.

Once you’ve learned to use yours, it will help you stretch your shoulders, expand your side ribs, breathe better and let go of anxiety.

Here’s how it works:

Lie down on your back with your legs up the wall.
Make sure that your back rests easily on the floor.
If your hamstrings are long, you can have your buttocks at the wall.
If they’re short and your buttocks are at the wall, your pelvis will be light on the floor, or even lifted. Move away from the wall until you are well grounded.

Now spread the skin on the soles of your feet, from the big toe side to the little toe side. Spread the skin on your heels. Separate your toes.
Press both your big toe mound and your heel toward the ceiling.
Lift your inner arches toward the ceiling, and draw your outer arches down toward your outer ankles.
From this action in your feet, you’ll feel your legs come alive.

Take your arms overhead. Stretch your arms to their maximum. Reach out to hold the sticky mat. Have your thumbs under the mat, so your palms face each other.

stretch a sticky mat with legs up wall

Pull the mat away from the wall as strongly as you can.

Grip the mat and pull it away from the wall as though you wanted to rip it in two. Extend particularly on the thumb side of your hand.

You’ll find the effect dramatic: legs press the wall, arms extend, back body lengthens, and belly presses to the floor.

In this position, notice your shoulder blades.
As you stretch your hands away from your shoulders, begin to pull your shoulder blades away from your hands.
Hold for a few breaths.

Then let go of the mat and slowly bring your arms, elbows straight, to shoulder width apart.

Stay aware of your elbows. If they start to bend, don’t take them closer together. Instead, find the place where your elbows can be straight, and stay there.

Palms facing each other, thumbs touching the mat, spread your palms and roll your inner upper arms toward your ears.
Stay for a breath or two, then release your arms to your sides and relax.

Bend your knees, roll to the right hand side and come up to sitting.
You can just stand up, or, for a pleasant transition, move through child’s pose into downward dog, then walk your feet forward to standing forward bend, and roll up.

Now roll out your imaginary yoga mat.

With your feet hip distance apart, bring your arms up, with your hands as wide as the imaginary mat.
Grip the sides of the imaginary mat, and pull. Lengthen up particularly through the thumb side of your hand.
You’ll be surprised by what happens. Your arms will reach to heights never before experienced, and your side ribs will stretch.
Once you have your full stretch, draw down on your shoulder blades.
Then let go of the imaginary mat, and open your hands so your palms face each other.
Slowly bring your arms shoulder distance apart.
Keep your elbows straight.
Stay, breathe, and when you’re ready, turn your palms toward the floor and slowly lower your arms, lifting your ribcage as you bring your arms down.

Imagine taking this expanded chest into the rest of your poses, and your life: “Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”

Photo credits, Robert Gray, Mary Balomenos.

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Lord, it’s hard to be humble

Perhaps not exactly what's meant by humility.

Right off the bat, I’ll admit that I don’t know much about humility.

It’s not a virtue I’ve ever cultivated. In fact, I only started thinking about it on Monday, while I was reading a piece called Yoga, Our Mirror, by Montreal Iyengar teacher Carla Ramirez. (It’s in French online. I was lucky enough to be reading a good English translation.)

The gist is that the three qualities we need for our practice are willpower, intelligence and humility.

The first two I get. But humility?

Personally, I’ve never felt the need to cultivate humility in my practice, because humility thrives there all by itself. Every time I fail to kick up into arm balance, wobble in a standing pose, or lose my core and flop in Chaturanga, my practice humbles me, no further effort required.

But on Monday, I thought: “What does humility mean, anyway?” and Googled the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Imagine my surprise to read that humble, and hence humility, comes from the Latin humus, earth.

Every gardener will share my thrill. Humus is not dirt, gravel or rocks. Humus is the life-filled, life-giving layer of soil that supports us all.

Then I realized that all along I’d had a mistaken idea of what humility might be.

This is not entirely my fault. Humility has a bad name.

We take it as false humility, exemplified by the unctuous Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield.

Or we confuse it with self-hatred. The branching tree of horrors provided by Roget’s Thesaurus includes: abasement, self-abasement; submission, sense of shame, sense of disgrace; humiliation, mortification.

