bell hooks and her first lines

I’m in love with Appalachian Elegy by bell hooks.

Not only are the poems in her collection gorgeous, the index of first lines is a poem in itself. Each line is like an asana (pose) in a fluid yoga sequence.

For a treat, read these lines aloud, even at a whisper at your desk.

again and again

all fields

all old souls

autumn ending

 

barren broken hills

blackbirds

bring Buddha

burning body of love

burning pain

 

clouds dressed in gray

 

daybreak

 

earth spirit

earth works

equine whispering

 

fierce grief shadows me

fierce unyielding winds

fierce winter cold

fire so hot

fly high

 

go high up

 

hard rain

harsh winter wind

hear them cry

heavy heart

here and there

 

in the gray blue wash of dawn

 

lingering twilight

listen little sister

 

mammoth caves

migrating birds

morning dawn

mud sliding down

my world is green

 

night moves

no crops grow

 

on hallowed ground

overlooking water

 

pink and white oleander

 

red beard

renegades roam here

returning to sacred places

ritual places

 

small horses ride with me

snow-covered earth

softly treading black bear

soil rich with lime

sometimes falling rain

stained black

stark stolen sky

star of david

straight ahead

sublime shadows of midnight

such then is beauty

sunken faces

 

take the

tap dancing

the glory in old barns

toward light

turtle islands everywhere

 

walking the long way home

when the dawn

when trees die

wilderness within

winds of fate

wingspan wide

with water

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Filed under good quotes, joy, poetry & yoga, time, yoga and nature

Poem: Flash Flood

Thank you, Cloud Appreciation Society, for publishing my poem “Flash Flood.”

Growing up, I spent summers with my grandmother, Helen Stephensen McBain, in Henderson, Nevada. This was long before Clark County was so built up and I practiced driving as teenager along the wide open roads.

Getting caught in a flash flood a real risk. Sheets of rain, seemingly instantaneous rivers of rainwater. The landscape transformed in minutes. Then…sun and dryness again. The wonderful drama of the desert environment!

 

Flash Flood
Clark County, Nevada

hand raised to the windscreen she
points a finger north at the sky—
plum-dark clouds convene

desert air plummets in degrees
I am cold

Looks ugly. Pull off the road.

we squat in the Ford like toads in a pan
the sky a stadium of stampeding masses
this old woman grabs my hand

with a breath the storm moves overhead
snaps like starched sheets spread on a bed
Interstate 95’s traffic stands still

blurred cars stop in the road
for seventy-two minutes
we’re all in separate cells

holding our horses amid the pell mell

 

From Alexa Mergen

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Life is one opportunity

“Now.” A little adverb that is key to yoga and life. Anything can happen in n-o-w.

Or nothing.

antlers

Shed antlers found in the forests of Maryland.

I love how this excerpt from Bei Dao’s poem gracefully places the reader in “now,” without using the word at all.

Don’t check the time.

the bell hanging on the deer’s antlers has stopped ringing

life is one opportunity

a single one only

whoever checks the time

will find himself suddenly old

Bei Dao, from “Untitled” in Rose of Time, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall

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What is “advanced” yoga?

It takes 10 years of steady practice, I’ve read, to become proficient at anything you do.

Think about what you do and enjoy–cooking, painting, gardening, rock climbing, swimming, raising chickens–and you’ll find some truth to the claim. 

In the yoga world, people often ask each other how long they’ve been at it. For some people, the asana (poses) come more easily, for others the meditation, for others the system’s ethical guidelines, such as kindness and generosity, are a natural fit.

More than 10 years ago, Michelle Marlahan started a small neighborhood yoga studio in Sacramento. She was ahead of the yoga craze, and its chain studios, that has since swept the United States. It’s All Yoga emphasizes the personal aspect of the practice, the process of getting to know oneself in order to move through the world with clarity. We call this svadhyaya.

Michelle has taught many people, and trained many yoga teachers (including me), so when I got curious about what it means to be advanced in a yoga practice, I asked her to share her experience and wisdom.

We’re talking about yoga here, but the concept of “advanced” is worth thinking about in whatever you pursue.

Thank you, Michelle!

