Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah

It may look like I invited a two year old to play on my computer, but this phrase is actually the second of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. T.K.V. Desikachar's translation is as follows: "Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions." And you thought you needed flexible muscles to practice yoga! Release your perception that Yoga can only be practiced on a mat, with sweat dripping down your face, contorting into pretzel-like shapes. Yoga can be practiced anywhere, anytime, if we subscribe to Patanjali's definition.

My dad recently underwent a very painful surgery to repair spinal stenosis in his cervical spine. My mother and I kept vigil in the waiting room until Dr. Robbins, a longtime family friend, emerged from the surgery wing to tell us that the operation was successful. An hour later, after my mom spent some time with him in recovery, my dad requested my presence. I nervously went to his side, took his hand and asked how he was feeling. The pain was acute (as you can imagine), but he had asked the nurse not to give him the pain meds until after he was able to visit with my mom and I. He told me then that he had used meditation to handle the pain, thereby terrifying the nurse, who was concerned that his breathing was shallow, his face so calm and his demeanor relaxed. "You're not doing that meditation stuff on me, are you?" she asked.

My dad now faces a long recovery that includes being in a neck brace for six weeks, without being able to turn his head or look down. He will be in a chair much of the day, and have to rely on my saint of a mother for almost everything. He cannot ride in a car for four weeks, or lift anything heavier than two pounds. But even in the hospital, when his legs started to cramp, he got up and did a modified Warrior pose. He used meditation, which he has been practicing for years to help him deal with the chronic pain in his back, to still his restless mind and body. And when his patience runs out, and he gets frustrated with being laid up, it'll be mom's turn to practice some deep breathing and understanding!

Meditation need not be a mystical experience that only the highly evolved can achieve. Meditation is simply sitting with what is, without trying to escape or grasp onto what was or what is to be. Becoming fully present and accepting what is happening now... we all have the ability to do this. Jon Kabat-Zinn explains meditation this way: "...meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It's about feeling the way you feel. It's not about making the mind empty or still, although stillness does deepen in meditation and can be cultivated systematically. Above all, meditation is about letting the mind be as it is and knowing something about how it is in this moment. It's not about getting somewhere else, but about allowing yourself to be where you already are."

I am relieved whenever I read this passage by Kabat-Zinn. Sometimes, I exist in chaos, with my mind working a mile a minute, and I feel far away from the practice of yoga and the serenity of meditation. Isn't it nice to know that simply being aware of your current state, even if it's not perfectly calm, is the practice. It's not about changing who or what you are, it's just about being who you are. As my dad says "it's a practice, not a perfect."

Next time you take a yoga class, use the few minutes before class begins to sit or lie on your mat, close your eyes and just be. The room might be loud with students coming and going, mats being slapped down or friends greeting one another, but you can be quiet and introspective. When you truly arrive in yourself, in body, mind and spirit, you are practicing Patanjali's Yoga, and the healing can begin.

Meditating before my wedding last year, as captured unbeknownst to me by my father.


ode to a home practice.

Upward Facing Dog? 
I remember my first home practice. After a particularly grueling day in New York City, I couldn’t muster the energy to make it to my usual class, so I decided to roll out my mat at home. It required some creativity on my part to maneuver my furniture in order to carve out a moderate amount of space in the the 190 square foot apartment I called ‘home’. This first home practice liberated me: from any competitive feelings that arose in class, from my need to please the teacher, and allowed me to explore poses in my own way. I wasn’t teaching then, so I made it up as I went along, recalling sequences that I loved from previous classes. Thus began my love-affair with home practice. As an actor, I took this practice ‘on the road’…. my mat traveled all over the country with me, from California to Florida, and everywhere in between, and helped me feel grounded during times of transition and vulnerability.
As I prepare for the birth of my first baby, home practice has been my saving grace. Spending time on my mat has kept me feeling strong and limber, both in body and mind. No matter what stage of life you are in, a home practice can provide physical relief, mental release and an energetic lift. Allow me to share with you tips for a successful home practice.
1. Dedicate a time and space for your yoga practice. Turn off your cell phone, television, computer. Set up your mat and any props you will need, and make your space inviting and calm by lighting a candle or two, opening the window or playing music. Communicate with the people who live with you that you will be unavailable to them for however long you intend to practice. This last bit is easier said than done if you have small children (or pets!) at home. Whenever I unroll my mat, my pup Huck takes this as an invitation to plop himself down. While practicing uttanasana (forward fold), he’ll play with my ponytail, then walk between my limbs inspecting my downward dog (he is the expert, after all). I’ve learned if I put his favorite bed right in front of my mat, he is content to settle in and observe my practice. Sometimes it is impossible to carve out time alone, so invite your child, partner, parent or pet to join you in your practice!
2. Integrate distractions into your practice: We cannot control the many variables of life. If the doorbell rings, your child starts crying or something comes up that takes you away from your asana practice, attend to these distractions as part of your meditation practice. Move with intention and awareness. Listen with one-pointed focus. Soothe your baby with the rhythm of your ujjai breath. The practice of yoga is here, now.
3. Start at the beginning: With the breath! Sit quietly for a few moments, with a long spine and soft face. Breath deeply. Perhaps this is all you have time for today: that is a perfect practice.
4. Surya Namaskar: A simple way to begin the asana practice is with the Sun Salutation. This moving meditation energizes the body, engages many of the major muscles groups, moves the spine into flexion and extension and encourages a mind/body/breath connection. If you are short on time, you can practice Surya Namaskar 1-5 times and receive immediate benefits. For tutorials on how to practice this sequence, pay close attention in your next class or see this link (this is the modified variation of Surya Namaskar, which is similar to what we practice in my class): http://www.yogajournal.com/livemag/lmcontent/5
5. Practice safely! Practice poses you know well and can do with ease. If you’ve always wanted to try headstand, ask your teacher to guide you through this pose before trying at home. If you know you require a prop to practice an asana safely, modify with what you have available.
6. Invest in props. My life changed when I received a bolster as a Christmas gift, thereby enabling me to practice supta baddha konasana at any time. I now have an arsenal of gear at home to support me. When you have props at home, you will be able to practice with greater ease my favorite type of home practice….
7. Restorative. Many of us find our way to yoga in order to de-stress and de-compress. Restorative yoga assists in re-educating the body, mind and nervous system on a deeper level, taking you from a stress state (sympathetic response) to a de-stressed state (parasympathetic response).  While props add to this experience, there are many restorative poses that require nothing but a wall or floor. My favorites: viparita karani (legs up the wall) or simple savasana (corpse pose). For a fancier restorative practice, read Judith Lasater’s book Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times. This incredible book details which poses address your particular challenge, and succinctly explains how to use props to support you.
8. Not all yoga is physical. Svadhyaya, self-study, is an important component in a well-rounded practice. Reading books about yoga or meditation is a lovely way to complement your physical work, and gently reminds you that asana, while a cornerstone of our practice, is not the only way to experience Yoga. Books I’ve found particularly enlightening include: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, The Heart of Yoga (by TKV Desikachar) and Wherever You Go, There You Are (by Jon Kabat-Zinn) to name a few. So, breathe in the bouquet of a delicious cabernet and settle in with a book for a delightful evening of self-reflection and study.
Yoga is not a practice that requires the perfect outfit, the fanciest mat or even a teacher…. The only requisite is to show up; on your mat, in your life, with your loved ones and not-so-loved ones. Take a deep breath and be guided moment by moment by your deepest, most authentic self. This is the practice of yoga, in the studio, in the home or out in the world.