But by the root definition, on the earth, or of the earth, we are all humble, all rising from, sustained by, and returning to the earth. We are so “of the earth” that we would not live without micro-organisms in the soil that come into our bodies through the plants and plant-fed animals we eat. They constantly cycle through our bodies, in this giant life transfer in which we’re engaged.

The question isn’t “are you humble?” You are.
The question is: “do you recognize it and see the implications?”

I think now that humility means recognizing our earth roots, and the earth roots of everyone else, knowing that we are not, in essence, greater than, lesser than, or even separate from, the rest of life.

So as part of my continuing yogic assignment of self-study, I plan to  spend some time thinking about it.

For example, is what I’ve called “humility” in my practice really just the hyper-critical voice of self-abasement? What would real humility look like?

One answer, from French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil: “Humility is attentive patience.”

Maybe I’ll work with that for a while.

What do you think? Is humility a virtue you strive for? And do you have a good definition, or a favorite quotation? Please share.

Photo credit: Brett Jordan, via Flickr.


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Place the tennis balls in the meaty part of your upper back, one of each side of your spine, close to your spine.

As yoga props go, tennis balls are close to unbeatable: inexpensive, widely available, and supremely effective.

True, you will never find an ancient Vedic seal with a yogi rolling on a tennis ball, and there is no traditional Wilson-asana.

But a few regular minutes of rolling on tennis balls every day could change your upper back, not to mention your hamstrings, forever. And that can’t help but improve your practice.

For example, spend five minutes rolling the soles of your feet on a tennis ball, and your reach in a standing forward bend will most likely improve by as much as two inches.

Lie on the floor for five to 10 minutes, roll just the area of your spine between your neck and the bottom of your ribcage, and you’ll  ease hours of desk work out of your back.

Roll down your spine to your sacrum, then move gently from side to side to release your pelvis.

And if you’re a connoisseur of intense sensation, you can roll on a tennis ball placed in the hollow of your hip. (I prefer a soft version of this ball for working my hips. If you find tennis balls too harsh for your back, and some people do, you might give these a try.)

Furthermore, ball rolling is easy.

Although it does takes practice to keep the tennis balls close to your spine, you’ll still feel the benefits on your first try, and it won’t take you long to be an expert.

The only way you can do it wrong is to overdo. Stick to 10 minutes a day and you’ll be fine.

Here’s how:
Lie down either on a carpeted floor, or at one end of your sticky mat. (On a wood floor, the ball will just slide.)
Place the tennis balls as they are shown in the photo, as high on your back as you can, on either side of your spine.
Then pause, wait, and breathe.
If the sensation is too much, or your head hangs awkwardly, use your hands to lift your head.
If you want more sensation, lift your pelvis.
Then roll from a half-inch to an inch toward your head.
Pause, wait, and breathe.
Use your exhalations to release your muscles around the tennis balls.
When you come to a spot that’s particularly intense, stay and breathe.
Given time, the spot will release and soften.

If you only have five minutes, then stay in the area between the bottom of your neck and the bottom of your shoulder blades.
If you have more time, you can still stay in the upper back, or roll a little farther and explore your sacrum and hips.

Here’s the most important instruction of all:
When you’re done, take the tennis balls out and let your back relax on the floor. Spend at least three breaths, more if you can, basking in the sensation of a soft and fluid back.

Photo by Mary Balomenos

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Wrecked by yoga: a personal story

Do you think yoga might be dangerous? Had you realized it could be this dangerous?

So now The New York Times wants to tell me that yoga can wreck my body. Big whoop.

For years now, I’ve known how dangerous yoga can be.

Yoga took over my mind, rearranged my priorities, changed my career path, and rewrote my  life pattern.

And like someone who does a faulty practice for years before seeing the results, I never saw it coming.

When I took up yoga, I knew what I wanted: mental clarity, emotional stability, physical strength, flexibility, and the ability to do cool things like touch my head to my knees in a seated forward bend.

Slowly, without me noticing, things changed.

After a few years, I was just in it for the asanas. I wanted to learn them, achieve them, refine them.
Why? Because I wanted to, that’s why. They became their own justification. I was happy to have the benefits, but they were by-products.

When I started, I took one class a week, then two, then every workshop that came to town and several out-of-town retreats.
Then a friend who couldn’t find a substitute teacher asked me to teach a beginner’s class one Saturday morning, and I was hooked: no longer just a carefree student; I crossed over into teaching.

