A teacher’s joy

Grateful and joyful to be able to teach yoga!

Thank you, readers (who have visited Yoga Stanza more than 200,000 times in 2016 so far) and students in California, DC and now Harpers Ferry. I appreciate you!

My greatest joy as a teacher occurs when students experience insights that I had never considered or that run counter to my own understanding. This is when I know the students have made the practice their own.     – Charlotte Bell, Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life

Edward Thomas

My morning walk often takes me to Bolivar Heights near Harpers Ferry. I think about Edward Thomas, and all who have fought in wars and survived and fought in wars and died.

Engage the senses on a quiet walk

This poem is haunting.

The Owl

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;

Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof

Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest

Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,

Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.

All of the night was quite barred out except

An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,

No merry note, nor cause of merriment,

But one telling me plain what I escaped

And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,

Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice

Speaking for all who lay under the stars,

Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Edward Thomas

Easy Vegetable Soup and Homemade Biscuits

This soup smelled so delicious, we couldn’t wait to take a photo before diving in. This shot is of a serving of seconds.

photo-8

The biscuits are from Betty Crocker. I did sub in 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and used 1 1/2 cups white flour instead of the flour the recipe calls for. Otherwise the recipe is the same. Flakey and tender.

For the soup.

Fill a large pot about halfway with water.

Add a few cloves garlic and a few red new potatoes (skins on okay).

Add a couple heads of broccoli, chopped, and lots of white button mushroom, chopped.

Add about three carrots, chopped, and anything else you like such as parsnips.

I have some precious wild-harvested wild rice that a student brought me from Minnesota. I added a handful of that and it made the flavor nutty and buttery. You could try store-bought wild rice (unflavored).

This batch of soup includes radish tops and green garlic from the Stony Ridge Farm CSA.

Seasonings are salt and pepper, marjoram, sage, thyme. Use anything else you desire. Boil and keep at a fast simmer for about 45 minutes. I threw in a handful of frozen sweet corn toward the end.

Yummy! Simple, joyful food!

Graceful state of being

A lovely explanation of the body/mind, asana/meditation relationship  and how meditation “works.”

It will always be tempting to fidget, flee or Facebook update instead of inhabiting the present moment, which can be challenging and uncomfortable, even tragic and terrifying, at times, but it’s this lack of consciousness that leaves us feeling like we need yoga in the first place. The feeling of missing our own lives as they are happening. For the modern yogi, the mat is the place where he/she goes to address feelings of disconnection: from the self, our health, what we feel, who we are, and who we want to be. If life feels busy, complicated, crowded, or lonely, a yoga mat offers the opposite. Yet, the asana practice addresses who we are from the outside in, and unless we get to the root of what distracts or distresses us and let those distractions go, things will not change much.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Old Man in Meditation, Leaning on a Book, 1645, National Gallery of Art

Meditation is the natural, graceful state of being yourself and knowing who that is. When we are fully absorbed in the present moment, paying attention on purpose and without judgment, we are meditating.

from Rebecca Pacheco’s, Do Your Om Thing

 

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

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

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

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.

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.

quick and raw green power pasta sauce

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.