The Wood Element & Spring Season in Yin Yoga

blossoms_sierramadreLong before humans peered through microscopes to discover that the world is constructed out of particles like atoms, molecules, and DNA, ancient peoples recognized the same principle – that every object is made up of many smaller parts coming together to form a whole. Taoism, Buddhism, and Ayurveda each describe how the Elements (materials and forces found in nature, including Air, Water, Fire, Earth, etc.) compose the human body and every object on our planet…as well as the planet itself!

The Elements are an interesting framework for viewing our yoga practice on many levels, as they relate to the physical health of the body and energetic system, emotional and psychological balance, philosophical principals about the nature of Self, and our connection to our environment.

In Chinese Medicine, the Elements are also associated with specific seasons of the year, and can help us practice yoga in a way that’s in tune with the rhythms of nature. The patterns of the seasons are also reflected in our own body’s energetic rhythms. When we practice with the elements, we remember that we humans are not separate from this Earth.

The Winter is a time of internal focus, when we are like seeds buried underground preparing to sprout. Once Spring arrives, the Wood Element represents that sprout emerging. The Wood Element energizes us to initiate transformation. This is a time of starting over, a rebirth of sorts. This fresh start can come with growing pains and frustrations, as it takes time for our new projects and ideas to take root.

labyrinth_arlingtonparkIn the Spring, we can benefit from cultivating “beginners mind,” and being flexible as we plan and organize the new visions that arise.

If you practice Yin Yoga, include poses that target the Liver/Gallbladder Meridians, which are associated with the Wood Element, and thought to help balance the tendency toward impatience as we initiate changes in Spring. These poses would be your side bends, hip openers, and stretches for the inner leg, including Shoelace, Square Pose, Swan Pose, Banana Pose, and Dragonfly (among others).

In your practice in general, look for ways to channel your active thinking mind – it may be in overdrive with all this new Spring energy! Concentration techniques in meditation (like counting the breaths) can help, as can breathing exercises that lengthen the exhales. The soothing qualities of the exhale can help calm the nervous system. Here’s an audio I recorded about a year ago entitled “Extending the Exhales” – give it a try!

Enjoy the fresh starts that Spring brings. Take steps forward and initiate transformation, but keep things in perspective and practice patience. Spend time outside in nature, and be sure to give your creativity some outlets.

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Thanksgiving Yin Yoga Sequence

Norman-Rockwell-ThanksgivingThe spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said, “If you think you are enlightened, go home for Thanksgiving.”

Combine a little family button-pushing with a feast of comfort foods, stuffing, and pies, and you’ve got a recipe for holiday indulgence. Don’t get me wrong – I savor Thanksgiving dinner as much as the next person, but I try to find a balanced way to celebrate the abundance of the season.

The following Yin Yoga sequence doesn’t burn a ton of calories to get that gravy out of your system (I suggest a hike or long walk), but it can help restore you mentally, energetically, and internally. This Thanksgiving-themed practice focuses primarily on the Spleen/Stomach Meridians, with a few Liver/Gallbladder poses thrown in for good measure.

The Spleen/Stomach Meridian pair assists with physical digestion, as well as our ability to “digest” whatever happens to us mentally and emotionally. This pair is also associated with the positive attributes of abundance and enough-ness that relate to Thanksgiving, especially because of their connection to the Harvest Season/Earth Element.

The Liver/Gallbladder Meridian pair can help us de-tox, since the Liver is the body’s chemical processing center. In Chinese Medicine this also works on the emotional level, as these meridians help us process feisty feelings like anger, frustration, and resentment. It’s a good idea to give your hard-working liver some love after Thanksgiving dinner.

So, here’s a sequence you can do at home to celebrate this holiday and support yourself on all levels:

Opening Meditation: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Take a few mindful breaths to settle in, then bring your hands to lightly rest on your belly. Feel the belly rise and fall with your breath, continuing to bring awareness to this space for several minutes.

Loosing Up: 

Still on your back, take a few Windshield Wiper Twists, moving your knees gently side-to-side with your feet on the ground.

Bring one knee into the chest as you stretch the opposite leg out. Switch sides and repeat several times.

Come to sitting and practice flexing and extending the spine back and forth a few times (like a seated cat/cow), then side bend left and right a few times, moving with the rhythm of your breath.