Something else happened. In the beginning I shrugged off yoga philosophy as boring and irrelevant. All I wanted was the deepening connection with my body. Then, several years ago, I found a translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that spoke to me. A rough count of my bookshelf? I now have nine translations of the Yoga Sutras, one of which is always in use.

These days yoga takes pretty much all of my time: teaching, practice, taking classes, studio administration. Four years ago I started writing simple practice tips. Two years ago, I started this blog. Now yoga takes my writing time too.

There is not much in my life, from my wardrobe to the way the space in my house is allocated, that hasn’t been touched by yoga.

I am only insanely happy about this every once in a while.

Most of the time, it’s work, and beyond work, tapas – intense devotion not just to physical practice, but to all of the limbs of yoga.

I do not feel good unless I do a practice, and it always has to include a shoulder stand.

Because of yoga, I need to be upside down for some portion of every day. Because of yoga, I can’t bear to work at a desk and not stretch out my shoulders when I get up. Because of yoga, I’ve stopped hurrying, almost all the time.

Because of yoga I have a set of exacting, unreachable moral standards to hold to and another list of off-the-mat practices – cleanliness, contentment, tapas, self-study and surrender – to try to abide by.

When I was seven, I didn’t want to grow up to be a yoga teacher, in part because when I was seven, “yoga teacher” was not a career option.

But yoga, dangerous, life-altering yoga, wrapped its tentacles around me and dragged me into its embrace.

So despite the drama – strokes! nerve damage! – I find it hard to take William J. Broad’s article too seriously.  (Leslie Kaminoff’s video is an excellent and detailed criticism of the article from someone who knows yoga and anatomy.)

The lesson I took away? Find a good teacher. Be a good student.

You can read about the long training and careful supervision of certified Iyengar yoga teachers on the Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada’s website, as well as a response to the New York Times article from IYAC president Lynne Bowsher.

Ask what your teacher’s qualifications are. Know that 200 hours is a drop in the bucket, and that registration with Yoga Alliance is no guarantee of quality.
Expect to be seen and corrected in the poses. Avoid teachers who do their own practice at the front of the class and call out helpful suggestions.
Avoid aggressive teachers. Learn to recognize aggression in your own practice, and let go of it.

I’m inclined to just watch all the controversy drift past, like clouds in an ever-changing sky. Twenty-five years ago, when yoga began taking over my life, it was roundly ignored in the popular press. Then it was the butt of jokes. Then it was glorified. It had to be demonized eventually.

I know I should be working up more of a froth, but somehow I can’t. And I think I know why.
Years ago I saw a cartoon of a man who had just hit his thumb with a hammer, a thumb that was swollen out of all proportion and vibrating with pain.

In his conversation balloon, the man asks his wife: “Hey, remind me, what’s that thing your uncle says when he gets mad?”

The caption? “Too much yoga.”

Photo courtesy of istolethetv, via Flickr.

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Cute mice, and very Christmasy, but making them can be a pain in the back.

I love to make Christmas cookies, the more intricate the better.
This means long periods of standing on a tile floor, leaning forward to perform the delicate, focused work of creating mushrooms out of meringue, painting chocolate eyes on sugar-cookie mice and shaping dough into “coffee beans” for Cappuccino Shortbreads. (Scroll down on that page for the recipe.)

But by the time I’ve measured, shaped and cut a shallow groove into 66 shortbreads, I can feel a burning pain between my shoulder blades, a pain so strong that I have to stop what I’m doing and take care of it.

It would be lovely if yoga could prevent the pain. It doesn’t.
But it has taught me what to do about it.

Take it slow. Ground your sitting bones, lift on the inhalations and turn on the exhalations.
If time is extremely short, then I’ll twist in a chair, a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge from a year or so ago.
It’s a simple twist, but surprisingly effective.

To make it work, you have to sit down and truly immerse yourself in your body. Slow down, stop thinking about anything else, and walk yourself into the twist, step by step.
Set a timer for two minutes on each side – you’ll be surprised how long that can be.
Then follow the basic rules of the twist: first elongate your spine, then twist. And keep your chin in line with the centre of your sternum.

If you have 15 minutes, try this:

1. Lie down on the floor with your legs up the wall. Make sure your whole back is settled on the floor. Then with every exhalation, breath out through your back into the floor. Stay for two to three minutes.