It’s easy to equate growth, or “advancing,” in your yoga practice to doing fancier, more complicated poses. It’s a somewhat measurable factor – you might feel stronger and more flexible, allowing you to achieve poses that were hard in the beginning. The increasing popularity of yoga on forums like Instagram make it tempting to equate “advanced yoga” with photo of a beautiful woman in bright pants doing an extravagant cirque de solei pose. This can be confusing, intimidating and misleading.

Yoga is a life practice.

Yoga philosophy is an invisible support system, like the tree roots of the mighty oak. Qualities like honesty, self-knowledge and present moment awareness are personal experiences on and off the mat, making them harder to measure. So how can we tell when we are making progress?

Here are a few ways you might be aware of “advancing” in your practice:

1.  You have contentment and steadiness in a simple pose.

It’s tempting to gauge our improvement in practice to our ability to do technically difficult poses. There are many factors that contribute to our access or improvement in a pose:

Some people are put together with more loosely constructed bodies — more spacious joint sockets, more “flexible” muscles; other people are constructed with more fitted joints and less pliable muscles. (Think stereotypical ballerinas vs. football players.)

It matters what we do the other 23 hours of the day – our posture, habits and activities off the mat create patterns that affect our movement on the mat.

If we have prior injuries or physical considerations like a scoliosis, our options for range of movement might be affected.

Even basic needs like sleep and what we consume will affect our body’s ability to adapt and change.

Conversely, maintaining steadiness and breath in any pose – and the humility and patience it takes to find contentment in a simple pose – might be considered a more “advanced” practice than contorting or striving.

It is also worth mentioning that asana, or the poses, are just one of eight limbs or pillars of a yoga practice. There is a lot of emphasis on the physical poses in popularized yoga, but it is only a small portion of the larger practice. To base our advancement on one aspect out of eight is imbalanced.

James McNeill Whistler, Nude Standing with Legs Crossed, 1878, National Gallery of Art

2. You have more freedom and spontaneity in your breath.

Pranayama, or breathing practice, is another one of the eight limbs of Yoga. There are many intricate and powerful breathing techniques used to affect the energy and mind state.

Before you jump into this refined practice, consider this: Most of us have habits and patterns of holding in the body and breath from as far back as childhood. Activities like ballet, gymnastics and even sports can create postural restrictions that affect our breathing. Not to mention emotional factors that can create subconscious tendencies in the breath.

San Francisco Bay Area teacher Richard Rosen recommends spending the first three months (at minimum) of daily yoga practice simply watching the breath in an easy, restful posture, like Constructive Rest.

Through time and gentle attention, we can uncover the ways we inhibit or force the breath and eventually free the natural rhythm of our body’s intelligence.

If we don’t explore and free those layers of habit and holding before exploring breath techniques, we potentially put more limitation or control on top of something that is already constricted.

Additionally, without truly knowing our natural breath, we won’t be able to appreciate or understand the delicate and often powerful effects of a pranayama.

3. Instead of getting easier, the lessons get harder.

The spiritual path is hard. One way you might know your practice is working is the lessons get harder.

We have to continue to grow, and often growth is spurred by challenge.

Related, you might be more aware of your “darker” emotions like anger, jealousy, greed and judgment.

Being a yogini doesn’t mean you will have only kind, benevolent thoughts toward everyone.

You are increasing your awareness of your humanness and that includes the full spectrum of emotion.

Ultimately, yes, through this practice we become more forgiving and compassionate, and perhaps eventually life has a kind of ease or flow. But initially, many of us go through a period of challenge as we see ourselves and the world more honestly which includes knowing and welcoming all parts.

When I posed the question of “advanced” yoga to my studio community, responses included:

An attitude of openness to what is unfolding around me.

Taking a conscious breath before any action.

Using the kitchen countertop to get a leg up while watching water boil.

Advancing in your yoga practice is a personal endeavor and might not have anything to do with a posture. As the saying goes, it’s all yoga.

 

Michelle Marlahan owns and teaches at It’s All Yoga in Sacramento, CA, bringing yoga to the community for more than 10 years. Her new endeavor, The Altar of Nature, focuses the timeless wisdom of the earth to support healthfulness and wholeness through the priniciples of Ayurveda, essential oil therapy and good, old-fashioned listening.

