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The 2nd Discipline of Yoga: Respect Yourself

The second limb of yoga, the Niyamas, is essential for yogis, and everyone who aspires to live a crazy healthy life:

Saucha, the first niyama, teaches about the importance of cleanliness. It is easy to think of this as a directive to shower before and after yoga practice, and keep your practice space clean and organized. At a deeper level, however, saucha teaches us to organize our emotional and spiritual energies, separating those that serve us from those that do not.

Santosha teaches us to cultivate contentment in our lives. When we accept life as it is today, we realize that we are already happy. There is no thing that will make us happy, because happiness is what we are inside. By practicing santosha, we give power to this happiness, so it can shine through, and illuminate our lives.

Tapas literally means “to generate heat”. We create heat in our lives through physical, spiritual, and emotional disciplines. It is the friction of the disciplines that help us strip away what is unnecessary. The heat of tapas burns away the heaviness that covers up our happiness. Personally, tapas has helped me learn to love my home practice as much as I love to take classes.

Svadhaya teaches the importance of self-study. This Niyama teaches us to practice awareness of ourselves, so that we might draw closer to God. It also helps us refine who we are, and what we do. Svadhaya has become increasingly important, as I strive to write something meaningful about yoga each day. The more I study what yoga means to me, the better I can share the benefits of yoga with you in this blog, and with my students in class.

Ishvara Pranidhana is the relentless pursuit of relationship with God. It teaches us to let go of our ego (specifically, what we want from life) and give our heart, mind, and body to God. It can be incredibly uncomfortable at first, because it forces us to surrender our wishes, so that we might honor God’s desires. That can be really really hard. Over time, however, ishvara pranidhana becomes a more comfortable way of living, because it reveals our connection to the world around us, and reminds us that we don’t have to go it alone.

Personally, I don’t think it is possible to practice real yoga without the niyamas. I tried it in the beginning of my yogic journey, and it always felt like something was missing. The niyamas helped me make more sense of my asana practice. They also make me feel more purposeful when I meet my mat, and that makes me really happy.

 

Namaste~

Amber

design2a22Photo: eveyoga.com

Finding The Yin For My Yang

1185380_10202042982939085_1820916458_nMy heart is full tonight, as this big ole jet airliner carries us away from California, and the wonderful yogis in Ojai, after four life-changing days on retreat with Steve Ross and Meredith Klein. I always leave these retreats feeling renewed, balanced, and inspired.

I’m thinking about how great it is, to return to my family feeling happy, and hopeful about what comes next (more on that later, once I wrap my little brain around what it all means!).

I am also thinking about why I feel this way.

What is it, exactly, that is so life-changing about four days in the woods with a bunch of yogis?

I have decided that it must be that, when I am in Ojai, I get a whole lotta Yin, to balance out my Yang.

In Chinese culture, Yin is the softer, more feminine energy that grounds us, and Yang is the sharper, masculine, and manifesting energy.

They seem like opposites, but they are actually necessary parts of what is known as the “mutual whole.” You can not have Yin without Yang, any more than you can have an end without a beginning. We need both to survive.

One of my great realizations during this trip is that I have been favoring the Yang on my mat, and in my life. I have been so focused on getting things done, that sometimes I forget why I am doing them in the first place.

The need for the Yin to subdue the Yang is obvious when we are in Ojai. I think it’s mostly because our days are balanced with an equal amount of Yin and Yang. There’s loud, hot, sweaty, joyfui Yang Yoga in the mornings, and softer, introspective, restorative Yin Yoga, in the afternoons.

The Yang classes are uplifting, and light-hearted, with music that vibrates through my body. It makes me smile, and dance, and thank God. We hold poses for a long time. It burns, as it builds strength and detoxifies my body, both physically and spiritually.

Yang Yoga makes me feel empowered, ready to share my energy, and eager to be the change I hope to see in the world. After a Yang class with Steve, I can’t wait to manifest all of my brilliant ideas.