2. With your knees together, slide your feet down the wall. Gently draw your knees toward your chest. You’ll feel your lower back soften and stretch even more.

3. Come away from the wall and do a soft supine bent-knee twist (Jathara Parivartanasana). 
Lie down on your back with your arms at shoulder height. Bring your knees to your chest. Keep the inner knees touching. If they don’t touch, put a chip foam block between your knees.

Now exhale and aim your knees at your right shoulder. Keep your left shoulder on the floor, and the left side of your ribcage resisting away from your knees.

Have a bolster or blocks nearby to put under your thighs as you turn. When you come to the first limit of your twist, rest your thighs on the support, and stretch away through the left rib cage and arm. Stay and breathe until you feel some release. Change sides.

Check that your shoulders are being tugged away from your ears and your lower back is long before you straighten your legs.

4. Stretch backwards over a rolled up blanket, a bolster or bricks. Whatever chest opening you choose, make sure it’s comfortable from the beginning, but gives you room to go deeper when your upper back releases.
One way to do that: place a chip foam block or blocks under your head when you first come into the chest opening. Then, as your spine stretches, take some or all of the height away.
Make sure you feel the stretch in your upper back, and that your lower back stays long. Extend your buttocks towards your heels.

5. Repeat the supine bent-knee twist (3). Keep it soft.

Work to lengthen your thoracic spine in child's pose.

6. Child’s pose. Sit on your mat, big toes together, knees apart, buttocks resting on your heels. Keeping your buttocks as close to your heels as possible, walk your arms forward. As your buttocks and thighs continue to move back, elongate the sides of your chest forward.
For added chest opening put yoga bricks under your hands. Press down into the bricks, pull your upper arm bones back toward your shoulders, and stretch your spine forward.

7. From child’s pose, come to kneeling and press up into downward facing dog pose. In the pose, lift your forearms away from the floor, and press your back ribs deeper into your chest to increase the opening of your upper back.

Use whatever height you need under your hands to keep your legs straight.

8. Walk your feet forward and your hands back into standing forward bend (Uttanasana). Have your feet as wide as the mat, heels separated so no mat color shows along the outer edge of your foot.
Use bricks – or whatever else you might need – under your hands so your legs can be straight.
Press down through your outer arches and your inner heels. Lift your inner ankles and your kneecaps. Roll your front thighs toward the centre, your back thighs toward your outer legs.
Let your upper body elongate toward the floor.
Stay for a minute or two, then bring your hands to your thighs, press in and swing up.

Then it’s back to the baking, or wherever else your holidaymaking takes you.

I plan to take a Christmas break.
Next week, I’ll be too absorbed by the project of making a Christmas bombe with my nephews to write anything coherent about yoga.
And the week after, if memory serves, I’ll be in the beached whale days, digesting, reflecting, and wanting only to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea.

In the meantime, I’ll be announcing winners of the Priority Matrix apps on Facebook, and musing about plans for the new year, including a collection of all of the Five-Minute Yoga Challenges in one handy ebook.

I wish you all a happy holiday, and a new year filled with the light of yoga.

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

Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: hang your head to free your neck

Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: clasp your hands to open your shoulders

Five-Minute Yoga Challenges: press your outer feet down to lift your inner ankles

The ladder of success was not crowded at the top; did I set it against the wrong building?

In fact, I never expected a crowd, and I like it here at the top of my ladder.

I did it. I met my commitment to do shoulder stand every day for 90 days.

Day one wasn’t glorious. Neither was day 90. There were days when my entire practice was seven minutes draped over a chair.
However, mostly it’s been good. I stay longer and do more variations than when I started my 90 days.
Last Friday I spent 22 minutes in happy clarity, and even began to nibble at the edges of “side embryo pose” (Parsva Pindasana in Sarvangasana).

I’m still digesting everything I learned in keeping this promise to myself. But I’m clear on at least five things:

1. Shoulder stand really is a pose for the entire body – just like the Sanskrit name, Sarvangasana, says. Sarva means all, anga means limbs, which makes it the “all limbs,” or “entire body” pose.
Yes, the work in the shoulders is the foundation.
But apart from the more subtle benefits of hormone balancing and immune system boosting, in the past three months I’ve noticed increased core strength, more strength in my upper arms and more space in my chest.
The surprise bonus: increased power in Chaturanga Dandasana, the yoga pushup.
I’m assuming that my new core strength comes from the time I spend in the sideways variations (Parsva Sarvangasana). No matter where it comes from, it feels like a gift.