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Filed under ahimsa, all about teaching, at home in the body, clarity, guest posts, movement

Green Power Pasta Sauce, Quick and Raw

Faced with a small mountain of late-spring spinach, I whipped up this Green Power Pasta Sauce.

It’s super healthy and quite tasty.

IMG_0021

From bottom to top, load in a blender carafe:

  • a generous splash of olive oil
  • a few cloves peeled garlic
  • a little fresh onion (spring onion)
  • a few leaves of fresh basil (if available)
  • a small handful of sliced almonds
  • a squirt of fresh lemon juice
  • one can good quality small white beans, drained
  • handfuls of fresh clean baby or small spinach

Blend until smooth, adjusting flavors and quantities as needed. Season with sea salt and black pepper.

The sauce is served over cooked whole wheat/flaxseed angel hair pasta. I tend to stay away from any kind of modified noodle. But this stuff is really good; we eat it regularly now.

This sauce could also top spiralized squash “noodles” if you’re a hardcore raw eater.

The dish is topped here with crumbed feta. To keep it vegan, you could top with almonds toasted in a skillet until golden, or fresh bread crumbs toasted in a skillet or, if you have them, chopped cherry tomatoes and an additional splash of olive oil.

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The person we are becoming

“The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”

– from The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Jean-Simeon Chardin, 1738, The Scullery Maid, National Gallery of Art

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Beginning yoga, meeting yourself with kindness

Are you a yoga beginner? Were you a beginner once upon a time?

We all know the value of cultivating a beginner’s mind.

If you have ever taken a class in anything outside your comfort zone, take heart from this guest post by Sacramento, California’s yoga teacher, Madeleine Lohman. I’ve known Madeleine for a decade: she was my teacher, then I was a substitute teacher for her classes, and now we each carry a love for teaching yoga to beginners into our respective communities on opposite ends of the continent.

Madeline is a gem. In her classes–and outside of them–when she says “hello,” you feel safe, acknowledged and simply joyful.

Welcome, Madeleine.

I have been teaching beginning yoga classes for the last twelve years. During this time, the popularity of yoga has ballooned, bringing it firmly into mainstream American consciousness. Unfortunately, misconceptions about yoga seem to have proliferated at the same pace.

I still hear from a large percentage of students that they have put off their first class for years, thinking they were too old, inflexible, or out of shape for yoga.

Trouble is, this is exactly the message they are getting from the vast majority of depictions of yoga practitioners in America – that it’s a practice for young, slender white women who can stand on their heads, and the rest of us need not bother.

Lately, I’ve been wishing for a magic megaphone through which I could shout this message to all potential yogis putting off their first class out of the fear of being the odd one out: Yoga is not about the poses.

It’s about meeting and being in relationship with yourself.

It’s about learning patience with your own idiosyncracies and insecurities. It’s about developing interest and curiosity in who you truly are, and using this information to live your life as best you can.

But honestly, for many of us, meeting ourselves is at least as frightening as headstand. My megaphone and I might scare off as many students as we would reassure. So shelve that image for now.

Try this. Imagine yourself stepping into a yoga class. You’re not sure if you’ve worn the right outfit. (Soft, stretchy, but nothing too oversized is good, or it will gape.) You’re not sure, at this point, which person you see is the teacher. (Don’t worry, they should introduce themselves soon when they see you looking lost, and if they don’t you may consider that their first red flag. They are now on probation.)

Everybody seems to be looking at you. (I can almost guarantee they’re just wondering if you’re looking at them.)

Here are some pointers I’ve learned and want you to remember.

#1 – Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right. I heard a horror story the other day from a woman who entered her first (hot) yoga class with back pain. The instructor assured her that the heat of the room would allow her to stretch her injury out, and she should stretch deeply into and “past” the pain. Do I need to tell you that she injured herself further and was debilitated for a month?

Listen to your body’s signals first, the requests of the teacher second.

Not being comfortable having a teacher touch you during an adjustment is perfectly legitimate. If you have a sense that will be the case for you, feel free to let them know before class even starts. Sometimes it’s hard to think fast and say what you need when the moment arises, especially if you’re also trying to remember if the teacher said “right leg” or “left.”