The Yin classes are completely different. We spend most of the class on the floor, in seated stretches that release the connective tissue (tendons, ligaments and fascia) in the hips, hamstrings, psoas, and shoulders. We stay in each pose for five minutes, and let our bodies open on their own, without forcing anything. It’s a little uncomfortable, which makes it a great place to learn to meditate. If you can meditate in Yin Yoga, you can meditate anywhere.

Allowing the poses to unfold naturally, instead of “holding” the poses, improves the flow of qi, the subtle, healing energy that runs through the meridians in the body. This is why they say Yin yoga boosts immunity, and improves emotional well-being.

Practicing Yin Yoga makes me feel centered, refreshed, and content–like every little thing really is gonna be all right.

There were other healing practices during the retreat, such as meditation, pranayama, dhrana, and dhyana, that balanced our Yin and Yang energies. I’ll talk more about those experiences in later posts.

For now, I just want to say that we could all benefit from adding a little more Yin energy to our lives. That doesn’t mean that we have to hold stretches for five minutes, for an hour each day. Although it really couldn’t hurt!

It simply means that we need to stop pushing so much, so that life can unfold as it is intended. There is a sweet spot, somewhere in the middle of trying to make things happen, and surrendering to life as it is.

When I travel to Ojai, I remember what it feels like to live in that sweet spot, and I renew my commitment to live life in balance.

Where is your sweet spot? What do you need to do to get there? Join me this week, by remembering to let go of some of the Yang, so we can make room for the Yin.

Happy National Yoga Month, y’all!

Amber

The Day Amy Learned To Fly

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The one thing I forgot to mention about this yoga trip with my friend, Amy, is that she had never taken a yoga before before, when I invited her to join me.

Which is why were both caught off guard yesterday morning, when, Steve taught eight angle pose, and Amy got her feet off the ground right away. She was so surprised, and thrilled. It was truly awesome!

I was so happy for her. Even happier than when I figured it out for myself (which was just a few weeks ago). I could tell that she was enjoying the class, and starting to “get it”.

It reminded me of this quote:

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Yoga teaches us that we can fly, even when it seems out of reach.

Amy flew yesterday, and you can too. Give it a try! Yoga always meets us wherever we are.

If you are not sure where to begin, to practice yoga, just start with what you already know, and practice that. Or refer back to my previous articles about yoga. Or send me a message with your questions, so I can help.

Happy National Yoga Month!

Namaste~

Amber

 

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Happy Yoga With Steve Ross

DSC_1501It’s really, really great to be back in Ojai. This is my third yoga retreat with Steve Ross and Meredith Klein, and it felt a lot like returning to summer camp, when Amy and I arrived yesterday. I wondered who might be here, what amazing delicacies Meredith might serve, and what I might learn on my mat.

I am excited to be back, because every time I visit this place, I grow. And I leave feeling like I am more of who I am meant to be.

A lot of that has to do with what I have learned from Steve. He has taught me so much of what I know to be true about yoga. He is a man of few words, but what he does say, always resonates deeply.

As we practiced with him last night, I could not help reflecting on what I have learned from Steve, in the past fifteen years:

It’s all yoga. Sometimes we, as yogis, get so wrapped up in the details, that we miss the experience. We believe that there is only one right way to practice. We get hyper-focused on alignment. Or maybe we spend the entire class comparing ourselves to others. Steve, more than anyone, has taught me to let go of what I think my practice should be, and appreciate what it is…and the bottom line is that yoga is a blessing. All of it.

Amazing things happen when we hold poses for a really long time. We hold poses for a really long time in Steve’s classes. It was so annoying, when I first practiced with him! I used to have conversations in my brain with him about it. “Ok, Steve, that’s enough!”

Sometimes it even made me mad, that he kept us in chair pose for what seemed like forever.

Until one day, I decided I would try it his way, and start holding poses longer when I practiced at home. I started counting the breaths, holding each pose for ten breaths at first, and then working up to twenty breaths. I learned to quiet my mind, when I thought I couldn’t hold the pose much longer, and grew to appreciate the “burn”.