2. Ninety days is enough time to create a habit, by which I mean a behavior so entrenched that it feels uncomfortable if I don’t do it.
I’ve been told that 21 days will do the trick, and I suspect that might be true for a bad habit.
But to make something stick that is worthwhile but not easy, I need more time.
Now I have a good habit. Today is day 94, and I’m not planning to stop.

3. Daily practice is a spotlight.
After a rocky start 25 years ago as a beginner, when shoulder stand seemed to squeeze the breath out of my chest, I came to love the pose.
I’ve been happy in my shoulder stand for at least 10 years.
Apparently it looked pretty good from the outside too. In all of the workshops and classes I’ve taken, no one has done more than adjust for the unevenness in my right and left shoulders – the right one is stiffer and harder to place.
But within three weeks of daily practice, the truth popped out: I wasn’t working my outer shoulders, so I was taking too much weight into my neck.
It took a new setup, and a new preparation in plow pose to move me closer to doing the right actions in the pose.

4. Shoulder stand translates directly into seated pranayama.
Yes, it teaches the chin lock (Jalandhara Bandha). But as I found while sitting at my outward facing corner on Saturday morning, the day after the best shoulder stand ever, there’s much more to it than that.
All of the actions you take to keep your chest lifted and expanded for breathing live in shoulder stand: the upper arms roll out and press back; the elbows draw down; the bottom edges of the shoulder blades pull toward the spine from the outer edges; the shoulder blades move down the back.
All you have to do is imagine yourself rotated in space, and sitting turns into shoulder stand – especially so if you’re doing lotus variations.

BKS Iyengar in Parsva Pindasana in Sarvangasana

BKS Iyengar in Parsva Pindasana in Sarvangasana: This could take a long time to achieve, given where I'm starting from.

5. Shoulder stand is a bit like outer space. No matter how far you go, you won’t reach the end of it.
The truth is that I chose it in September because it was the only inverted pose I could see myself doing every day.
After 94 days, I’m fascinated by it.
I would like to perfect all of the variations. Eventually I would like to learn to work flat on the floor.
Even then I don’t see an end to exploration. How could there be an end?

This is the all-limbs, whole-body pose, and there’s no end to bringing intelligence into the body.

As impossible as it might seem, January is on its way.
Is there a yoga challenge that you would take on in the new year? And what do you think would be a help with that?

Photo by Alosh Bennett, via Flickr.

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If I were castaway on Modriki Island in Fiji – site of the Tom Hanks movie – I'd be doing shoulder stand.

If I ever had to pick just one pose to do for the rest of my life, I’d have no hesitation: I’d choose shoulder stand, all the way.

Why does it make my list as my ultimate desert-island pose?

Shoulder stand soothes my nerves, improves my breathing, balances my hormonal system, boosts my immune system, and aids my digestion.

Add the variations, and shoulder stand gives me a full practice of forward bends, leg stretches, back bends, twists, abdominal strengtheners and hip openings, as well as, of course, an inversion.

But here’s the rub: it takes time and practice to build the awareness, not to mention the strength and flexibility in your shoulders, to do it properly.

Too often we let the weight fall onto the back of our necks, and, as I discovered earlier in my trek towards 90 days of shoulder stand, we pay the price.

My solution so far has been a better setup, that not only makes my shoulders take more of the weight, but also trains them in the right action.

But in the last few weeks, I’ve made a great leap forward.

Often in Iyengar yoga we use plow pose as a way to enter shoulder stand. Feet overhead, on the floor or on a support, we press down into the upper arms to lift the spine.

But how do you get the lift? When you press down and lift up, you have to lift everything – not just your spine, but your buttocks and thighs too.

First rest your thighs and relax in the pose

A few weeks ago, I started coming into shoulder stand in plow pose supported by a chair.
Pressing my feet into the chair and staying for a minute or two made the transition more gradual, the inversion less dramatic.

One low-energy day, I pulled the chair close enough to rest my thighs.

I felt like a cartoon light bulb had switched on, right over my head.

With the thighs, or bent knees, resting on the chair, the chair takes the weight of the lower body, which lightens the shoulders.