Yin Poses:

1. Sphinx Pose – 3 minutes
Release by coming down onto your belly. Wiggle your hips side to side a few times.

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2. Reclining Twist – 3 minutes, each side
Release by coming into a neutral position on your back and take a few knee circles in each direction.

3. Squat Pose – 2 minutes (Alternate Option: Happy Baby Pose)
Squat Pose illustration & instructions from Bernie Clark here.

4. Lateral Dragonfly – 3 minutes, each side
This is a side bend from the seated wide-legged Dragonfly position (not folding forward). The top arm can rest on your head, or can stay down by your side.

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5. Cat Tail Pose – 2 minutes upright in “Phase A”, 2 minutes in twist “Phase B” on each side
To release, lie on your back, stretch your arms overhead, take a big inhale and sigh (3 times)

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6. Bananasana – 3 minutes, each side

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7. Saddle Pose – 5 minutes (Alternate Option: Dragon Lunge, 2 minutes on each side)
Release by using your arms and abs to help you sit up. Carefully unfold your legs – bend and straighten the knees a few times.

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8. Twisted Roots – 2 minutes, each side

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9. Happy Baby – 3 minutes
Here’s a video from Bernie Clark on Happy Baby.

10. Savasana – Rest for a minimum of 10 minutes.

Throughout the practice session, return to the sensation of the breath at the belly. Really allow yourself to feel the movement of the breath at your center, without forcing it. Relax and enjoy!

If you need more specific instructions for any of these poses, I recommend looking them up on Bernie Clark’s YouTube Channel. He has a quick and accessible break-down available for pretty much all of the Yin poses.

Yin Yoga in Whole Life Times Magazine

Recently, I was contacted for a quote about Yin Yoga for an article in Whole Life Times Magazine. The article, by Charlene Oldham, focuses on the healing aspects of Yin Yoga, and I was honored to be included. You can access the whole issue online here, or check out the Yin article (and my photos!) below.

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Celebrating Earth Element

5element2According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are not four, but five, seasons in the year. Connected with the Five Elements, these five seasons are Fall (Metal Element), Winter (Water Element), Spring (Wood Element), Summer (Fire Element), and Late Summer/Early Fall (Earth Element).

I like to refer to this Late Summer/Early Fall season as Harvest Season, since it is all about the abundance of the Earth. Some people call it “Indian Summer.” This is the peak of the growing season for most places (in our hemisphere), and a great time to reconnect with the energies of Earth Element – contentment, abundance, steadiness.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the inspirations that the Yin Yoga practice draws upon, so it’s nice to celebrate the seasons and elements through a yoga practice. In this case, that might be a Yin sequence focused on the Stomach/Spleen Meridians, since they are most connected to the Harvest Season and Earth Element.

Another great way to partake of Earth Element energy is to practice Walking Meditation. Give this a try sometime soon, ideally letting your bare feet touch the Earth directly, as you walk in a shady, grassy spot.

feetingrassWalking meditation is a little different than just taking a walk, mainly because we are not trying to get anywhere! We are just calming the mind by tuning into the body’s slow, rhythmic movements in simple walking. Pace up and down a short pathway (maybe 20-30 feet long), turning around and coming back each time you get to the end of your path. Move slowly. Feel each part of the motion, sensitively present to the feet lifting off the ground and touching it once again. Enjoy the sun, the breeze, the sounds of nature. But, just let those sensory experiences come to you naturally, while allowing your attention to rest in the feeling of slowly stepping along your path.

Over time, as you continue to practice, you might start to notice you are “harvesting” some positive qualities like contentment. The practice of walking without trying to get anywhere is a wonderful incubator for contentment. Eventually, it dawns on us that contentment arises out of the small, ordinary things – what you might call the neutral experiences – not from the high points, thrilling as they may be. We work so hard for those high points, and we tend to assume that contentment is the reward for some form of success: I’ll be content once I get this, accomplish that, or arrive there.

But, fortunately, contentment is not the medal given to finishers at the end of the race. It’s the wind blowing through our hair as we walk, jog, or run along that road. It’s the support of the Earth beneath our feet.