When I wrapped this discipline around my personal practice, my body grew stronger, and my meditation practice improved. I learned new poses, that had previously seemed out of reach, and it made me feel empowered. I realized that Steve had it right all along. Amazing things happen when we push ourselves further than we think we want to go.

Yoga can, and should be fun. The studio where I practice with Steve is hidden in the woods. It’s pretty quiet, except for the birds chirping outside. So it feels a little unexpected, and spontaneous, and maybe even a little rebellious, when he presses play on his iPod, and “Blurred Lines” fills the room.

Steve plays music really, really loud. It’s always just the right music (I needed to let loose with Robin Thicke, after four hours on a plane and two hours in the car!). It vibrates through my whole body, and it feels good. His students dance a little in the poses, and more people smile in his classes than any other classes I have visited.

I also love that Steve makes a lot of jokes, and teases us if he thinks we are being too serious. He reminds us that we can’t GET happy, we can only BE happy. We already have happy inside us. He’s so right…and I find myself thinking, over and over again, this is how we are supposed to feel.

Amy and I are headed back to the studio again this morning, And this afternoon. And tomorrow, and the next day. I could not be happier to be here. It’s a blessing, this practice of yoga, and the people it brings into our lives. I can’t imagine life without it.

Happy National Yoga Month! Go get your yoga on, wherever you might be.

Namaste~

Amber


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How I Got Into Yoga

Fifteen years ago this month, I had just returned to my marketing job at MCI Telecommunications, after taking four months off to recover from a traumatic car crash. I sustained a dozen broken bones in the crash, and had to learn how to walk again with a broken neck and broken pelvic bone. It was, by far, the most physically, and emotionally, painful four months of my life.

My physical therapist suggested that yoga might help me manage chronic pain, caused by scar tissue around my broken bones. I had heard that there were yoga classes at our gym, so I decided to check it out.

The instructor was a beautiful woman named Joy. My mother, who had passed away the year before, had also been named Joy, so I thought it was a sign that I was on the right path.

Joy was 40 at the time, but she looked 30. She was stunning, and flexible, and fit, and everything about her glowed. I remember thinking that I wanted to be just like her.

Joy taught the exact same hatha yoga sequence at every class, which I found extremely helpful as a beginner. I knew what to expect in her classes, which eased some of my initial anxiety. It also helped me remember how to practice on my own, between classes.

I fell head over heels in love with yoga during that first month of classes, and found myself wanting more. Joy recommended the book Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch, and a friend suggested I check out “Inhale with Steve Ross”, on Oprah’s Oxygen Network. I also discovered a fabulous magazine called Yoga Journal, that I read cover to cover, as soon as it arrived each month.

This is how I “got into yoga.” I took one class a week with Joy, practiced with Steve Ross at 6 AM (and sometimes on VHS tape) three or four days a week, subscribed to Yoga Journal, and read Power Yoga, in my free time.

It might sound like a lot of work, but it really wasn’t. It was simply a shift in how I spent my free time. And the more I practiced, the less it felt like an obligation, and the more it made me want to adopt a yogic lifestyle.

Back then, we did not have National Yoga Month, but now we do. And because National Yoga Month was created to raise awareness about yoga, I would like to encourage you to consider what you might shift, to make more room in your life for yoga.

No matter how busy we are, we can always find time to practice at least a little yoga each day. The hardest part is making the commitment. Once yoga becomes one of your daily non-negotiables, you will wonder how you ever lived without it.

Also, as far as I am concerned, fifteen minutes of yoga each day is better than an hour of yoga, three times a week. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you just do something. Yoga will always meet you, exactly where you are.

Below are some of the resources that have helped me over the years. Give them a try, and let me know what you find most helpful in your yogic journey.