When you press down with your arms to lift your spine, the lift is phenomenal.

There’s nothing new here. I’ve done all of these actions before. But combining supported thighs with working my arms to lift my spine, was like having super powers.

I came into shoulder stand with the base of my neck clear of the blankets, and all of the weight in my shoulders and arms.

Here’s how to try it yourself:

Roll your inner upper arms to the ceiling and lift your spine

Set up with a chair nearby. You can always push it away later, for one-legged variations. Make sure you don’t have a sticky mat under the chair, or it will be hard to bring it closer, and to push it away.
Check your position on your setup – shoulders an inch from the edge is good – and come into plow pose.
Pull the chair in close enough that it can support your thighs. (If you’re in the range of six feet or taller, then put a bolster on the chair to achieve a healthy height for your spine.)

First, relax and get used to being inverted.
Take your arms out at shoulder height, higher than mine are in the picture, and broaden your upper back.

keep your upper arms rotating outward and turn your palms to the floor

When you’re ready to go further, bring your strap around both elbows. Then, palms facing up, roll your inner upper arms toward the ceiling – as strong an outward rotation as you can manage.

Press your elbows down and lift your spine even higher

Then rotate just your forearm and your palm toward the floor. Press your forearms down as firmly as you can, and at the same time, lift your spine away from the floor.

When you have achieved maximum lift, bend your elbows, with your palms facing your back and press down even more.

You’ll be tempted to bring your hands to your back.
Instead, pause there, and press down with your upper arms and elbows to find yet more lift in your spine.

When you finally place your hands on your back and come into shoulder stand, you’ll be surprised at how deeply you can bring your hands toward your shoulder blades.

Fijian beach photo by courtesy of Christian Haugen, via Flickr.  Asana photos by Mary Balomenos.

•   •   •   •   •

If you meant to get your entry in to win a copy of  Priority Matrix organizing software, for iPhone or iPad, but somehow didn’t get to it, there’s still time.

(Read all about my current love affair with a time management system that lets me use my favorite organizing tool – the four quadrants –  in last week’s post.)

You have until December 4 to “like” the Five-Minute Yoga Facebook page, and to leave a comment on Facebook, or on this blog.

lGive me a description of your organizational style – one word will do if you’re pressed for time – and tell me which platform you use, iPhone or iPad.

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

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Disarm practice resistance with small steps,  and Viparita Karani: Five-Minute Yoga Challenge


Blurry image? It’s not your eyes. Double click to see it larger and clearer.

What this doesn't show is the list of lists along the left side, and all the cool ways to modify items on the right.


A few weeks ago, I fell in love with a time management app.

This is not as odd as it may sound for a yoga teacher.

I’ve been fascinated by organizational systems for as long as I can remember. I suspect it’s because I’m an Olympic level procrastinator, always in search of ways out of that particular Hell.

My new love is called Priority Matrix.

It runs on iPhone, iPad and Mac, synchs between all three, and gives you a fluid, customizable tool for working with my favorite time-management system, the one based on four quadrants.

You can make as many lists as you like, so each separate project can be analyzed into its own four quadrants. For the daily or weekly list, all you need to do is pull the top priorities out of each of your projects when you make your plans.

You can change the colors of the quadrants, pick different icons for different tasks, make quadrants larger or smaller, set deadlines, note the percentage of completion on a project: it’s an organizing geek’s dream.

Priority Matrix uses “critical” and “immediate” to define the quadrants. As their website has it:

  1. Critical & Immediate — DO NOW!
  2. Critical & Not Immediate — Start Planning…
  3. Not Critical & Due Soon — Red Herring.. can you avoid?
  4. Uncategorized — Lets put it in my agenda, and figure it out later!

My own system, adopted from Stephen Covey, uses “important” and “urgent,” to define the quadrants, and has, as quadrant four,  “not urgent and not important,” a familiar place for procrastinators to find themselves.

By the time I had filled in my first weekly list – blog posts in quadrant one, yoga practice in quadrant two, and in quadrant four,  Plants vs. Zombies (you’d be better off not clicking on that link) I was so in love that I wrote a fan letter.

As a result, I now have five iPhone and five iPad promo codes to share with the readers of this blog.

I’ll get to the details of how that will happen in a moment.