Should a teacher suggest partner work, and “finding a partner” is the last thing you want to do, dropping into child’s pose (kneeling down, big toes together, knees apart, chest lowered to thighs and forehead resting to the floor or your hands) is a pretty universally recognized signal for “I’m bowing out of this one.” Once the exercise is under way, it should be safe to pop your head up and observe.

#2 – Don’t worry about the outcome.

Yoga is just like the beginning of any love relationship – there’s a honeymoon period.

For a while, what feels like measurable progress may come quickly. Hamstrings loosen and lungs fill in the warm sunshine of sudden attention. It’s easy to imagine, and hope, that your practice will always follow this steady upward trajectory. And then you hit a plateau. There is a gaping chasm between where you feel you are and where you’d like to be. At this crucial juncture, one of two things generally happens: either you get bored and quit, or you double down your efforts and try a lot harder. You stretch further, ignore pain, hurt yourself, and then you quit. When you sense yourself at this fork in the road, I urge you: stay right there.  And, whatever you do…

#3 – Don’t quit. For some of you, this request may seem in direct opposition to suggestion #1. Just when you’re sure you’d be happy never to do downward facing dog again in your lifetime, something is happening, and it’s happening close by.

Right in the exasperation and tedium, your work is polishing a mirror.

Each time you struggle to bring fresh eyes to a familiar pose, you strengthen your ability to see yourself without the clouds of expectation and prior conditioning. Each time you stabilize your central nervous system through meditating on the breath, you are preparing to see yourself clearly and without fear.

And at some point, when you least expect it, your practice is going to hold up this mirror. It’s going to show you something previously unknown about yourself, and it’s going to take your breath away.

When the time comes, my wish for you is this…. Wait, where’s my megaphone? Here.

May you have the strength to meet yourself with kindness. May you meet yourself as a friend.

 

ProfilePictureMadeleine Lohman has taught practical, accessible yoga classes since 2004. Her focus is on using mindful movement and conscious breathing to build radical acceptance and unconditional kindness. Madeleine’s deceptively simple classes draw on teachings from the Iyengar tradition, Mary Paffard and Angela Farmer, and more recently, study with Mirka Kraftsow on the teachings of Viniyoga. You can find her on Facebook as Madeleine Lohman Yoga, on Instagram as madly_yoga, and she occasionally writes about yoga in daily life at madyoga.wordpress.com.

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Questions to ask when practicing yoga at home

When I taught reading to middle school and high school students, I’d show them how to use questions to guide their interaction with the text.

After using the questioning system, Reciprocal Teaching, with students–and teaching it in professional development sessions to my peers for use in their own classes–I believed so much in its effectiveness that I went to work at the curriculum company of the woman who’d originally trained me in it.

Then I developed a reading program for a humane education organization with that questioning process at the core of the curriculum. I trained animal shelter workers and community volunteers in its use in California, D.C. And Victoria, Canada.

I realized I use the same process, closed- and open-ended questions, when guiding myself through a yoga home practice.

It works on the mat, too. So I wrote a piece for elephant journal about it. Hope it’s helpful!

cropped-sheepskin.jpg

 

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Quick butternut squash soup with sage

This butternut squash soup with sage is quick, healthy and delicious.

Purchase the butternut squash already diced in the produce section of the supermarket.

photo-7

Squash soup with sage: simple, joyful food!

 

You’ll be eating in 30 minutes.

Saute one diced yellow onion and one chopped garlic clove in a splash of olive oil.

Add salt, fresh ground black pepper and minced fresh sage (dried doesn’t work nearly as well). Add a dash of dried marjoram and parsley if desired.

Add the diced butternut squash (2-3  cups) and water to cover.

Boil it up then simmer for about 20 minutes.

Cool slightly then puree with an immersion blender. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

If you’re not keeping it vegan, this would be pretty topped with a swirl of plain yogurt.

And/or keep the soup dairy free and top with fried fresh sage leaves. (Just wash and pat dry sage leaves then quick fry on high heat. Use olive oil or try avocado oil.)

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tiny studio with a ton of heart

So grateful to have a small space to offer simple, joyful yoga in Harpers Ferry. Classes have started!

Tucker welcoming new yoga students to simple, joyful yoga in Bolivar

Thank you, students!

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