Namaste~

Amber

Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch

The Yoga Bible

Journey Into Power by Baron Baptiste

Happy Yoga by Steve Ross

Power Yoga (videos) by Bryan Kest

Eastern Body, Western Mind by Anodea Judith

The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali

An Open Heart by The Dalai Lama

Eat To Live by Dr. Joel Furhman (this is not a yoga book, but it does support a yogic diet)

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Happy National Yoga Month!

Did you know that September is National Yoga Month?

I never imagined, when I took my first yoga class in September of 1998, that there would ever be a National Yoga Anything. Or that I would someday teach yoga, yet alone write about it.

But here I am, fifteen years later, living my yoga, with a small business, and a blog that is almost a year old. Looking back makes me profoundly grateful for this powerful practice, that transformed my entire life.

At first I thought yoga was just an exercise. That’s what it felt like for the first few years I practiced. But, the more I learned, the more I realized that yoga bled into other areas of my life. Yoga made me happy, and healed my mind, body and spirit, in surprising ways.

In the past fifteen years, yoga has helped me lose weight, get in shape, sleep better, heal my body, eat better, deepen my Christian faith, and live with authenticity and purpose. I love this practice so much, that I find it hard to do it justice with words.

In honor of National Yoga Month, I will post a little insight about yoga every day in September. I hope that sharing my experiences will inspire you, and everyone else who reads this blog, to add a little more yoga to your lives.

Because, I believe, with all my heart, that everyone needs yoga.

It just makes so much sense. To be sure of what we believe, live skillfully, strengthen our muscles, create space in our bodies, quiet our minds, breathe with intention, practice mediation, and connect with God. How could that be anything but good?

When we are born, we arrive straight from God. We are perfect, just the way He made us. As our separation from God increases, and we adapt to life on earth, we lose bits and pieces of our original innocence and completeness. The Eight Limbs (branches) of Yoga teach us how to become whole again, and draw us closer to Him.

The Eight Limbs

The eight limbs of yoga are as follows:

  1. Yama (universal morality)
  2. Niyama (personal observances)
  3. Asana (physical postures)
  4. Pranayama (breathwork)
  5. Pratayahara (control of the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration and personal awareness)
  7. Dhyana (meditation, for the puspose of seeking God)
  8. Samadhi (oneness with God)

Like most Westerners, I began my practice on the third limb, asana, in a hatha yoga class at a health club. I was lucky that my instructor, Joy, had ten years of experience (which was rare at that time), and did share some pranayama and meditation. But I didn’t really get it. I thought the bhakti breathing was weird, and savasana made me anxious.

I loved the workout, though, so I took a lot of classes at the health club, and practiced with Steve Ross on Oxygen’s Inhale TV Show, when I couldn’t get to the club. It was just exercise to me, for a long time.

Four years went by, before I learned about the eight limbs of yoga. As a committed Christian, I had been afraid to explore yoga philosophy, in the early days of my practice. I had no choice, however, when I decided to become a yoga instructor. I had to embrace all of it.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered.

This awesome yogi named Patanjai was the first to record yoga philosophy, about 2000 years ago. It was one of the first things we learned in my yoga teacher training course in 2002, and it felt like finding the missing piece of a puzzle. Yoga was suddenly more than a workout, and it would soon become a way of life.

It occured to me that I had sort of learned yoga backwards, and wished I had understood the Eight Limbs, before I met my mat.

For those who are new to yoga, I suggest starting at the beginning, with the yamas and the niyamas.

About the Yamas and the Niyamas

The yamas and niyamas are observances that teach us to live skillfully. They are as follows:

The Yamas:

1. Ahimsa (non-violence)

2. Satya (truth)

3. Asteya (non-stealing, or non-cheating)

4. Bramacharya (self-restraint and moderation in all that you do)

5. Aparigraha (non-coveting, non-competitiveness)

The Niyamas:

1. Saucha (purity)

2. Santosha (contentment)

3. Tapas (discipline)

4. Svadhyaya (self-study)

5. Ishawar-pranidhana (surrender to God)

During the five months of my teacher training at Peachtree Yoga Center, we explored the yamas and niyamas, as they relate to yoga practice. I was also participating an intense 36 week Bible study at the time, and would read my Bible during the breaks. It was such an interesting juxtaposition, to study the yamas and niyamas, as I was exploring the Old Testament. I realized that Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, and the authors of the Bible were essentially saying the same thing. Live a righteous life, and be in relationship with God.