But first let me tell you about a fundamental shift in the way I think of yoga practice, and where it fits on the matrix.

When I was setting up the app, I confidently placed practice in the second quadrant, the spot for important tasks and activities with no deadline attached.

It seemed obvious, for all the reasons I outlined back in June: the benefits are huge, but no one will ever hold a gun to your head, literally or metaphorically, and demand that you do downward facing dog.

After two weeks of working with Priority Matrix, my practice now sits in Quadrant one.

Yes, this change has something to do with my commitment to 90 days of shoulder stand. (I’m on day 80 today, and all is well.)

I had added a daily deadline, which automatically makes it an immediate task.

But I don’t intend to move my practice out of Quadrant one after December 5.

What  I’ve  come to realize is that as far as yoga practice is concerned, there is really only the present. Our bodies are different every day.

Today’s practice can’t be moved to tomorrow, because the work of today will have vanished.

This is not, by the way, different from any other form of practice. What you would write today is not what you’ll write tomorrow. Your meditation practice of today won’t just move to tomorrow. Instead, your chance to process this moment, without reacting to it, will have vanished.

I’m not saying there can’t be yoga vacations, or planned days off.

But it’s a mistake to think of practice as something with no deadline attached.

There is a deadline. It’s midnight. It’s as unbending as the deadline for filing your taxes. It’s just not external.


•     •     •     •     •


If you’re interested in winning a copy of Priority Matrix, here’s what to do.

Like the Five-Minute Yoga Facebook page, if you haven’t already. You’ll find the box to the lower right hand side of the screen.

Then add a comment here, or on Facebook. Let me know whether you’re hoping for an iPad or an iPhone app. And give me a one-word description, or more if you’d like, of your organizational style, or your best organizing tip.

I’ll draw names from a hat on December 4, and announce the winners on December 8.


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If Albinus had been practicing Iyengar yoga, he might have be tempted to draw a strap across the tops of the femurs – it’s that useful.

In a forward bend with the legs parallel, the front thighs roll toward each other, the skin and muscles of the back thighs spread away from each other, and the sitting bones widen.
But while all this widening occurs, the tops of the thighbones, deep in the hip sockets, pull toward each other.

This should come as no surprise. There has to be an opposing action to all that spreading.

It’s an important action, too. Whenever the thighbones compact, they have the magical ability to lift the core body, all by themselves, with no hardening or gripping involved.

Once you learn the action, you can take it off your mat and into everyday life, lifting your core just a little, all the time. It’s a more effective strategy, I’d be willing to bet, than 100 crunches three times a week, with the rest of waking life conducted in a slouch of postural unconsciousness.

But as logical and important as it may be, there’s nothing easy about it.

That’s where the strap comes in.

Tied around the hollow of your hips, connecting with the greater trochanters – the points of the upper thigh bones that are most out to the side in Albinus’s elegant skeleton above – the strap focuses your awareness on the tops of your thighs, and gives you something to pull away from.

Do this Five-Minute Yoga Challenge without the strap, and you’ll still connect to the work of your feet and legs.
Add the strap and you’ll find a deeper understanding of how to compact your thighs, which is useful information for almost any pose.

There’s just one thing you have to know.
The magic of the thighs compacting can only happen when the buttocks are descending. If your buttocks are lifting, and your lower back is hollowed, you won’t get the same effect.

Take the strap around the hollows of your hips.

First, place the strap:
Stand up, and run your hand over your side hip. Notice the spot where you can press your fingers in most deeply, and feel the bone.

That’s your greater trochanter, the top of your thighbone. At its other end, angled slightly upward, is the ball of the ball and socket joint that makes up your hip.

Tie a strap around your hips with the strap on the greater trochanters. Make it firm but not tight. You’re looking for information, not a tourniquet.

Stand in mountain pose, with your feet hip distance apart.
Press your feet down, lift your kneecaps to firm your thighs, and press your top front thighs back.
Draw your buttocks down toward your ankles.
Then take your upper thighbones away from the strap, deeper into your hip sockets.
Notice how your lower abdomen tones and lifts.

Make sure to put your hands down first, then walk back to take your heels to the wall.

Now choose the support for your hands.
You need enough height under your hands that you can press the backs of your thighs into the wall without being in Hamstring Hell.