Boredom and a Scientific Game of “Would You Rather”

Have you ever played the game “Would You Rather?” It’s something kids used to do (maybe they still do, if they’re not on SnapChat) to amuse themselves when a moment of boredom came along. The game consists of asking each other questions like, “Would you rather be rich and ugly, or poor and gorgeous?” or “Would you rather go completely bald, or have back hair to rival a grizzly bear?”

shock_hairRecently some researchers at the University of Virginia decided to play a scientific game of “Would You Rather.” Of course, they didn’t call it that, but they created a study to find out if college students would rather be left alone in a quiet room for 5-15 minutes, or give themselves an electric shock.

The results do not bode well for the future of humanity.

Most of the participants in the study preferred the electric shock! (You can listen to an interview about this study here, with a few more details about how it was conducted – no electricity puns intended). The study’s author is a professor of psychology, and he attributed these results to the rise of social media and smart phones, essentially saying that people are losing the capacity or willingness to sit quietly with their own thoughts without being entertained.

So…what’s wrong with a little boredom?

The day after hearing about this study on the radio, I had to spend 3 hours at the DMV getting a new driver’s license. When I arrived first thing in the morning, the line was already snaking around the outside of the building. The wait was an hour and a half in the hot sun just to go inside the building and take a number. Then you got to go to the actual waiting room and sit until your number got called. I was G088.

braidedplantatDMVThe DMV is a pretty good place to do some people watching, if you don’t have your head buried in an iPhone the whole time, so I determined that I was going to practice just standing in line and being a little bored. I’m always feeling like I’m too busy, so here was someone giving me permission to take a break. I can’t say I never checked my phone, but I kept it stowed away for the vast majority of the time I was there. I was just about the only person around not texting, Facebooking, or emailing. Someone from earlier apparently got so uncomfortable with the boredom that they decided to braid some plant leaves together (must not have had Angry Birds).

But, I enjoyed the breeze, the sky, the real birds, and the feeling of my feet on the ground standing in Mountain Pose…in line at the DMV.

I feel fortunate to have a meditation practice to rely on for all the discomforts of daily life. Boredom is one of those things that you will inevitably encounter, sooner rather than later, if you take up meditation. It’s not a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing! It means that you’re not filling up the space in your mind with all kinds of stuff, for once. Sure, some of that stuff is helpful and necessary, but a lot of our mental activity is just fluff. When we pause for a little while from our usual mode of working or being entertained, that becomes pretty evident. And when we can stop being entertained by our worries and restless thoughts for a moment, that letting go gives peace the chance to show up for a visit.

I heard a talk once with meditation teacher Pascal Auclair, in which he said, “Peace is an acquired taste.”

That one stopped me in my tracks. Don’t we all want peace?

cookiemonsterdharmaBut, he’s right – peace is not the same as excitement and entertainment. Much of the time, we’re not willing to settle down enough to experience this thing we want! As Pascal explained in the talk, peace has a kind of neutral tone to it. It’s not an exuberant high, and it’s not a sorrowful low. It’s a lot closer to the ability to just be with whatever the moment is offering up.

Here’s a practice for you: next time you get the opportunity to be with boredom, let yourself experience it fully!

  • Notice that feeling of “pull” as you are drawn to a hundred new ideas for what to do with the moment (“Should I do this or that? I wonder what’s on Facebook? Do we have any of those cookies left?).
  • When you notice the boredom, are there any other feelings in the background (like pressure to be more productive, anxiety about wasting time, worrying that you’ve forgotten something)?
  • Now pause and hear any and all of the sounds around you. Notice the shapes and colors of what you are seeing. Feel where your body is touching a chair, or your feet are contacting the ground. Sense the breath rhythmically moving in and out of you.

Are you still bored?

Simple Does Not Mean Simplistic

In fact, it often takes a great deal of experience to pare things down to their essence. To clear the unnecessary clutter, to silence the extra noise.

simplicity_leonardodavinciMeditation is ultra-simple, but it’s not easy, is it? The same goes for many of the “basic” yoga poses, if we are paying attention.

When something is simplistic, it is trite, shallow, and inauthentic. True simplicity is quite the opposite – it is deep, satisfying, and often profound.

Bells and whistles are nice, but every once in a while, it’s good to let go of complication and embrace simplicity. It feels refreshing.