I had been afraid that studying yoga would threaten my Christian faith, but it was actually the opposite. After I learned about the yamas and the niyamas, I felt more connected to God on my mat, than I ever had before. I realized that it was vital to use what God gave me, if I hoped to understand my purpose in life. And I learned to focus on how the practice felt, more than how it looked, which made me appreciate yoga so much more.

For those who are new to yoga, it’s ok if you want to start to learn the practice through asana, but the practice will come with more ease, if you spend time considering the yamas and the niyamas before you meet your mat each day. I will talk more about each of the yamas and niymas in future posts, as well as many other of aspects of yoga (there’s so much to share!). Follow this blog, if you have not already, and like My Crazy Healthy Life on Facebook, for yoga and wellness insights and tips.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me!

Namaste,

Amber

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FREE Online Spring Cleanse

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I met Meredith Klein three years ago, when she cooked for us at a yoga retreat with Steve Ross in Ojai, CA. I watched in awe, as she lovingly prepared ayurveda-inspired dishes throughout the weekend. The food was beautiful, delicious, and inspiring.

When I returned home from that retreat, I felt amazing. I’m certain it had as much to do with the yoga, as it did with Meredith’s perfectly balanced meals.

Since then, I have followed Meredith’s business, Pranaful, and emailed her when I need inspiration. She is always quick to respond, and brilliant in her replies. I have incorporated many of her recipes into my regular routine, and especially love her garlicky kale chips and cashew creams.

So, I was thrilled when I heard that Meredith is offering a free online spring cleanse, beginning this Sunday. Please check it out, and join me, in what promises to be an inspiring experience. I will write about the cleanse in a future blog post, and would love to feature your stories, so please let me know how it goes.

Happy cleansing!

Amber

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The Guitar Lesson

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Three years ago, I asked my husband for a guitar for Valentine’s Day. I had always wanted to learn how to play, and it felt like the right time to take lessons. Hubby happily obliged my request, and I was on my way to fulfilling a dream.

I found a wonderful, and accommodating, teacher named Sam. He helped me learn the songs I wanted to play. The one thing I never asked for, though, was a lesson on tuning my guitar. I tried it on my own a few times, broke some strings, and told myself that tuning a guitar was difficult, and intimidating, and I would never get it right. That Sam was somehow different from me. He, and every other guitar player I know, had an ear for tuning, but I didn’t. So I let Sam tune my guitar each time we met, and did my best to keep it in tune between lessons.

I played guitar for about 18 months, and enjoyed a few family sing-a-longs, but my interest dwindled with each passing month. I didn’t think I was very good, and eventually stopped taking lessons all together. I told myself it was because I didn’t have time to be good at both guitar and yoga, and yoga was more important.

But, looking back now, I realize that’s not really the truth. The truth is that I never committed to owning my experience with my guitar. I was afraid of failing, and let that fear prevent me from pursuing one of the things I have always wanted to do.

It’s human nature to create stories about our lives, and repeat them over and over again. In so doing, we become attached to our beliefs about who we are, and what we can and can’t do. Which makes changing our habits feel like pushing a boulder uphill.

Boulder pushing is not necessarily fun, but it can be done, and we get stronger in the process. But no one ever got a boulder up the hill, and enjoyed the view at the top, without first letting go of the idea that they can’t.

On Valentine’s Day this year, I finally let go of the story that I can’t tune a guitar. It wasn’t by choice; it was out of necessity. Two of my three daughters just started taking guitar lessons, and their teacher suggested I learn how to tune the guitars for them.

Taking my yoga off the mat, I silenced the voice in my head that was screaming What, me? I can’t do that! and let him show me how it was done. It took less than 5 minutes.