It could be bricks, if your hamstrings are on the loose side.
If you’re at the far end of the tight hamstring spectrum, use the seat of a chair.

With your hands on the bricks or the chair seat, step back and bring your heels to the wall, hip distance apart.

Line up your outer feet with the outside edge of the mat.
Press your feet down. Lift your kneecaps.
Roll your front thighs towards each other. Spread your back thighs against the wall. Try to get as much of your back thigh touching the wall as you can.

Draw your buttocks toward your heels.
Pull the femur heads away from the belt, deeper into your hip sockets.

If the right action is there, you will feel your belly rise, relaxed and of its own accord, toward your spine.

When your buttocks descend you can pull the femurs towards each other. When they rise, not so much.

Keeping your outer thighs drawn in and your front body long, come to your working place in forward bend, and release your head.

Stay for up to five minutes.

If that was your practice, you’ll find yourself refreshed from hanging your head in standing forward bend (Uttanasana) and with a new sense of liveliness in your legs. You can also enliven any time you spend standing in line, at the bank or the grocery store, by practicing the same action.

If you have time to play more, keep the strap on, and try stick pose, seated forward bend and a few standing poses.

You’ll find the strap improves your balance in reverse triangle – as long as you keep your buttocks drawing down.

Photo credits: Mary Balomenos.

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Use a strap around your hip crease to free your groins

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Well, at least it's coming into view – and who knows, I might just keep going.

Sixty-five days into 90 days of shoulder stand, I find myself thinking about a New Yorker cartoon I saw a long time ago, and by that I mean 30 years.

The drawing is of a street prophet, in beard and tattered robes, holding up a sign.

Instead of the expected message – “the end is nigh” – it reads: “It’s just going to continue and continue.”

It still makes me laugh, not just from reversed expectations, but also at the wry truth that as a message of doom, “it’s just going to continue and continue” could, depending on the circumstances, easily beat out “the end is nigh.”

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the pose itself that’s evoking prophecies of continuity.

In fact, it’s still changing. Here are a few of the ways:

I have a new sequence for the one-legged variations, suggested by this segment from BKS Iyengar’s 1976 video, Yoga The Ultimate Freedom.
Part of his sequence is to take one leg to the floor over head, then as he lifts that leg back into position, he extends the other one to the floor behind his hands. The pose he ends up in is one-legged bridge pose, and it’s a lovely thing.
I’ve taken to it, because I like the way it flows.

•  By happy accident, the day after realizing that my new, somehow unfinished feeling at the end of shoulder stand, was a craving for supported bridge pose, I listened to Geeta Iyengar’s July 25, 2008 pranayama class from the Ramamani Memorial Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune.

In the shoulder stand segment, Geeta had everyone use a bolster to support their feet in plow pose. At the end of the shoulder stand, they put the bolster vertical on the mat for bridge pose.
Head and shoulders on the floor, torso on the bolster, and legs on the shoulder stand platform: no fussy setup, and it’s exactly what my body wants.

I continue to use my Donald Moyer inspired shoulder stand platform, and I’m still delighted with it.
I would swear that the flesh at the back of my neck is less dense, and my shoulders feel freer.

I notice more quickly when I lose my awareness in the pose.  Because shoulder stand is comfortable for me, I can come to an effortless balance, a moment of dynamic equilibrium. Inevitably, that breaks up, and the pose starts to feel heavy. The problem is that the transition is subtle. Now I notice sooner that I’ve fallen asleep in the pose, and it’s time to rouse my shoulders, my buttocks and my legs.

In fact, the cartoon prophet and his sign popped up in a place I hadn’t quite expected.

It’s here: I made a commitment. I seem to be keeping it.  And somewhat to my surprise, I’m the same person, with the same habits as before, only now I do a shoulder stand every day.

I didn’t know I was expecting something else, but apparently I was.

Some part of me had been off spinning a story about how I would do a shoulder stand every day, and that discipline would seep into the rest of my life, turning me into a paragon of responsibility and organization.

It’s true that I am a smidgeon more mature because of this practice.
Now that “not having time” is no longer an option, I have to plan my day in advance. That means admitting I have more control over the way I spend my time than I sometimes like to pretend.

Otherwise, I remain the same imperfect me.

Apparently that’s just going to continue and continue.


Image courtesy of  Gene Hunt, via Flickr.

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