Afterward, I felt silly for not making it a priority sooner. It wasn’t as hard as I thought! I also felt empowered, and couldn’t wait get back to strumming my six string.

It led me to an “aha” moment. I realized that I never really tried to figure it out, because I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t trust myself enough to fully commit to learning to play guitar. And not owning the experience made it really easy to walk away.

Clearly, I was wrong. I can tune a guitar. And I’m pretty sure I can become a better musician, if I try. Which is awesome, because it means that there are probably a lot of other really cool things that I think I can’t do, that I really can. I just have to pay better attention, and remember that letting go of the story is the key to self-empowerment.

Photo: http://4loveimages.blogspot.com

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What In The World Is Kirtan?

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One of my favorite yoga instructors will perform kirtan at The Grammys tomorrow night! Steve Ross (pictured above), of Maha Yoga, and Inhale with Steve Ross, will appear with Krishna Das, who has been nominated for “Best New Age Album Of The Year”.

You might be asking yourself, “What is kirtan? And why should I care?”

Kirtan is a call-and-response approach to chanting hymns or mantras, which is a form of meditation. Kirtan is most often performed in groups, and is led by musicians with instruments. It can be religious if you want it to be. Or it can just be a meditation experience. It all depends on how you apply the vibration to your life.

You don’t have to participate in kirtan to be a yogi, but many yogis enjoy it as an approach to meditation. Meditation is one of the eight limbs (practices) of yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and chanting is one of many ways to approach it. So, if you hope to use yoga as a path to a crazy healthy life, you might want to experiment with kirtan.

There are no two more appropriate musicians to learn kirtan from than Steve Ross and Krishna Das. Steve has been a musician for most of his life, having toured and recorded with Fleetwood Mac, and many other highly respected musicians. He’s also a classically trained yoga instructor, who has helped bring yoga to the mainstream in the US, through his TV appearances, books, workshops, and teachings.

Krishna Das is also loved by many, and is often called the “rock star of yoga”. His nomination for Live Ananda is a big deal because it’s only the 2nd time a kirtan album has received this honor.

Still, you might be thinking so what?? New Age Music is a far from mainstream, and has a limited following. Personally, I love rock n’ roll, and resisted new age music for years. Eventually, though, I came around, and developed an appreciation for kirtan. Much like asana (yoga pose) practice, I had to surrender to the experience, before I could embrace kirtan’s place in my practice. And once I did, I never looked back.

So, if you enjoy yoga, and hope to expand your practice, kirtan is worthy of investigation.

If you’re not into yoga, and are still wondering why you should check out the Krishna Das performance online at grammy.com/live tomorrow night, here’s why:

1) The fastest way to create a crazy healthy life is to keep an open mind, and seek new experiences. Experiment, try new things, no matter how unconventional they seem. The more you expand your experience, the more discerning you can be in your wellness efforts.

2) Kirtan, when embraced, can make you feel really groovy. The call-and-response approach to chanting creates an internal vibration. Vibration releases blocked energy, facilitates healing of the mind, body and spirit, and creates a powerful, and authentic, sense of well-being. If you want it to be a path to God, it can deepen your relationship, and strengthen your faith. If religion’s not your thing, kirtan will, at the very least, improve your health.

3) Steve Ross and Krishna Das are legendary musicians and healers. You might not experience the kirtan high, just by watching their performance, but you will at least appreciate their talent and contributions. Yogis certainly need to know who they are, and jump at the chance to chant with them, if they happen to perform at a venue nearby.

Be forewarned, kirtan might seem crazy at first, because the lyrics are unfamiliar, and the music is repetitive. This is by design–it is within the repetition that mediation arises. Stay in the moment, and notice how the music makes you feel. Pay attention to the musicians, and what arises for you as you listen, without judging the experience as good or bad. Maybe it will make you want to hear more, or maybe it won’t. Either way, you will have explored the possibility of new way to fully embrace a crazy healthy life.

Photo: http://www.examiner.com